© L.E. McCullough 2003
“Who the hell do you think you are, sweetie? God Almighty in a friggin’ thrift-store prom dress?”
I knew the answer to that, of course. But judging from the root-like vein snaking across Dagen’s mottled forehead, it wasn’t the time or place to get all transfigurative on his ass. Besides, if he wanted his junior account execs to dress differently, he could always raise our pay.
“I don’t think it’s that bad of an idea, chief,” offered Chad Malki, V.P. in charge of Throat Clearing and Soothing Platitudes. “Miss Devine may just have something up her skirt, er, sleeve.”
Dagen exploded, leaping up and slamming both fists on the conference table. As senior partner in the entertainment industry’s biggest p.r. firm, the pressure to maintain top-gorilla status was unbearable. He leaned over so close I could see the capillaries dilating in his eyeballs, could taste his herbal antacid. “You’re suggesting we crucify Hollywood’s top-grossing male action star!?”
“He doesn’t have to die, though,” piped Malki. “He just hangs there awhile, right, Javi?”
I’d learned to wait out the tantrums at these so-called strategy sessions. Dagen would come around and Malki was still hoping I’d sleep with him. I twisted a strand of pink-streaked blonde hair and extruded a world-weary sigh. “Anyone have a better idea?”
As if. It was a publicist’s nightmare. Eccentric mega-celeb Seth Amboy — he of the 100-acre petting zoo/nature preserve visited annually by thousands of poor children bused in for photo-op and tax-break purposes — had just been released on four million dollars bail, charged with having oral sex with a ring-tailed lemur and forcing a Cub Scout troop from Modesto to watch and then write screenplay treatments. He’d been turned in by an undercover Writers Guild informant.
Public opinion was rabid. Even if he wasn’t convicted, there was every expectation Seth Amboy would never, ever work again, not in Hollywood, not on Broadway, not in a community theatre production of Moose Murders at the West Peoria VFW Hall. To Mom and Pop America and their cineplex-nurtured offspring, Seth Amboy was no longer a childlike naïf, he was a slimy perv.
He was also our client.
“But they haven’t even picked the jury,” mused Malki. “What if he’s actually innocent?”
“Pre-emptive penance,” I countered. “Best jury nullification insurance money can buy.”
“Isn’t crucifixion, well — a bit excessive?” Malki was hitting all the key points we’d need for talk show rebuttal.
“Punishment never fits the crime,” I replied. “It fits the people who punish.”
Malki nodded. “It is proactive. And retro. Retro is still in, isn’t it?”
The vein in Dagen’s forehead was slowly deflating, his cheeks returning to the rosy side of scarlet. “No stand-in? No last-minute reprieve?”
I frowned sagely. “A stunt double would be perceived as insincere. He has to offer his own body, quid pro quo — total debasement earns total redemption. It’s the American way.”
“That’s right,” seconded Malki. “This isn’t some goofy buried-alive magic stunt. It’s a goddamn crucifixion for chrissake. It’s—”
“It’s brilliant,” broke in Dagen. “It’s genius. It’s the gutsy, off-the-chart career move a serious player can’t resist.” He sat down and slowly rubbed his palms with an imported anti-microbial handwipe. “Think of the ratings.”
“Think of the multiple revenue streams for the p.r. firm handling licensing and distribution.” I laid out a stack of budget projections. “Besides syndication and foreign rights, you’ve got the making-of documentary, the merchandising and theme park tie-ins—”
“We need an A-list director,” Malki volunteered. “Artsy but with good repulsion sensitivity.”
Within five minutes the high concept and rough pitch were firmed up for a new Judgment Hour series featuring cruel and unusual punishments for celebrity offenders. Seth Amboy’s crucifixion would be the pilot episode simulcast globally the day before jury selection; let the D.A. try to find a twelve-pack of fully impartial voir dires anywhere on the planet after that.
Dagen slammed his fists down again, this time with missionary zeal. “Malki, call SAG and clear it with the union. I’ll get his lead attorney for lunch. We’ll make him an offer the networks can’t refuse.” He notched an eyebrow at me. “Good to have you on the team, sweetie. You’re a friggin’ godsend.”
I so never get tired of hearing that. Duh, people, the Message is the Messiah.
* * *
It was a perfect day to broadcast a crucifixion: cloudless blue sky, light wind out of the east, just enough humidity to keep the makeup crew on their toes but not frazzle the grips.
Incredibly, Amboy had asked for nails. The original idea was to super-velcro him to the cross and attach flesh-colored blood packets for time-release wound ooze. But he’d thrown a major diva fit and demanded nails, so nails he got. Whether he was attaining genuine spiritual transformation or simply grabbing an endorsement for the new Malibu Flagellation Diet, only his agent knew for sure.
