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December 08, 2004

Chapter Fifteen

The leak, of course, was as impossible to track as it was inevitable to occur. Sometime after the 2 am shift change, one of the janitors or nurses or doctors hit the phones, waking up friends and relatives because, after all, how often does the hottest female star in the United States come into your hospital in a coma? At 3:35 in the morning, one of these friends or relatives called KOST-FM and requested to hear "Your Eyes Tell Me," the hit theme song from Summertime Blues, because she heard Michelle Beck had died. After the song played, another listener called in to say no, she wasn't dead, but she was in a coma, and she had heard that Michelle's corneas were slated to be given to Marlee Matlin, who was, after all, deaf.

KOST happened to be the favorite morning radio station of Curt McLachlan, KABC's morning news director, who was, at 3:35, getting into his car to head to work. The first thing he did was switch off "Your Eyes Tell Me," because it was, by any objective standard, the single worst pop song of the decade. The second thing he did was get on the car phone with his counterpart at Good Morning America, which, at 6:37 Eastern Time, was just a few minutes away from air. GMA's news director screamed at the video morgue to pull up clips of Michelle, and at some poor, groggy intern, 19 years old and two days into her stint of slave labor, to ready a blurb for the hosts to announce on the air. Once McLachlan got off the phone with Good Morning America, he called his own assignment editor out of a sound sleep and told him to get working on a package. He flipped on the radio just in time to hear about the corneas going to Marlee Matlin. This prompted another round of phone calls.

News of Michelle's death and/or coma hit the airwaves at 7:03 Eastern, 4:03 Pacific. The folks at GMA had the presence of mind to stress that the report was from unconfirmed "radio sources". It hardly mattered. Newspaper and magazine entertainment editors up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States leapt from their breakfasts and called reporters at home, hollering their demand for verification. It was the biggest potential star death since River Phoenix spasmed his life away in front of the Viper Club.

My phone first rang at 4:13 am. It was the gossip columnist from the New York Daily News, looking for verification. I hung up on her and disconnected my phone. Less than a minute later, my cel phone rang. Then the other. I turned them both off and then realized my third cel phone was lost in the woods where Joshua had left it. I reconnected my home phone, which immediately started ringing; I picked up the receiver, dropped it back in the cradle, and then picked up again almost instantly, before it had a chance to ring again. I called Miranda, apologized to her for waking her up, and told her to meet me in the office. Then I called Carl, who, as it happened, was already up and on the phone.

"I have the New York Times on call waiting, Tom," he said. "They said they couldn't reach you directly."

"I disconnected my phone," I said. My own call waiting was going off like mad, making the phone sound like a Geiger counter.

"Good man," Carl said. "These guys are nothing but a pain in the ass. I'm fending them off for now. What do you want to do ?"

"I was going to ask you that same question," I said.

"Right now, we don't do anything," Carl said. "I've got to call Mike and make sure they're ready for the onslaught -- it's going to hit earlier than we expected. You'll need to make a statement, though; let's schedule it for noon and have no comments from anyone until then. Are you planning to go into the office right now?"

"I was, yes," I said.

"Don't. The fact that you're in the office at four thirty in the morning will only verify the situation. Get in at your usual time. And be ready for the reporters. See you at eight, Tom," Carl said, and then hung up, presumably to yell at the New York Times reporter that had the temerity to wake him up at home. I called Miranda as she was getting out the door; she sounded grateful for the reprieve.

At Pomona Valley, Carl's promised onslaught had already begun. The hospital switchboard was lighting up with calls from reporters who were calling every Los Angeles area hospital trying to find the one that was treating Michelle. This was followed by calls from fans looking for the same thing. These in turn were followed by both fans and reporters who had found out that Pomona Valley was in fact the hospital they wanted; the reporters were invoking the First Amendment, and the fans their right to know about their favorite star. These were followed by fans and reporters posing as family members. As Michelle had no living family, this didn't get them very far.

Credit where credit is due: Mike Mizuhara was as good as his word. He had the ICU ward sealed off; everyone who stepped off the elevator or out of the stairwell was greeted by a Pomona city cop, who had a printed list. On the list was the name and, more importantly, the photograph, of every doctor, nurse and staff member who had access to the fourth floor. Anyone who showed up on the fourth floor without permission was quickly and efficiently arrested for trespassing.

