Nick Aubrey never would have figured Carl Swirsing for a Mad Antonio’s kind of guy. Carl was a California boy—a Porsche-driving, volleyball-playing, market-watching libertarian libertine. So when Carl called Nick up and asked to meet him for a beer, Nick expected him to name some fern bar where they served microbrews to archetypal Silicon Valley yupsters like Carl himself. Mad Antonio’s Nut House was no yuppie fern bar. Mad Antonio’s was a dark place of pool tables, tattoos, stale beer and TVs that played tapes of Buster Douglas smashing Mike Tyson’s face. From a barstool deep within Mad Antonio’s there was no way to tell that just outside the door the California sun was shining with a soul-numbing cheerfulness. Nick liked it better here, inside. Maybe that’s why Carl had chosen this place. Maybe he knew Nick better than Nick realized.
Nick hardly recognized Carl when he walked through the door. He was wearing clean blue jeans and a faded Stanford sweatshirt—not one of the Armani suits that were Carl’s at-work uniform—and Nick was surprised to see how well he seemed to fit in here amid the grungy types. But why should it surprise him? In truth, Nick hardly knew anything about the man. They were from different worlds, Engineering and Marketing, and an unbridgeable gulf was axiomatic.
Nick and Carl had only worked on a few projects together—ad hoc teams to bring customers into the engineering universe: Beta-test focus groups in Stockholm and Toronto, usability walk-throughs in Austin and Hyderabad. On those trips the two men had seldom socialized in the off-hours. Carl was an astonishingly gifted Don Juan, and usually had hooked up with an appropriately beautiful female companion before the second night in any city. Nick, on the other hand, preferred his own company. Sometimes he checked out a cathedral or wandered alone in some funky precinct. More often he found someplace to lift weights, or, failing that, simply went back to his hotel room and read Balzac. Nick and Carl had not even spoken to each other in more than two years. Which made Nick wonder: why had Carl called him? What was up?
“I haven’t seen you around much,” Nick said as Carl walked over to Nick’s spot at the bar. “What’ve you been up to? Are you still over there in Enterprise Systems Marketing?”
“I left Dijjy-Mike about a year ago. Started my own PR and market-research firm.”
Ah. Now Nick had an idea why Carl might have called him.
“You know I’m not going to leak confidential information,” Nick said.
“I wouldn’t expect you to. You’re a very principled fellow.”
“Not that I have any information you’d want. I’m kind of in the backwater these days.”
“Siberia is more like it,” Carl said. “I know. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.”
An odd response. People like Carl Swirsing trafficked in hot information, and Nick’s supply was very cold. Why would cold information be interesting to Carl?
“What is it about my being in Siberia that makes you want to talk to me?” Nick said.
“I’ve got a strong hunch that you’re about to be called back to Moscow and anointed.”
“If you’re going to insult me, at least buy me a beer. What makes you say that?”
Carl motioned to the bartender then turned back to Nick.
“Who’s your boss now?” he said.
Nick cringed. “Chuckie Johnson,” he said, and added, “How art the mighty fallen.”
“Johnson’s washed up. He’ll be history within the month. What are you working on?”
“I thought you didn’t want product information.”
“Stick to non-confidential information. Don’t give me any code names or ship dates.”
“It’s too embarrassing to even talk about,” Nick said.
“Network administration, right? Novell emulation?”
How did Carl know that?
“The project should be canceled,” Nick said. “By the time it’s ready nobody will want it.”
A bartender placed bottles on the bar—Heineken before Nick, Calistoga Water before Carl.
“You’re right about that,” Carl said. “Code name Docudisk. DOS binaries on a UNIX virtual PC. Ship date forty-three days from today, with a estimated gross margin of 78 percent. It’s a well-built crock two years too late.”
“OK, so you don’t need me to tell you about Docudisk.”
“No. How many people are in the group you manage?”
“Six, actually. How many did you manage five years ago?”
“It was fifty three. Tell me, how would you rate your software engineering skills?”
