Carl had said he was going to be blunt, and he had been. And evidently he was as good at collecting personal information as he was at collecting marketing research. Nick felt violated, but he had to respect any man with balls enough to tell it to him straight.
“Monty Meekman caused all this turmoil in my life and now he’s going to ‘pluck’ me?” Nick said. “How? Why?”
“I don’t know why and I don’t know how. I only know the pattern. It’s called Digital MicroSystems Corporate Research Fellow. Monty recruits these guys—guys like you: smart, decent— and somehow he transforms them into geniuses willing to die for him. There’s a connection between Monty and the Fellows that goes deeper than money. It’s more like the loyalty to Jim Jones that led six hundred people to drink cyanide at Jonestown, or the loyalty to that guy in Waco that made people fight to the death for his promised salvation.”
“Monty’s like him, or that guy that led his ‘flock’ out in the desert to meet a space ship.”
This was getting extreme. Nick had spoken with Monty on about ten occasions over five years. Sometimes Nick would go to a restaurant to keep a date, only to have the maitre d’ bring a telephone so that Nick and Monty could “converse” over dinner. The ‘conversations’ were odd, lopsided: Monty did most of the talking, and most of it was about himself—his role in the computer industry, his role in the history of computer science, his thoughts on society, politics, art, music, history, the philosophy of science. . . He was a chirpy, squeaky-voiced, arrogant, self-satisfied pipsqueak of a man who had more IQ in his little finger than Nick had in his brain. Nick never enjoyed Monty’s conversations per se, but he continued to accept Monty’s invitations for the same reasons he always had: simple animal curiosity, and a vague hope that maybe something good for his career would come of it.
He tried to reconcile his experience of Monty with the theory Carl had just sketched. Monty was fascinating, there was no doubt about that. But there was nothing charismatic about him, nothing that would inspire the kind of devotion that led to mass suicide in Guyana and conflagration in Texas. Although. . .
“There was one rather odd evening I spent with the Fellows at Pajaro Dunes,” Nick said.
The staff of Digital MicroSystems Laboratories was having a three day team-building retreat, and Monty invited Nick to join them for one evening. So Nick had driven his rental car down from Menlo Park to Pajaro Dunes, where the Fellows had rented a group of secluded oceanside condominiums. The fact that the team had gone “off-site” for a few days of rest, physical exercise, relaxation, and brainstorming was, in itself, not odd at all. It was standard practice for every engineering team he’d ever been part of. Nor was it especially odd that the engineers were all men, and all wearing identical sweatshirts. Commemorative team sweatshirts were as much a part of this kind of event as the after-lunch frisbee toss. What was odd was that the sweatshirts were plain purple tunics, almost like Star Trek uniforms. What was also odd was that the evening’s activity was to watch the movie Twelve O’clock High, the story of a demoralized bomber squadron in the Second World War that is whipped into fighting shape by a no-nonsense Gregory Peck. Any ordinary group of computer engineers would have talked over the entire movie in nonstop satirical commentary. This group had watched in rapt attention until the final credit. Then they thanked Nick for coming and showed him the door, without so much as offering him a beer or pretzel. Monty, of course, had never shown up.
“Did you ever ask yourself why Monty had taken such an interest in you? Did you ever stop to think why a junior engineer from the Mill might have been casually invited to spend a few hours with the brainiest nerds on the planet?”
“Sure, I wondered. Of course.”
“And what answer did you come up with?”
Carl had him there.
“OK,” Nick said. “You win. Let’s say it happens. Monty summons me from Siberia and anoints me with holy oil. He gives me millions of dollars, and in return I take the Omerta, the Mafia vow of silence. Where do you fit in?”
Carl waited before answering, almost as if he had changed his mind about the whole thing.
“I’m the one to whom you betray him,” he said at last.
“I betray him,” Nick said, stunned by the oddness of the concept. “You’re the one to whom I betray him.”
