Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Spoiler: Part 11 -- Magnum

Stephens was a tall, trim man with graying temples who wore tailored English suits and alligator cowboy boots.

He took a second to scan his laptop and Blackberry while I checked out his corner office that overlooked the Hudson. From the vantage point on the ninetieth floor, I looked down at the Statue of Liberty. It looked weather-beaten, like an aging hooker. Very possibly a tranny.

As I would discover, Stephens didn’t spend much time here, or anywhere outside of Houston, which could’ve been why his office was furnished only with a desk, a couple of mahogany chairs and a massage table.

“You do massage on the side?” I asked.

“Stiff necks. Y’ever have ‘em?”

“Yeah. Terrible.”

“You got a masseuse? I can recommend mine.”

“I’m sure I can’t afford her.”

“Well, maybe we can write it into our agreement.”

“Sounds good. What kind of agreement are we talking about?”

“I need someone who’s quick on his feet.”

“You’re looking for a messenger?”

“That’s what I mean. You can zing ‘em off the top of your head-like. Just what I’m looking for. You see, one thing I’ve learned all these years navigating through the corporate jungle is that the workforce can’t get too complacent. Every once in a while, you’ve gotta shake the tree, so to speak. You know, suddenly you just fire a half-dozen of your top execs.”


“If you lay off a couple, even ten thousand middle managers, hell, nobody bats an eyelash. But you surgically axe a few key players, maybe even the COO – well, everybody starts lookin’ over their shoulder and puttin’ their noses to the grindstone. And they pay closer attention to what the guy one rung up or down from them is up to.”

“I see.”

“It’s a management tip I learned from Stalin.”

“He was just paranoid, wasn’t he?”

“Whatever you want to call it. It worked.”

“I guess so.”

“Listen – didja ever see this old Vincent Price movie, ‘The Tingler’?”

“No. I never went to business school.”

“It’s about this … I don’t know I guess you’d call it … a slimy creature that is kind of born inside of people’s spinal cords who are kinda nervous Nellies. And the more scared they get, it sort of feeds the creature, the Tingler, until the thing grows inside them to be about the size of a raccoon. And then, when they get super-terrified, you know, screaming hysterically, the thing starts to pulsate and pops out of their – ”

“Like ‘Alien.’”

“No, you got it all wrong. Alien popped out the belly. Tingler come out through the spinal cord. Anyway, it starts going around killing people, even though it’s just a blob. It’ll kind of throw itself outta yer and squeeze the life out of yer. That kind of thing. And the only way to stop the Tingler is to keep your cool, not let the Tingler freak you out. To fight the fear. But you know what? Very few people can do that. Their spinal cords are like fear warehouses. Fear, you see” – and here he tilted his head forward and locked me in his industrial-blue eyes – “fear is the greatest motivator. That’s management rule numero uno.”

“I see. What exactly do you have mind for me?”

“Things have been gettin’ a little stale around here…”

“Time for the Tingler?”

“Unh-unh. Already axed too many chiefs. We’re tingled to the bone. I reckoned another motivator. That’s where you come in. You’re an actor, right? A comedian?”

“That’s what my card says.”

Stephens picked up my business card, which I’d put on his desk.

“‘Actor-comic-human being.’ Well, I don’t need the human being part. But the actor part, that I could use.”

Stephens proceeded to outline a scenario in which I would attend a ConRon board meeting, pretending to be a fictional vice president of worldwide personnel who had been touring the Far East recruiting the best of brightest of Bangalore and Ho Chi Minh City for outsourcing of certain key divisions. I would be brought in to a top-secret board meeting in the role of a “spoiler,” specifically to mind-fuck the regional vice president of personnel, a guy by the name of Dave Whiteman. What he called a “psy-ops.” I would pretend to fire him right after his big presentation on global redundancies and “put his whole sense of reality through a ten-speed blender.”

“We want to see what he’s made of. See I’ve been thinking of making him vice president personnel of the Americas. But that job, you gotta go up against some nut-busters: Teamster bosses, campesino activists, Subcommandante Marcos. Anyway, we want to test Whiteman’s mettle.”

There were other reasons for the job, Magnum confided in me. He wouldn’t tell me what they were. I think maybe he wanted to test my mettle, too. “You want to see if you can trust me, right?”

“Nope. We already know we can’t.” And then he pushed across the desk at me a manila folder that included my credit history, IRS returns for the past 10 years, bank records going back to 1998, my bankruptcy agreement with TwelveStepCapitolManagement, the agency that I’d used to consolidate my far-flung empire of debt, my New York Public Library card along with my complete history of all checkouts, research items requested (mostly books about comedy, such as Milton Berle’s autobiography, from the performing arts branch), and fines (“You checked out Al Franken’s book for six months? You could read that on the redeye”), a printout of every website I’d ever visited (“ You got me there”), my college and high school transcripts, SAT scores, and my grade school report cards.

For the second time in weeks, my life was an open book to strangers. I could easily become a victim of identity theft, and probably the only reason I hadn’t was that the bad guys had concluded that my identity wasn’t worth stealing.

“How did you get all that – I mean, the report cards?”

“You remember Sister Virginia Mayo? From sixth grade? Sacred Heart School?”

“I can’t believe she’s still alive.”

“It’s all that sexual frustration. They can live off that forever.”

“What I don’t understand is why you went to so much trouble to dig up all my dirt? For a guy you’re renting for the afternoon?”

“Can’t ever be too sure you ain’t some undercover spy, from one of our rivals. Or one of them Yes Men.”

“Yes men?”

“You know, those lefty pranksters, they go around pretending they’re members of the WTO. Like that’s going to score poon? Anyway, you check out O.K. And we’ll overlook that TV show thing. We know you were set up.”

“Yes, I was. And at least I don’t have a criminal record.”

“I know. But we’ll use you anyway,” he said with a strange laugh that made me wonder how much he was joking.

“Uh, what if people in your company remember my face from the, uh, show? I mean, I was all over the Internet.”

“For what – a week? These kids, their minds, they’re like – you ever stick a stick in an anthill, they go running off every which way? Life moves too fast now. Faster than memory. Now go see Paula. Paula Scardino in H.R. She’ll brief you on your assignment and give you the lay of the land.”

We shook hands and I started out of his office, but not before asking one, gnawing question.

“How did you get that nun to give up my report cards?”

“Oh, we had something on her, too.”

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