“I agree. And your management skills?”
“I agree with that too. So how come your career’s been in a gradual tailspin for the last five years? How come every time you deliver the goods you get assigned to a crappier project and the group you manage gets smaller? Why are you working for a has-been non-entity like Chuckie Johnson? You’re good at seeing patterns, Nick. What’s the pattern here?”
“You tell me.”
“Monty’s pulling strings behind the scenes.”
“Monty? I don’t even work for Monty. I don’t know him; I’ve never even met him.”
“You’ve never met him face to face. But you do know him. You’ve corresponded with him by e-mail, talked to him on the telephone, even by video conference—”
“—or whatever you call it when he can see me but I can’t see him—”
“You and Monty know each other, all right. Not only do you know him, Nick; in fact you’re sort of his unacknowledged protégé.”
“If you want to look at it that way, I guess I know him,” Nick said. “That hardly makes me his protégé.”
“He invites you out to dinner once or twice a year, but always stands you up.”
“True. How do you know about it?”
“He calls you up when you’re not expecting it; he gives you career advice, picks your brain, flatters you, hints that he has a job for you that never quite materializes. . .”
“Now that you mention it.”
Now that you mention it. Now that you mention it, Carl had just given a pretty accurate description of Nick’s relationship with Montaigne Meekman, the inscrutable billionaire genius. Monty seemed to have taken an interest in Nick, which was flattering. On the other hand, five years of occasional ego-buffing wasn’t much reward for what Nick had sacrificed. Because ever since Bartlett moved out, Nick had wondered whether that simple relationship had doomed his marriage. Bartlett had never said why she was leaving, she just left. The first three months of their marriage had conformed to Nick’s idea of heaven. But a frost had appeared, years ago, on the day he came back from being stood up by Monty for the first time, and the final freeze, and her moving out, coincided with the last time Nick had spoken with him. Nick could think of racier indiscretions.
“When are you supposed to go back east?” Carl asked.
“Have you heard from Monty recently?”
“He sent me an e-mail this morning. Wants to take me for a drive this afternoon, so he says. He’s supposed to pick me up from Digital MicroSystems in about two hours. But let’s be honest. What are the odds that he’ll show up? Probably about as good as the odds that Lucy will let Charley Brown kick the football. To tell you the truth, I’m beginning to wonder if Monty Meekman really exists. I’m starting to think he’s a myth, or a software construct like Max Headroom.”
Carl reached for his wallet. He took out a hundred dollar bill and put it on the bar in front of Nick. Then he reached into his pocket for a red felt-tipped pen, and made some kind of mark.
“If Monty doesn’t show up and offer you a job today, you keep the hundred bucks. Otherwise mail it back to me.”
Nick glanced at the bill. It was crisp.
“What’s the job going to be?”
“I don’t know. But it will come with a lot of cash and stock options. You know about Monty’s anointed ones: preposterously wealthy. Fiercely loyal. You’re about to join their ranks.”
Nick took a long pull from his beer. The bill sat where Carl had left it.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘anointed,'” Nick said. “Lots of people have worked on Monty’s projects without getting rich, and most of them aren’t shy about dissing him.”
“Absolutely true. But not his anointed ones. I’m sure you’ve noticed the difference.”
“Oh.” Nick suddenly realized what Carl was getting at. “You’re talking about the Corporate Fellows. The guys with Lab clearance.”
“Precisely. They’re the only ones who matter. Monty couldn’t care less what other people have to say about him, because they don’t have any idea what’s under development in the Labs.”
“Monty’s going to make me a Corporate Fellow?”
“I guarantee it.”
“Come on, Carl. You’re hallucinating. Those guys are the cream of the crop.”
“They are now. But let me tell you something. None of them, not a one, was considered a genius before being named a Fellow. They all were solid workers whose careers had inexplicably gone into the toilet for years before Monty rescued them. They were elected Corporate Fellows, and suddenly they became golden, brilliant. Smarter than smart—”
“Maybe Monty has an eye for latent talent.”