“Yes. You’re Judas, and I’m the chief Pharisee. You spend a few months insinuating yourself into Monty’s good graces, then you start serious espionage. You let me know what’s under development at the Labs. You tell me how he transforms ordinary engineers into Corporate Fellows. You sell him out. To me. That’s where I fit in.”
Nick’s beer was empty; he signaled for another.
“So you do want me to do market research for you.”
“No. I want to write a book about him. The real story. Not the press-release stuff, ‘he led this team, he led that team.’ There’s something else going on, and I can’t find out what it is without being a Corporate Fellow, which is not in store for me. You’re as close as I’m going to get.”
“Will you match the bucks I’ll forfeit when he finds out I’m a rat?”
“Not even close. But I will split the book deal with you. We might make some money, but it’s more likely that you’ll get sued for breech of contract and perhaps thrown in jail for corporate espionage. The risk to you is infinitely greater than the risk to me, of course.”
“Then why am I going to do it?”
“Because when you find out what he’s up to you’ll want to shake his tree.”
As Carl was talking, Nick noticed two men in leather jackets with Harley-Davidson insignia gazing at him from a the side of pool table. One said something to the other; they walked over to Carl, each with a pool cue in hand, and before Nick could do anything one of them had put his hand on Carl’s shoulder and spun him on the stool.
“Hey, man,” said a boyish-looking man with brilliant teeth. “It’s Carl, right?” He put his hand out. “Jim Boerr. Cybersuds!”
“Of course,” Carl smiled, shaking Boerr’s hand in the glad-hand way that showed Nick once again how perfectly Carl was suited to his profession. “Cybersuds, I remember. Jim Boerr. Kliner Cawkins. And your sidekick Kim Cardinal.”
Carl nodded toward Nick.
“Say ‘hi’ to my friend Nick, an old college buddy of mine. Catching up, reliving the old times, blah blah blah.”
“Hey, Nick.” There were fake smiles and handshakes all around.
Boerr’s gaze seemed to narrow at Carl, even as the smile on his face beamed.
“Did you hear what the Dark Angel’s got planned?”
“I’ve heard talk.”
“It’s gonna be hot. Hot.”
“It sure seems that way.”
In the short silence that followed this remark, Nick thought he detected a contest, some kind of stand-off. After a further moment of silence, Jim and Kim simultaneously put up right hands to wave ‘bye,’ and stepped back.
“We’ll let you get back to ‘glory days,'” Jim said. “We were just on our way out when we caught sight of you.”
“Great, man, take it easy,” Carl said with a broad smile, as if delighted to have run into two of his dearest friends. They placed their cues in a rack and left, with their game unfinished.
“Friends of yours?” he said.
“Viet Cong Vultures? That’s some bad-ass name for a motorcycle gang.”
“Venture capital. Kliner Cawkins Partners. Those two guys are ‘angels,’ men with money to fund start-ups. That boyish little man that looks like Michael J. Fox is worth about three billion.”
“Pocket change,” Nick said. It was the only proper response for a man with negative net worth.
“Fucking vampires,” Carl said. “Always looking for information.”
“Unlike yourself. What’s Cybersuds?”
“Sort of a high-tech movable feast in New York; a salon, if you will. Palo Alto in Manhattan. All the movers and shakers of Silicon Alley get together for beer, contacts, connections, virtual blow jobs, trendy talk about ‘new media’; one-and-all looking for a ground-floor entry to the next Microsoft, the next Netscape. It’s the world I live in. Engineers enter it at their peril.”
“Thanks for the warning. Who’s the Dark Angel?”
“He’ll be picking you up in his ratty little Mercedes in about two hours.”
Of course, Nick thought. The Dark Angel. Monty Meekman.
“They seemed to know you’ve got an eye on him,” Nick said.
“Everybody’s got an eye on Monty Meekman. Or at least everybody who follows money and technology has an eye on him. But nobody knows what he’s up to. And with the Forum coming up they’re getting skittish, like little woodland creatures before the storm.”
