Excerpt: Welcome to the Kneepad Ball
Diabolos gazed out the window of the Wunderkind corporate limousine as the white dome of the Capitol building passed behind black tree branches strung with twinkling Christmas lights. Across from him, riding backward and drinking a glass of milk, was Bob Elgin. Both of them wore tuxedos. Elgin had just described the Wunderkind plan to salvage Kip McKool, the new AVATAR record and the tour, and Diabolos was speechless.
“Very interesting idea,” he finally said. “But—”
“The concept was the product of a careful process of weighing risk versus benefit,” Elgin assured him. “Of course, our commitment to profitability by any means necessary gives us a wider range of choices.” He’d once heard Elgin say, in the exact same confident tone of voice, Once you accept Jesus as your personal savior, the peace of mind is overwhelming, because you know you’re in His hands. Elgin seemed to like big answers that settled a lot of questions all at once.
“Then again, if we get caught—”
“It would destroy Wunderkind’s family image, and possibly the company.”
“So if it’s such a risk to your clean image, why do this?”
“Potential revenue from a new record and a successful tour by AVATAR outweigh the risk factor,” Elgin said, “and it can’t wait any longer. My introduction to Kip was not encouraging, Demetri. Sorry to be blunt, but he could die of natural causes and we’d have to write off our whole investment.”
Diabolos let Elgin have the last word for awhile. He found himself thinking back through the decades to the moment he first saw Kip and Chancy and the band that would become AVATAR. It was the spring of 1964 and they appeared on a program of four bands, each playing a half hour set at a pub in Brixton. Diabolos had been brought to the concert by a plugger at a London song publisher that he’d met at a party, both of them dreaming of discovering a rock n’ roll band and becoming rich managers after the fantastic success of Brian Epstein with The Beatles. His friend was not impressed with the set by Kip McKool and the Kings, but Diabolos, excited by their renditions of American blues, got one look at Chancy Poe, sneering down his puggy nose at the audience, and Kip McKool, cute and energetic and eager to please, and there began a passion that would rule the rest of his professional life and make him very, very rich.
Those were the great, golden days of discovering and molding new talent. Quite a contrast to this dry and corporate Elgin, who had just calmly described how Wunderkind Global Entertainment planned to surgically transform somebody into an ancient rock star with a world famous face, train him rigorously, and pay him to masquerade in front of the world as Kip McKool. Diabolos had been the man behind the making of many rock stars, but 21st Century rules were different—like, none, except ‘profitability, by any means.’
“Have you, uh—thought about who?”
“That’s where you come in,” Elgin said. “We need you to guarantee Kip’s cooperation so we can duplicate his image exactly, and we need you to find a suitable musician. Fast.”
Diabolos sat back, pretending to muse, but really astonished at the audacity of what Elgin was proposing. And yet, with his love of the big con, not to mention the huge cash advance he was loathe to pass up, Diabolos put aside his qualms and his disdain for Wunderkind business drones like Elgin, and said, “Ready to do whatever I can to help.”
“It’s an absolutely sound business strategy, don’t get me wrong—”
“I’m sure you folks feel that it’s so—”
“We’re no back alley shop,” Elgin said. “We’re talking specific technology. We’ve built it. We own it. We know it works. And we finally have a job for it to do.”
“You’ll have a bit of a job selling this to Congressman Steele,” Diabolos said. “Without his approval and protection this won’t work.”
“Well…” With a thin smile, Elgin shrugged and drawled, as their car stopped on the hotel drive, “Let us worry about Rory Dean Steele, okay?”
They got out of the car under the outer portico of the Blakemore Hotel, a relic built before World War Two. On either side of the entrance stood a heavily armed Marine in flak jacket and helmet, while a third checked invitations and I.D. at the door. They joined a flow of men and women in black tie and gowns entering the hotel, and caught an elevator to the fifth floor. As they stepped off into the corridor outside the ballroom, strobes went off as paparazzi began photographing Diabolos. He held up his fingers in a peace sign and pasted on a big party grin.
“Demetri! Why are you here?” a reporter shouted.
“Party of the season! Wouldn’t miss it!”
“Is it true AVATAR is gearing up for a tour so soon after Chancy Poe’s death?”
“I confirm and deny everything! Merry Christmas!”
He waved the other questions away and followed Elgin into the wide open room where two hundred or so people in the arts and entertainment industries rubbed shoulders with their government regulators and the politicians who signed off on their licenses. The event, which Diabolos had attended many times before, always had the same atmosphere. The artists and their agents and managers and publicists stood around having their pictures taken with one brusque, tacky, clueless politician after another, while low-level bureaucrats wandered around agog at the famous faces, unaware of how deeply they were despised by the artists and members of their entourage.
Elgin and Diabolos were summoned to meet with the Congressman who chaired the cultural affairs committee about forty five minutes later. An aide brought them up to the seventh floor of the Blackmore, to the Andrew Jackson suite with a view of the Capitol and Mall. From the anteroom they heard loud voices from inside the suite, arguing. Restless and resentful of this process, Diabolos sat back and amused himself perusing Elgin seated across from him glancing through a copy of Fortune Magazine, looking quite foxy in his tuxedo. Idly, Diabolos imagined himself buggering Bob Elgin someday, manipulating him along until he had Bob on all fours, his face grimacing and whispering a desperate prayer in moral horror at what was happening to his ass and, presumably, his mortal soul.