By eight am, more than a dozen people, posing as doctors, nurses, or staff, were in the pokey. A couple of them, from the tabloids, tried to bribe the officers. The officers were not amused; they had integrity, and besides, Mike Mizuhara had informed them that any bribe would be matched, plus ten percent; I later learned that Carl, who had bankrolled this effort, ended up shelling out nearly $25,000. The would-be bribers ended up in the pokey like everyone else, their money confiscated as evidence.

One amateur video guy, hoping to sell his tape to the afternoon tabloid shows, simply got on the elevator and, when the door opened on the fourth floor, sprinted down the hall, yodeling, waving his video camera wildly in hopes that a frame or two would later show Michelle in her bed. He was surprised when the cop stationed at the stairwell popped up in front of him. He was even more surprised when the cop shot him with a taser. He was given his props for the attempt, but went to the slammer anyway.

When it became clear that no one was getting onto the fourth floor, more drastic measures were attempted: four people were arrested when they tried to trip the fire alarms to cause an evacuation -- three by pulling the fire alarm, one by setting fire to that morning's edition of the Inland Daily Bulletin and waving it at the smoke alarm. He was caught by an orderly's flying tackle; the tackle cracked his skull on the floor. He was treated for concussion on the spot, and then transferred to the county jail infirmary.

As Carl suggested, I went into work at the usual time. I took Joshua with me, at his insistence. "I want to do something for you," he said, though he wouldn't explain what. On the way in, I flipped through the radio stations. Nearly all the radio stations were talking about Michelle; on one, the DJ was lamenting the fact that Michelle's possible death brought down the number of people on earth worth screwing. On another radio station, a caller had noted proudly that he had uploaded the faked picture of the three way between Michelle, George Clooney and Gwenyth Paltrow onto every single pornographic Internet newsgroup as a "tribute."

The entrance to Lupo Associates was swarmed with reporters, camera operators and sound men. As I parked I saw Jim Van Doren near the periphery of the crowd, scanning the parking lot for my car; he spotted it and started moving towards it. Some of the more alert camera operators followed him; within seconds a stampede was coming toward my car.

"Oh, shit," I said.

"Let me out of the car," Joshua said. "Then follow me. Get ready to run."

I hopped out of the car and let Joshua out. Joshua hit the ground running and hurled himself at the oncoming swarm, snarling and baring his fangs. There was chaos as members of the press retreated, screaming, from Joshua's full frontal assault; suddenly a path miraculously appeared through them. I set out at a sprint. Reporters, torn between being bitten by an angry dog and getting their story, hollered questions at me as they retreated; their sound people desperately swung their boom mikes towards me to catch my response. At least one of the boom mikes connected with a camera operator. I heard a crunch as a $75,000 video camera hit the ground but didn't stay to watch.

Joshua snarled one last snarl, then raced towards the agency entrance, getting there at the same time as I did. We were met at the door by Miranda, who unlocked it just long enough to let us through, and then pushed it shut again the second we were inside.

I turned around, expecting to see the reporters pressed up against the glass, shouting questions. Instead, there was a riot going on in the parking lot. Apparently the cameraman who got whacked by the boom mike had decided to take the cost of the damage out of the mike operator's hide. A couple of people were trying to separate the two; the rest, drawn into the melee, were content to start swinging. There's something deeply satisfying about watching some of the most overly-paid reporters in the country slugging each other, pulling each other's hair, and kneeing each other in the groin.

"Tom, you should have been a movie star," Miranda said. "You sure know how to make a hell of an entrance."

"It's not me that did all that," I said, still looking at the crowd. "You can thank my furry friend Joshua over there."

Off to the side of the riot, Jim Van Doren leaned against a car. He looked at the fight, then turned to look at me. Then he saluted. What a kidder.

"Did you do that, Joshua?" Miranda said, in that voice you use with dogs. "What a good dog!"

Joshua barked happily.


I spoke to the press at noon, like we had planned. Carl had flown in Mike Mizuhara and Dr. Adams from Pomona Valley; all four of us were standing at a podium that had been put in front of the agency's entrance. Slightly off to one side, Miranda sat, petting Joshua, who sat attentively, waiting for a reporter to get too far out of line. I was told that the press announcement was being carried live on three of the local stations and also on the E! Channel. For some reason, I found this profoundly irritating.