“Forum? What forum?”
“The Biodigital Forum. It’s an offshoot of the Digital Forum. You know, Rachel’s Thing.”
“Oh, yeah,” Nick said, making the connection.
Rachel Tryson, the futurist and technology pundit, was, at thirty-seven, the most powerful woman in information technology. She had been to the infotocracy born: her father was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who had been pals with Johnny Von Neuman himself, and her mother was the architect of the Lovelace Programming Environment.
Once a year the most powerful people in the industry—CEOs, venture capitalists, and random visionaries— ritually set aside their weapons and gathered for the Digital Forum, otherwise known as Rachel’s Thing. It might take place in Arizona one year or at Jackson Hole the next. Attendance was by invitation only, the invitees drawn from the subscribers to Tryson’s newsletter, Patch Process. Whatever the setting, the modus operandi was the same: the billionaires relaxed in the sun with drinks in their hands, and, under Rachel’s virtual-maternal gaze, they decided the future of mankind.
“OK,” Nick said. “So I know what the Digital Forum is. What’s the Biodigital Forum?”
“The same thing, only more hip: the number infocrats is cut in half to make room for the corresponding elite from biotechnology. People who want to know what’s really going on in the Valley watch Rachel’s Biodigital invitee list more closely than they watch the NASDAQ ticker.”
“Where’s it going down this year?”
“Saratoga Club: everything a harried billionaire could want in a Wine Country retreat, without the Wine Country or the hassle of the drive up to Napa. Two three-star restaurants, a ten-thousand bottle wine cellar, a PGA golf course, ten tennis courts, a world-class croquet field, and twenty masseurs—for two hundred guests.”
“Doesn’t sound like my kind of gig,” Nick said.
“That’s where you’re wrong. Monty and Rachel have something cooked up for the Biodigital Forum. If Monty makes you a fellow, you’ll be there. The timing isn’t accidental.”
“What do they have cooked up?”
“I don’t know. Nobody does.”
“Your friends the vultures seem to be in the know.”
Nick picked up the hundred dollar bill and held it to the light from a neon Budweiser clock.
“Down payment on my blood money?”
“Not at all. Remember, if you take the job I want it back. If you do go to work for Monty I won’t call you. But if the time comes when you want to talk, call me.” Carl reached into his pocket and produced a business card. “Here. Don’t forget the zip code.”
“You’re serious about all this aren’t you?” Nick said.
“Nick, I’m as serious as Tantric sex with a Hindu goddess.”
“Cheesus,” Nick said. “I’m going to be really disappointed if Monty just wants to say hello.”
“I’ll see you at Saratoga,” Carl said, as he raised himself of the barstool.
“You’re on Rachel’s list, of course,” Nick said. “I should have known.”
“One more thing,” Carl said. “Beware of icicles.”
“Icicles? In Sunnyvale?”
“No fingerprints. Watch your back, Nick.”
With that Carl was out the door.
Nick ordered another beer. Carl hadn’t seemed deranged, but the words that had come out of his mouth were crazy. Perhaps it had been a joke, but who would have put Carl up to it? It didn’t matter: within a few hours Monty either would or would not propose to Nick that he become a Corporate Fellow. Until then Nick would watch Buster and Mike.
Ironic, wasn’t it, to think Monty might be the one to rescue him from oblivion? Bartlett had prophesied that Nick would never work for Monty. She also had pledged that she herself would remain faithful to Nick for life. She had left him. Monty had never promised Nick a thing, but had remained faithful, in a manner of speaking, for five years.
“God, Bartlett,” Nick whispered to the empty stool beside him. “Has it really been five months? Five God damned months and I can’t shake you for a minute; not even for a second.”
Nick picked up the C-note, put it into his wallet and walked out of Mad Antonio’s Nut House. The sunlight nearly blinded him.
©1999-2010 John Sundman.