Sophocles - 496-406 B.C.
Our agent was on the phone. I won't tell you his name, but Chris had dubbed him "The Weasel," which was an apt description: he was a little guy, a not uncommon trait of the Ten Percenters' breed, with a skinny, pointed face, needle teeth and quick, nervous mannerisms.
If you want a hint on who he was, we named the slimy villain who killed the Eternal Emperor's favorite joy girl in Sten #3 - The Court Of A Thousand Suns - after him. (see additional links below)
Anyway, let's just call him "The Weasel" and be done with it.
So, The Weasel was on the speaker phone and he was saying, "I've been talking to Tony and Nancy Lawrence about their new series, which is just the hottest thing in town... there's so much buzz... I mean REAL buzz, guys... and everybody's talking about it, and it stars Judd Scott, that Star Trek guy, and he plays this-"
"For God's sake," Chris barked. "Spit it out, man. When's the fucking meeting?"
You may think that Chris was being rude and impatient - which he was - but you have to forgive him. The Weasel talked a mile a minute, and had this shrill Clearsil voice that got to my partner like fingernails digging into his skull. It so irritated him that I had assumed the role of being the Designated Weasel Talker. But I was making us an afternoon Scotch, so this time around Chris had grabbed the phone.
The speaker phone went into pause mode, then The Weasel squeaked: "I set it up for Wednesday at 2 p.m. But first-"
At this point I cut in, picking up the receiver - chopping off The Weasel's speaker voice before Chris stabbed it with his boot knife - and motioned for my partner to take over the drink-making chores.
"Hi, Allan here," I said. "Chris had to... uh... go use the John. What's up?"
He explained again about Tony (Anthony) and Nancy Lawrence, the couple who had created a new Sci-Fi Tv series called The Phoenix. The appointment was indeed Wednesday at two, but they wanted us to show up early so we could see the pilot before we made the pitch.
"Couldn't we get a peek at the script first," I asked, "so we know what the show is about before we start figuring out stories? I mean, we've only got two days and less than zip to go on."
"Oh, no, that's just not possible, Allan," The Weasel said. Then, lowering his voice as if surrounded by Russian spies, "They are really keeping the show's details under wraps. And the pilot is 'Eyes only,' so it's really a big deal that they're letting you two see it. I had to give them my word you wouldn't tell a soul."
I suppressed a laugh. An Agent's Word is right up there with Military Intelligence, or Business Ethics, as an oxymoron of the first order. (As it turned out, the show had a pretty thorough Bible readily available to all, but The Weasel either didn't know, or... well, he was The Weasel, right? Explains everything.)
"Can you at least tell me enough so we can rough out some ideas?" I pressed. I mean, this was ridiculous. But we needed the money, so I made nice.
The Weasel thought a minute, then started rattling on. I pictured him jumping up and down beside his desk like a Poodle in heat while he yapped, "Well, it's about this Ancient Astronaut... played brilliantly by Judson Earney Scott... who was just so fabulous in Star Trek that the town still isn't over it... and you know ABC just has to be totally behind Tony and Nancy or they wouldn't have been able to get such a big star as-"
Losing it, I broke in: "Yo, yo! Just tell me the premise, for fuck-"
Chris waved at me. "Temper, temper," he admonished. with a big shit-eating grin pasted on his face.
I took a breath. Then, "Sorry. I'm having a bad day. Okay... What's the story?"
Eventually he got it out. There's this Ancient Astronaut, see, who crashed-landed his space ship hundreds of years ago in Peru, but has been in deep sleep ever since. An archaeologist and his team find the guy, revive him, and it turns out he has these incredible powers that he's supposed to put to use for the benefit of mankind. But he's forgotten his purpose and...
"... He wears this golden medallion," The Weasel squeaked. "Tony showed me the prop and it is just amazing. Just like the real thing." (How could it be LIKE the real thing, when the thing itself wasn't real? These were deep questions in the La-La Land of our youth.)
I let him babble on a bit more to make up for using the Eff word, but when I could take it no more, I said, "Okay, I think I've got it. Good job on getting us the pitch. Tell them we'll be there with our medallions on."
When I hung up, Chris asked, "Medallions? What medallions?"
"It's an Ancient Astronaut show," I said. "The guy's got a medallion with the usual incredible powers and hidden secrets."
Chris groaned. "What a load of newage."
Newage, pronounced like sewage, was Chris' term for New Age crystal gazers and incense sniffers.
"You were just complaining a few minutes ago about the state of your bank balance," I said.
"I know, I know," he said. "I should look upon this as a good thing."
"It's got Judson Earney Scott for a star," I said.
Chris brightened. "That's not bad," he said.
"And, I think, E.G. Marshall," I added.
Chris brightened further, saying, "E.G. Marshall? No shit? How bad could it be?"
Hide and watch, babe. Hide and watch.