Precisely at noon, I stepped up to the podium, tapped the microphone to make sure it was on, and got out my prepared statement.

"Good afternoon," I said, because at 30 seconds past noon, it was. "Since early this morning, the media has been filled with rumors concerning the well-being of my client Michelle Beck. It has come time to answer these rumors with the facts.

"First, and most important -- Michelle Beck is not dead nor is she near death. Rumors of her death have been irresponsibly spread; let them end here.

"Second, yesterday, at about four pm, Miss Beck was involved in an accident during pre-production work on Earth Resurrected. The accident caused her to be suffocated; first aid was administered at the scene and Miss Beck was then taken to Pomona Valley Hospital, where she remains now.

"Miss Beck has not regained consciousness since the accident, nor is there a timetable for her to do so. After I am done, Dr. Adams, who treated Michelle when she came in, and Dr. Mizuhara, the chief of staff of Pomona Valley, will give a brief medical update on Miss Beck's condition and will answer questions that relate to her medical condition.

"Those of us who knew her are praying for her recovery and hope that her fans worldwide will also do so. However, we ask that you do not attempt to visit her; she needs rest and quiet. Pomona Valley Hospital and the Pomona Police Department will not hesitate to arrest and prosecute any unauthorized attempts to visit Miss Beck. Please respect this request: it's in Miss Beck's best interests.

"Pomona Valley has also requested me to ask fans and admirers to stop sending flowers and fruit baskets -- their waiting room is clogged and after this point they will just be thrown out. If you feel you must do something, please write a check to the Pomona Valley Hospital general fund. I know that Michelle would greatly prefer that to flowers -- these people are helping her and they deserve all our support."

I folded up the prepared statement and asked if there were questions. Obviously, there were.

"What will happen to Michelle if she doesn't emerge from her coma?" asked the reporter from Entertainment Weekly. "Will she stay on a respirator or will she eventually be disconnected?"

"We haven't even thought about that yet," I said. "Nor have the doctors at Pomona Valley given us any indication that's where things are going. Until we know her medical situation a little better, it would be premature to think about it."

"Who is the one that will eventually make that decision?" asked the anchor of Inside Story. "Her parents or some other relative?"

"Michelle's parents passed away a couple of years ago," I said, "and she has no other family. When I got to the hospital, I was told that I was the person to whom she entrusted her emergency medical decisions to. So I suppose if that decision has to be made, I'll be the one to make it."

This answer caused a mild stir. I pointed to the reporter from the Los Angeles Times, but before she could ask her question, someone in the back hollered a question.

"Do you think it's appropriate for you to make that decision?"

Everyone's head swiveled around. It was Jim Van Doren, of course.

"Excuse me?" I said.

"I said, do you feel it's appropriate for you to be the one that makes that decision? Yes, you're her agent, but recently, there's been some questions about your own work and the way you've treated some of your clients. Do you really think it's wise for you to be the one who makes this life-or-death decision?"

Over to the side of me, I could hear Joshua growling lowly. I knew how he felt.

"Listen," I said. "I never asked to be the one Michelle gave this responsibility to. Drs. Adams and Mizuhara can tell you how surprised I was when I was told about it. Would I have wanted this responsibility? No. Will I refuse it now? No."

"Uh-huh," Van Doren said. "Are you the beneficiary of her estate?"

"What?" I said.

"I'm just thinking here," Van Doren said. "If you're the person she trusts with her life, you're probably the person that'd benefit from her death. She just got $12 million for Earth Resurrected; that's a lot. So are you the beneficiary? Or will that be a surprise, too?"

The crowd of reporters erupted. I just stood there, blinking, stunned that Van Doren could just casually imply that I was a crazed murderer. On the other hand, he was driving me insane, and if he'd been in reach, I probably could have killed him right there. Van Doren just stood there, with a little smile that said gotcha.

I was still gripping the side of the podium when Carl tapped me and gently dislodged me from where I was standing. Miranda came up to me and pulled me back away. Joshua looked up at me worriedly. I heard Carl speaking to the reporters -- "Let's try to keep our eye on the ball, here...," he began -- and then wheeled around into the building.

I stormed into my office and went to my office closet. Miranda came in about a second afterwards, followed by Joshua.