The crown of thorns, bearing logos from leading analgesic brands, was real as well, though the rust had been painted on for texture; Amboy’s HMO had ruled public mortification was one thing, self-inflicted tetanus was another. Still, you had to give him props for commitment to his craft.
The first numbers were coming in, and the pre-show ratings were leviathan — the whole world was watching. I wasn’t surprised. Give people the choice between a family nature cruise on an ark or a casino weekend in Sodom and Gomorrah, they’ll choose bloodlust and thunder every time. It’s the nature of the Beast.
I was in the control van with Malki, watching the director run final production tweaks. “Where are the mocking extras?” he growled.
His P.A. pointed toward the far edge of the canyon, ringed by 20,000 V.I.P. audience members who had paid upwards of $3,000 a ticket or received promotional passes from local church youth groups. “Upper right, by the centurion phalanx.”
“Those are wailers. I ordered fifty mockers, and they need to be on set now!”
My cell rang; it was Dagen in the skybox suite fretting about InstaPoll numbers. I glanced at the latest readout. “We’ve got 53 percent believing Seth Amboy is truly contrite and, therefore, innocent by virtue of outward appearance; 36 percent say he’s guilty and should be made to run for public office; the rest have no opinion or would prefer to see him crucified during Super Bowl halftime.”
Malki leaned into the phone, making certain to flick his tongue at my cheek. “Chief, let me know if we should book any other clients for this season. I hear the slots are closing up fast.” Indeed, there had been no shortage of willing celebrity guest-victims. Some had not even been charged with crimes but were eager to catch the wave. Profile-wise, enduring a public crucifixion before a couple billion viewers beats a solitary stint in rehab hands down.
Finally, everything was a go. The theme music, a 101-trumpet version of Stairway to Heaven, faded as the announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to MasterBank-KFT-mBay Judgment Hour. Join us as we bear witness to a man seeking to redeem his soul. . . and his per-film salary base. Sweet Angels of Mercy, let the expiation begin!”
The crowd erupted with a raucous roar that changed to an astonished gasp as a bevy of Vegas show girls drew back the purple shroud to reveal a naked Seth Amboy impaled upon the towering cross. His head lolled on his shoulder, saliva dribbling down his chin and limbs jerking in a spasmodic minuet that nearly kept sync with the Angels’ cooing conga line.
“Number five, give me more twitch,” urged the director. “Seven, stay tight on his mouth. He’s liable to say something epic any second.”
Dagen rang again. “How’s it look from your end?”
I tossed the phone to Malki. “Thumbs up all the way, chief,” he raved. “If he can hang tough through the first commercial break, he’s got it made.”
I wasn’t so sure. Scanning the live crowd, I sensed a subtle mood change. Two minutes into the show, and they were b-o-r-e-d. Watching Seth Amboy undergo hideous torture in a fast-paced, effect-laden, surround-sound film was entertaining diversion; seeing it in real-time AgonyCam was tedious and thought-provoking. You could hear TVs clicking off around the globe.
I knew how to fix that. This little pinky goes. . .
Out of nowhere, a 10,000-kilovolt burst of lightning ripped across the horizon and smashed into the crucifixion stand. Seth Amboy was fried to a literal crisp, bright orange flames from his charred corpse raging over a cadre of wailers singed and quivering on the ground. By some miracle, the broadcast equipment was completely unaffected. The cameras remained glued to the smoking cross as millions of handheld remotes from Antwerp to Auckland froze in mid-channel change.
“I’ll be damned,” blurted Malki. “I’ll be good and double-damned.”
He wouldn’t have had any way to know, but that Final Act of Contrition loophole had been closed since Nuremberg. “As a matter of fact,” I smiled, “you are.”
* * *
I took over the firm a week later, after Dagen suffered a sudden cardiac event celebrating his new yacht. I could have told him, walking on water isn’t for amateurs. And nudging a species up the moral evolution ladder is a little more involved than an episode of Queer Eye.
Judgment Hour is now the highest-rated public affairs program in history — round-the-clock fate sealings of the unscrupulous and obscenely powerful have led to a huge reduction in war, poverty, pollution and other so-called Human Foibles that were hellifying the planet beyond recognition.
You wouldn’t confuse the place with Eden quite yet, but it’s looking spiffier than any time I can recall since that ill-advised Seventh Day hiatus.
As Judgment Hour’s sole executive producer, I’m often accused by critics of “playing” God.
Not true. I’m done playing. For the first time in eons, I’m proactive.
Even a Supreme Being gets a crack at a career move now and again.
* THE END *
### Career Move exists in a stage play version as well… see HERE … and contact if you’d like to present it live in your Home Town!
“My Man Jesus Ain’t No One Night Stand!” & Other Glimpses of the Second Coming (and Third, Fourth, Fifth)
– 9 Short Stories by L.E. McCullough –