Okay, so Wednesday rolls around and we show up an hour early like we were supposed to. We meet Tony and his wife, Nancy, and learn that Tony will be taking the meeting solo because Nancy is busy on some production stuff. But first - Ta Da - we were getting the special treat of actually viewing the pilot.
They put us in a cramped little room next to Tony's office. It was equipped with a television and a Betamax. (Film pros preferred the Betamax because the image and sound were so much better. Even so, VHS won the videotape wars. Riddle me that.)
We clicked the clickity and sat back to watch. And watched. And... Geesh! All I can say is, thank God we were alone. Because it was awful. Truly awful. The dialogue sucked. The story sucked. The special effects sucked. In fact, there was not one thing that we saw or heard that did not suck. It sucked so badly that Gravity could vanish from the Planet Earth and everything would still remain sucked to the surface.
Chris groaned and moaned in his Sergeant Major's stage whisper and I had to plant an elbow firmly in his ribs to shut him the hell up. I mean, there was just a thin wall separating us from the producer.
Finally, I turned the volume up for cover, because I could barely control my own reactions. I wanted badly to speed the video up to shorten our time in Pilot Purgatory, but we were surrounded by the Phoenix staff and there was no escape.
Finally... mercifully... it was over.
Chris said, "Holy shit, Cole. What are we gonna do?"
"Only thing we can do," I replied. (Wednesdays were my turn in the responsibility barrel.) "We need the money. So, let's put our race faces on and make the best of it."
"Rots of Rucking Fuck," Chris said. But I detected a shade of acquiescence, which boded well.
Feeling like a prisoner entreating his jailer, I cracked open the door and signaled the secretary that we were done. We waited in the outer office for a few minutes and then were escorted into what I can only call Tony and Nancy's Crystal Palace.
The room was white, white, white. But with lots of gold trim, crystal knick knacks, faux Native American artwork, a Buddha or three, and uncomfortable furnishings. I think there was even a crystal chandelier hanging over the meeting "space," but maybe my memory is playing me false. If there was no crystal chandelier, then there should have been one.
Tony was a polite man and very sincere. In fact, Sincerity was the first thing I noticed about the Lawrences. That, and a certain puzzled look about the eyes, as if they were perpetually wondering how they came to find themselves in this place. You know the type.
We started our pitch.
And in short order every single one of our story ideas was shot down.
Politely. Sincerely. But shot down just the same.
This was not something Chris and I were accustomed to. We prided ourselves on the fact that every meeting we'd ever had with a person who had the authority to say, Yes, or No, that we invariably got a Yes.
Also, did I mention that we needed the money?
Chris gave me a look - Come on, Cole! Clutch hitting was one of my talents and if ever we, and our debtors, needed a hit, it was now.
My mind raced. In the Purgatory Office where we'd watched the pilot, I'd noted the books on the shelves. Except for a dictionary and a couple of other reference works, the library consisted entirely of Newage books. Books about Crystals. And Mantras. And Crop Circles. Ancient Yoga Positions. UFOs. Bigfoot, Yeti and Lock Ness Monster Sightings. Atlantis ad finitum. The complete works (gag me with a mind-bent spork) of Erich von Daniken. A couple of books about people talking to dolphins and shit. And, oh, yeah - the dolphins talking back.
What could we do with Dolphins?
This all took place in a flash, you understand. If you pitch products for a living - be they stories or main frames - you know what I mean.
I said, "We have one other story, Tony. But, more of a story in progress, I'd guess you'd call it."
Chris brightened. Of course we didn't have another story - in progress or otherwise. But this was a ploy that had worked before. (See Magnum P.I.: The Ugliest Dog In Hawaii) He leaned closer to watch for any point where he could dive in and help.
Tony also brightened. He nodded, "Stories in the rough... Right out of the subconscious.... Sometimes they're the best."
I said, "Now, with all the powers our guy has, I'm sure he can uh... communicate with... uh... dolphins, right?"
Tony got excited at that. "Talking to dolphins? Damn right, he can."
"Well, in the story we were kicking around, our hero meets a dolphin."
"Good, good," Tony says.
Chris sweetens the kitty: "...And he's no ordinary dolphin."
Tony nods vigorously. He's getting hot. "No ordinary dolphin! Yeah, yeah!"
I say, "In fact he's..." I toss about for some word, any word, and grab for... "He's Sophocles the dolphin!"
Tony claps his hands. "Sophocles the dolphin! Damn! I love it! I fucking love it. Perfect! Perfect!"
Chris nearly breaks up...Turns away just in time... Sophocles? Makes no sense whatsoever. And I know that, but Tony obviously doesn't, so I plunge onward. Grabbing for anything I can about dolphins and potential dolphin problems.
I say, "And where this dolphin is, there are some greedy fishermen...uh... Tuna fisherman."