"What are you doing?" Miranda asked.

"Tony Baltz got me a set of golf clubs last Christmas," I said, rummaging. "I'm going to take one and put a divot in Van Doren's head. What do you think? The five iron? Or maybe the nine. Or the putter, right between the eyes."

"I don't think that would be very helpful," Miranda said.

"Oh, I think it would," I said. I emerged with the seven iron in my hand. "It would make me feel a lot better."

"Only for a minute," Miranda said. "But I have to warn you, prison is just one long bummer."

I burst into tears. No one was more surprised than I. Miranda rushed over and held me, returning the favor from the day before, when I had done the same for her.

"I'm sorry," I said. "It's not every day that I'm accused of murdering my client."

"Oh, shut up," Miranda said gently, cupping my face in her hand. "You didn't kill her, did you?"

"Of course not," I said.

"Well, then," Miranda said. "Don't let it bother you. Tom, you did more for Michelle than anyone else ever would have. You're a good man, Tom. Everybody knows it. I know it. You're a good man."

I kissed Miranda. No one was more surprised than I.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what I'm thinking."

"Oh, shut up," Miranda said, and kissed me back.

After a couple of minutes of this, Joshua whined, which I think is was doggie equivalent of clearing one's throat to remind others you are there.

"Spectator," I said.

"He's a dog," Miranda said "He doesn't care."

"You'd be surprised," I said.

The situation became academic a second later, when there was a knock. Miranda and I disentangled ourselves as Carl came through the door.

"I've got Mike and Adams at the podium now," he said. "Are you all right?"

"I'm severely pissed off, but other than that, I'm fine," I said.

"Be prepared to be pissed off a little more," Carl said. "Brad Turnow's on his way over."

My brain fuzzed a second before I realized he was talking about the producer of Earth Resurrected. "Oh, Christ, what a pain," I said.

Miranda looked at me and then at Carl. "What does Brad want?" she asked.

"His money back," I said.

"His star is in a coma," Carl said. "He's going to have to get someone else to play the part. He'll figure that, since Michelle is laid up, it's only fair he should get his money back."

"What a jerk," Miranda said.

"Do you want any backup?" Carl said, to me. "We could gang up on him."

"No," I said. "It's all right. I can handle him."

"That's what I like to hear," Carl said. "Kick his ass a couple of times. He'll be here at 1:15. That leaves you two about an hour to smooch."

I think I blushed; Miranda, who is made of sterner stuff, merely smiled. "Mr. Lupo, with all due respect to your position, that's just none of your damned business," she said.

"On the contrary," Carl said, smiling back. "I didn't get where I am today by not noticing these sorts of things. Come on, Joshua," he said, motioning to the dog. "Whether it's my business or not, I know when I'm not wanted ."


"It's a terrible thing that happened to Michelle," Brad said, stating the obvious.

"Yes, it is," I said.

"I mean, my God," Brad said. "I'd hate for it to happen to me."

My eyes flicked over to the clock on my phone. For five minutes now, Brad had been finding new and not-so-exciting ways to restate the obvious point that Michelle was in a world of hurt. I was giving him another minute before I worked him over with a golf club.

The question is whether Brad would be missed. Somehow I doubted it. Up until Murdered Earth, Brad was a distinctly lower-rung producer, cranking out cheesy, low-production value science fiction and adventure epics that would just about break even in the theaters and then eke out a profit in the video store afterlife: the sort of films you make when you're either on your way up or down the Hollywood food chain, but never when you're anywhere near the top. Murdered Earth was the exception because for once, Brad managed to get lucky with a star who was breaking into the stratosphere. That was Michelle, of course; the studio estimated that Michelle's presence in the film added $55 million to the $85 million domestic take. Having seen Murdered Earth, I personally gave Michelle credit for another ten million or so.

But with a hit movie under his belt, Brad was now a mid-rung producer looking to move up the ladder a little more. Earth Resurrected was going to do it for him, or so he thought. Now that Michelle was down and his production suddenly air-braking into oblivion, Brad wanted to do what he could before the whole thing derailed and sent him crashing back down into the ranks of a straight-to-video producer. Which meant getting someone else for the part and trying to recoup on his losses.