“—and their personalities changed too.”
This was ridiculous. Everybody knew that the Corporate Fellows were geeks and kept their mouths shut about Monty Meekman. Everybody knew that they were fabulously wealthy even by Silicon Valley standards. But everybody also knew that Corporate Research Fellows of Digital MicroSystems, Incorporated, were the best computer engineers in the world. They designed the coolest products on earth. Virtual reality systems with photo-realistic graphics, symphonic sound, and whole-body proprioceptive feedback. Neural nets that could predict stock market activity better than anybody on Wall Street. Holographic imaging systems used by neurosurgeons to perform the world’s most sophisticated brain surgery. Chess programs that no Grandmaster could hope to compete with. Language translation systems as accomplished as any linguist. . .
“The Corporate Fellows are weird,” Nick said. “I’ll admit that much. But you’re saying that being made Fellows transformed them from nobodies into supermen? Come on. They’re geniuses. God made them that way, not Monty Meekman.”
“When an engineer becomes a Fellow it’s like when an ordinary Mafia goon becomes a ‘made man.’ Or when a squire becomes a knight. It’s like ordination, when a novice becomes a priest. After a long apprenticeship proves your mettle, you get elevated. Whereas before you could only receive the sacraments, now you can perform them. It changes you.”
It was hard to believe that these words were coming from the man whose chief goal during their trip to India had been to experience the whole of the Kama Sutra in five nights.
“Carl,” Nick said. “Are you on drugs?”
“I’m telling you what I know.”
“What, that Monty put me in Siberia to see how I’d bear up?”
“Basically, yes. He was sizing you up. And weakening your resistance.”
“What? How so?”
“Tell me, Nick. How’s your personal financial situation?”
Nick looked at him intently, but the look on Carl’s face didn’t change. There was more to Carl Swirsing than Nick had realized.
“I’m fucked,” he said. “I don’t know whether to file for bankruptcy or what. I can’t see any way out of the mess I’m in. But I guess you already knew that.”
“Yes,” Carl said. “I did know that. How does a guy with no dependents who makes your kind of income manage to go bust?”
“It’s a long story.”
“You guaranteed all loans for that children’s co-op, didn’t you?”
It was increasingly apparent that this meeting was not as casual as Nick had thought it was going to be. Carl had done a lot of homework, and he and done it for a reason. He wanted to sell Nick an interpretation of the last five years of his life. Carl’s theory did have a certain perverse logic. But Nick wasn’t ready to buy it.
“Monty Meekman might be doing weird things with his Corporate Fellows, but don’t tell me that Monty Meekman caused the implosion of our children’s co-op in Newcastle, Massachusetts. The Reagan-Bush recession caused that co-op to fail.”
“How many members did the co-op start with?”
“And there are five die-hards left, including yourself. Three of the remaining five are over seventy years old. The fourth is your wife Bartlett, who moved out of your house at the beginning of last autumn. In other words, it’s down to you alone. Why did everybody else fall off? You thought your crew was there for the long haul, but they’ve all bailed out.”
“Even among starry-eyed idealists, the spirit of goodwill and cooperation tends to evaporate when local unemployment hits twenty-two percent,” Nick said.
“Look, Nick. I’m going to be blunt, because there’s big things at stake and there isn’t a lot of time for dancing around. Here’s the facts. Five years ago you were a hot shit. You were a fast rising star in a fast rising company in a fast rising industry. Then your best friend got shot and everything turned sour. You got married but your wife split. You threw yourself into this children’s charity, which is great, but you managed to put everything you own on the line and now the loans are being called in. Meanwhile you’re doing scut work for a no-op who couldn’t code his way out of a paper bag. You’re full of anger and doubt. You can’t find a better job. You have good interviews outside the company but you never get the offer. You take out your frustration in gyms and bars. You bench press three hundred pounds, and you drink way too much. You are ripe for the plucking, Nick. Ripe. This afternoon Monty is going to pluck you.”
©1999-2010 John Sundman.