"Tuna fishermen! Yeah! Yeah!" Tony goes.
There's a spark and I think, Gill nets. Gill nets. What was that about Gill nets?
And I say, "And the fishermen... they... refuse to use nets that are safe for dolphins!"
Tony sits up straight. He's incensed. "The bastards!"
I continue... "And our dolphin..."
"Sophocles the dolphin," Tony reminds me...
"Yeah, Sophocles the dolphin. Wisdom of the ages. He's caught in one of those nets. Along with... along with... Tons and tons of tuna."
"Shit!" Tony says.
Now I'm really getting into it. "And they take all the tuna, along with Sophocles the dolphin to a big canning factory. And he's dumped in with all the fish. And our hero learns what's going on and he's... and he's... trying desperately to get there in time. But, then... then..."
Tony jumps in. "I've got it!" he cries. "What if our guy is too... too late? And the dolphin is... you know....canned..."
I'm so swept up in my own bullshit that I forget that it IS bullshit and I say, quivering with indignation, "You can't kill Flipper!"
I look at Chris. Chris looks at me. What the fuck, over?
But Tony sees the wisdom (ha) of my objection. Calmer now, I proceed and spin the rest of the tale. The day is saved. Tearful (I wonder, Do dolphins weep?) farewell, blah, blah. Fade Out. The End.
Then Tony says the magic words, "Who's your agent, boys?"
And just like that, we've got our sale. Chalk another one up for Bunch & Cole. Tony says that they are really under the gun, so he wants us to please jump on it right away.
And we head home, a song in our hearts, visions of dollar signs dancing in our heads.
Back at our office, we congratulate ourselves, suck up a couple of Scotches. Get out the typewriters, fire them up. Ready to type.
After Fade In there is a long and terrible silence.
"This is really awful, Cole," Chris finally says.
"I know, I know," I groan.
"Sophocles the fucking dolphin?"
"I know, I know," I say again.
"It's got fucking nothing to do with fuck all."
"I know, I know. It just jumped into my... you know... head."
"Shit," Chris says. "We sold the son of a bitch. Now we've got to write it."
"I know, I know," I say.
Chris bottom-lines it: "We're fucked!"
"What can I say? We needed the money!"
"Fucking money," Chris says.
If money had been a living, physical presence in the room, he'd have shot it.
The phone rang. Depressed as all hell, and stifling a sigh, I hit the speaker button.
It was Himself - Anthony Lawrence.
"Guys," Tony said, "have you two started writing yet?"
"Absolutely," I said, lying like a warehouse full of rugs. "We just wrote Fade In and the first scene, and we're raring to go."
"Aw, Jesus," Chris said.
Thankfully, Tony didn't hear him, because then he said, "Well, guys, I really need to ask you a huge favor."
"Whatever we can do," I said. Trying to sound like Tony and Nancy - you, know. Sincere.
"It's like this. I told you guys you had a sale. I told you to go write. Ethically, and even legally, that's a contract."
I agreed that it was. Chris raised his eyebrows. What's going on? I shrugged. Beats me.
"Well, it's like this, guys," Tony went on. "A few minutes ago I got a call from the network. And they cancelled our show. I mean, it hasn't even been on the air yet, and they cancelled it. With no warning. Can you believe that?"
After seeing the pilot, I could not only believe it, but wondered who among the VIPs at the Anything But Class (ABC) Network had the IQ to see the disaster in the making. Somebody should make that boy CEO. But, Hollywood being Hollywood, he'd probably end up a janitor's assistant.
But what I said was, "The assholes!" I put in as much indignation as I could muster.
Tony said. "Nancy and I are in shock. Total shock."
"I can imagine," I said, doing my best to appear sympathetic.
"Anyway, the favor I wanted to ask is that - even though I gave you a go ahead - could you find it in your hearts to let us off the hook?"
"You mean, not write the episode?" I said. I tried to sound forlorn. All Artus Interruptus. But in reality I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
"Yes, guys. That's what I mean," Lawrence said. "I would consider it a personal favor if you'd agree to that. My wife and I have our own money in this. We took out a second mortgage on our house."
I looked at Chris, whose thumb shot up in the air. Fuck yes!
I said, "Sure, Tony. After all, it's Us against Them, right?"
He gobbled many, many thanks, never forget you guys, etc., etc. Then got off the phone. Chris, meanwhile, had poured us two shots of the good stuff - Metaxa, direct from Athens.
Chris raised his shot glass. "A toast," he said.
"I love toasts," I replied.
"May The Phoenix never rise again."
"Here, here," I said.
We downed our shots. Poured a couple more and then got gloriously, uproariously...
(Some links: The Phoenix;Judson Scott; Phoenix Pilot Episode; Court Of A Thousand Suns E-Book; Court Of A Thousand Suns Audiobook.
NEXT: IT COSTS MONEY FOR GOOD GARBAGE