If I were in his position, I'd probably try to do something like what he was doing. Of course, I wouldn't have given Michelle $12 million, either. Be that as it may, I could sympathize with his situation. The problem was, he was about to try to screw my client. Sympathize or not, there's no way I was going to allow that.

"Look, I'll tell you why I'm here," Brad said.

"I'd appreciate that," I said.

"It's terrible what's happened to Michelle," Brad said again. Below his view, I was groping for the 7-iron. "But it also creates a real problem for Earth Resurrected. Tom, we're just about ready to roll, and we can't wait too much longer. Hell, we've already got the special effects crews working on some scenes, and the second unit's out shooting."

I sat there silently, waiting for Brad to continue. He wanted me to be openly sympathetic to his plight, which I was not willing to do. After a few seconds of waiting for me to say something, he went on.

"The real problem is Allen Green," Brad said. "In our contract, we committed to a start date, and if we miss that start date by more than a week, he can walk, with his full paycheck. Pay or Play. That's 20 million, shot right down the tubes. The start date's in ten days, Tom. Even if Michelle comes out of her coma today, she's not going to be ready to go in ten days. You know that."

Again, I said nothing. Why make it easy?

Finally, Brad said what he came to say. "We have to replace Michelle, Tom. I'm sorry, but we can't wait."

"The reason you paid $12 million for her was because you thought she was indispensable," I said. "I don't see how that's changed. She's a lot more indispensable than Allen Green. She's the only person who'll have been in both films."

"She was indispensable," Brad said. "Don't get me wrong, Tom, I want her to be in the film. But she's in a coma! And everybody knows it."

The subtext here: since everyone knows Michelle's in a coma, no one will actually expect her to be in the sequel anymore. It can be used as an excuse to replace her without anyone complaining. It's a fair enough assessment, although it left unanswered the question of who would go see the sequel, good excuse or not, if the reason that over two-thirds of the audience went to see the original isn't there anymore.

"If you're going to replace her, you must have someone lined up already, Brad," I said.

"We do," he said.

"Gee," I said. "That was fast. Michelle hasn't been in a coma a whole day yet."

Brad flushed at that one. "I told you, we're under some time pressure here," he said.

"You did," I agreed. "Who is it?"

"Charlene Mayfield," Brad said. "You've heard of her?"

I had, barely. Charlene was a clone of Michelle, which is not saying all that much, as blonde, perky types are fairly endemic in these here parts. Charlene played a waitress on one of those sitcoms that acts as a sacrificial offering against NBC's Thursday night lineup and is thus canceled after six or thirteen episodes; if you weren't actually in the business, you'd probably have no idea who she is.

"She's going to be great," Brad said. "I think she'll be able to step right into the part. Not that she could ever truly replace Michelle, of course," he added hastily.

"Of course," I said.

"So," Brad said. "Are there any problems? You understand where we're coming from?"

"No, I have no problems," I said. "You're on a tight schedule, I understand."

Brad smiled. "That's really great to hear, Tom. I knew you would understand."

"Thanks," I said.

"There is one other issue," Brad said.

"Shoot," I said.

"It's about Michelle's salary."

"What about it?"

"Well, seeing as Michelle is no longer on the film, there's some question about salary disbursement," Brad said.

"What question?" I said . "You already mailed me the check. I've already handed it over to our accountants to be processed. It's been disbursed, so I don't see how there could be a question about it."

"Well, that's just it," Brad said, uncomfortably. "I think you can see what I'm getting at here."

"I'm afraid I can't," I said. "You'd better spell it out for me, Brad."

He squirmed. It was fun to watch.

"Look," he said. "We'd like you to return the salary."

"Oh, is that all?" I said. "Heck. That's easy. The answer is no."




"What part of that two letter word don't you understand, Brad?" I asked. "Was it the vowel that threw you, or the consonant?"

"God damn it, Tom," Brad said. "This isn't a joke. You can't just expect us to walk away from twelve million dollars."

"I can," I said. "I do. You hired Michelle for a job. Now, through no fault of her own, you have decided you want someone else in the role. I'm fine with that. But inasmuch as Michelle did nothing to warrant her dismissal, I don't see how you could begrudge her her salary as severance pay."

"Jesus Christ," Brad said. "The girl's in a fucking coma!"

"Yes, she is," I said. "One that was brought about by the negligence of one of your crew members."

"That's not true," Brad said. "That woman worked for Featured Creatures."

"Which worked for you," I said. "You hired them, Brad. The legal line of responsibility goes right back to you."

"I think that could be argued," Brad said.

"You could try," I said. "It'll take you about two years to get a court date. In the meantime, I'm sure our legal department could probably hold up the start of your production a couple of weeks. Maybe a month, if we have to."

"You're a real son of a bitch," Brad said.

"Hey," I said. "I'm not the one trying to screw someone in a coma."

Brad decided to try another tactic. "Tom, look. It's not a matter of me not wanting to do right by Michelle. You know I want to."

"That's good to hear, Brad," I said.

"But now we're paying two actresses for the same part. We have to have some economies of scale going on here."

"So you're paying Charlene Mayfield $12 million?" I asked.

"Well, of course not that much," Brad said. "But we're paying her quite a bit."

"How much?" I asked.

"Well, I can't really discuss it," Brad said.

"Hmmm." I said. I buzzed Miranda. "Miranda, how much is Charlene Mayfield getting for Earth Resurrected?" I asked.

"One hundred seventy five thousand dollars," Miranda said. "According to her agent, who I just called."

"Really," I said. "Do we know if she's making any gross points?"

"Of course she isn't," Miranda said. "Although she's apparently getting a point on the net."

Net points are a promise of the percentage of profits the film makes, should it ever make it into the black; as opposed to gross points, which are a straight percentage of the film's haul at the box office. Since studio bookkeeping is such that even a film that makes a quarter of a billion dollars in domestic box office can run deeply into the red, net points are rarely if ever given -- they're what you're given if you're gullible, stupid, or the screenwriter.

"A whole point on the net," I said, looking directly at Brad.

"That's right," Miranda said. "That'll be worth at least a case or two of Fresca." I thanked her and signed her off.

"Wow, Brad, a hundred seventy five thousand dollars," I said. "Aren't you the generous one. That's nearly as much as you're going to pay for your second unit catering. Good thing I had Miranda listen in on the conversation and double-check that salary for us."

"That was a dirty trick," Brad said.

"It's not dirty, it's called looking out for my client's well-being."

"Is it about your percentage?" Brad said. "Because if it is, I'm willing to deal. What if I said you could keep your ten percent, clear? No questions."

I rubbed my forehead. It was barely 1:30, and I was tired already.

"Look, Brad," I said. "What say we cut the shit, because I'm having a really bad day, and you're not making it any better."

Brad blinked. "All right."

"Good," I said. "The fact of the matter is, you're not getting the twelve million back. The way I figure it, since you are the one who indirectly put her into the coma, it's the very least you can do. It's possible that if we took it to court, you might get that money back. But in the meantime you will have tanked your entire movie production. What is it budgeted at? 80 million? 90 million?"

"83 million, counting salaries." Brad just about spat the word salaries.

"83 million against twelve million is a bad bet any day, Brad. And that's not counting the money you're going to throw down the lawyer hole. Our lawyers are on staff. We don't pay them any extra. And, of course, we're not even talking about the counter-suits we'll throw back at you for negligence and violation of contract. Not to mention the other suits that will be filed against you by the studio and your other investors if you close down production. Make no mistake, Brad, you're going to get fucked. You won't be able to sit for a year."

Brad bristled, which is exactly what I wanted him to do. I'd gotten into the sensitive area where males feel threatened and will make stupid, macho statements just so they'll feel their balls are still attached. I was hoping that Brad would grope for his testicles.

Sure enough, he did. "Don't you threaten me, you little asshole," Brad said. "If you want a court fight, I'll give it to you. You'll spend so much time giving depositions you'll forget what the sun looks like. Don't think I don't have what it takes to win this."

"I don't doubt that you'd try, Brad. But let me scope out a scenario for you. You go to court to snatch money away from an actor who your own negligence has managed to put in a coma. You tank the film you're working on to do it. Let's say that somehow you manage to win. Fine. You get your twelve million back, and you go back to your offices to get ready to do another movie...and no one will work with you."

Brad's eyebrows knitted. "What do you mean?"

"I mean no one will ever work with you again. Actors won't want to work with you, because you've given the clear signal that you don't give a shit about them. Agents won't want to work with you, because they'll never be sure you won't try to dick their clients around. Studios won't want to work with you because you'll have made it clear that you value your pride over their money. Which is not an attitude they want to know about. You will never work in this town again. Never."

Brad looked like he'd been kicked in the balls. Which, in a way, he had. "You don't know that for sure," he said.

I leaned forward in my chair, over my desk, close to Brad's ear. "Try me," I whispered.

I sat back. Brad sat there, stunned, for a good minute. The he got up, spun out of his chair, stalked around the office a couple of times, sat back down, and started gnawing on his thumb.

"Fuck!" he finally said.

It was over. I won.

Now was the time to get him back to our side. "Brad," I said. "You don't want to have the money back. You think you do right now because you're cheap and you're in a panic. But it's penny wise and pound foolish. In the long run, you're going to look good by letting Michelle keep it."

Brad smirked. "Somehow I doubt that," he said.

"Such little faith," I said. "Try this one on: today, as you may or may not know, I was casually accused of setting up my client for her accident."

"I watched that in the office, right before I called," Brad said. "What an asshole."

"You have no idea," I said. "What if we say that I set up this meeting in a panic, and begged you to take the twelve million back? That way, from my point of view, any suspicion would be off of me, because I'd have no financial reason to off my client."

Brad looked at me strangely. "This benefits you, but I'm waiting to see how it benefits me."

"It benefits you, Brad, because you angrily refuse to accept the money back. How dare I assume that just because Michelle is in a coma, that'd you'd snatch the money back. We can say that in addition to refusing the money, you demanded that if Michelle didn't recover, that I donate the money to brain trauma research. Say, fund a professorship at UCLA Medical School or some such."

"What were you going to do with the money, if you don't mind me asking?"

I gestured to the heavens with my hands. "Damn it, Brad. I don't know that she left me her money. Even if she did, I sure as hell don't want it. If it got given to me, that's probably what I'd do with it. Yes, that's what I would do. But my point here is -- this idea came from you. You look good because you took a stand for Michelle."

"And you throw the scent off of yourself."

"There is that added benefit, yes."

Brad thought about it. "And you'll say that this is what happened?"

"No, Brad," I said. "This is what happened. At least, as I remember it."

Brad smiled, even though I'm sure it hurt to do it. "You sure are a piece of work, Tom. All right, keep the twelve."

"And her gross points."

"Oh, come on, Tom," Brad said. "Stop with the kicking."

"Tell you what," I said. "I'll drop our twelve gross points if you give Charlene Mayfield six."

"What do you care?" Brad said. "She's not even your client."

"Brad, you moron," I said. "They're not from me. They're from you. Remember the concept: Make Brad Look Good."

"Oh. All right."

"Great," I said, leaned back and closed my eyes. I was getting a headache. When I opened them again, Brad was still sitting there, looking pensive.

"Something on your mind, Brad?" I asked.

"Hmmm? No, just thinking about the accident. It's a terrible thing, you know."

"I know," I said. "We've been through this."

"No, I know," Brad said. "I was just thinking about why we were having the mask made in the first place."

"You were going to have her head explode, or something, I thought," I said.

"Well, not really that," Brad said. "It's for this scene in the film where the alien overlord is trying to get control of Michelle's body -- we were going to have the overlord stick his tentacles in her mouth and ears as a way to get to her brain. Really disgusting, of course -- eyeballs popping and mouth really huge and all that. Obviously we couldn't do any of those effects with Michelle's real face."

"Glad that you recognize that, Brad."

"We could have used digital effects, but those things are expensive," he said, apparently oblivious to the fact that his latex mask had, in fact, just cost him twelve million dollars. He grinned suddenly, a rueful grin. "You know, I could have used that alien overlord right about now."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"Oh, nothing," Brad said, waving me off. "I was just free-associating. If our alien overlord was real, then it wouldn't matter if Michelle was in a coma or not. He'd just suck her brain out, plop himself in, and do the part himself. No one would know any better. Michelle's not exactly Meryl Streep. Would have saved me money, anyway."

Brad caught a look at my face. "Jesus, Tom," he said. "I'm sorry. That was probably not the nicest thing I could have said right about now. Sorry if I just upset you. You all right?"

"I'm fine," I said. "I'm sorry, Brad. I just had a thought myself."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:45 PM