“You know what the creative community calls this event, don’t you Bob?” Diabolos said with a devilish grin. “The Kneepad Ball.”
“Not a very constructive way to look at it.”
“Depends on who’s blowing who.”
Elgin reddened and gave a prissy little sniff. “One of the advantages of working for Buddy Wunderkind is that we don’t need any kneepads. Doors open. Phone calls get returned. We close deals, we do things. Our projects are taken seriously.”
“Surely. Of course, you’re not asking for money to keep the local symphony in Six Pack City running for another year,” Diabolos mused. “What you’re asking him to approve, seen a certain way, is quite literally insane.”
“Bad salesmanship, Demetri. Think positive.”
The loud arguing voices inside ceased. A door slammed elsewhere in the suite. The aide came to the door, opened it with a satisfied little grin, and they were ushered inside.
Diabolos was amused to see that Elgin’s plan left even Steele speechless. The Congressman stared at Elgin. Diabolos guessed he was enlarging his estimate of Elgin’s balls.
“You’re asking me to take one helluva chance here.”
Helpfully, Diabolos offered: “It’s all a show anyway. And at Kip’s level of stardom, we control every step he takes. On the road, we have even more control. He will not be unmasked.”
“And if he is?”
“He’ll be subtracted from the equation,” Elgin said, “and we’ll still have the original available to work with.”
“There’ll be no leaks.” Listen to me, Diabolos thought, I’m actually going along with this.
The Congressman re-lit his cigar. “There’s always leaks. Buddy Wunderkind, did he sign off on this?”
“Mister Wunderkind knows the value of your partnership in this project,” Elgin said. “He appreciates the risk you’re taking. He considers your advice, support and protection crucial to its success, as well as to the future of your relationship with Wunderkind.”
Congressman Steele’s head bobbed, and he seemed to be deep in thought. Not so deep, Diabolos mused to himself, that he didn’t just hear himself stroked and threatened with the loss of his campaign contribution in the same breath.
Rather than look Elgin in the eye and tell him where to shove his threat, the Congressman said, “Officially, I’ll know nothing. If you fuck up, that’s what I’m here for. The way I see it, even if this thing gets exposed, that’s no reason a company as vital to our economy as Wunderkind should have to put itself at the mercy of the courts.”
“Of course not,” Elgin said.
“And you don’t think anybody will be the wiser?” the Congressman said.
“We’re positive,” Elgin said. “Wunderkind has the technology. We’ve perfected a system of laser driven cosmetic surgery that’s the cutting edge in this field. It’s still in the late experimental stages.”
“What does that mean?”
“The process can be painful to the patient if their medication isn’t constantly monitored,” Elgin said.
Steele blew a fat, wobbly smoke ring. “That’s too bad.”
“Our after-care techniques are still developing, but we would speed up the work for this. Remember, Wunderkind is not only one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world, but our life-style division has done pioneering work with fitness physiology and cosmetic surgery.”
“What do you do to his mind?”
“What do you mean?” Elgin said.
“We’re assuming a willing subject,” Diabolos said, “eager to learn and to play Kip McKool.”
“Assume an unwilling subject,” the Congressman said. “After you change his face, don’t you have to change his personality?”
“Of course, there are ongoing psychological issues that we expect will be challenging,” Elgin said. “But we have a virtual reality system of mental re-programming we’re eager to try on a human patient. Our programmers are confident a subject’s memory can be erased and replaced.”
“What about the rest of his life?”
“I.D. eradication. Our security people are skillful and thorough.”
“All right then,” the Congressman said. “We’ll do this through the Juvenile Volunteer Program. Every year they lose two, three thousand kids. One more won’t be noticed, so long as his true identity is erased.”
Alarmed, Diabolos sat up to speak but Elgin said first:
“They’re Quality of Life Offenders. Low class, bad homes, lousy school, immoral role models. Quite a few of these kids pay their debt to society by joining the military or volunteering for medical experiments. I guess this could qualify.”
“Certainly could,” Elgin said. “And if it succeeds, we could revolutionize a whole new branch of surgery.”
“Now, the boy I’m giving you—”
“I’m sorry,” Diabolos said. “You’re giving us?”
“Where’d you think you’d find the right person for the job?”
“Auditions,” Diabolos said.
“We think we can accomplish our goals within the law, more or less,” Elgin said.
“Son, where we’re going, the only law is this.” He rubbed his fingertips with his thumb. “Be prepared to spend a lot of it.”
Elgin and Diabolos looked at each other, unsure how to address this unforeseen development. The Congressman went to the sideboard bar, poured himself half a glass of bourbon, and swirled it as he stood beside the fireplace, chuckling.
“You boys want to create your own little Frankenstein, dress him up, and let him impersonate your burnt-out Mister McKool. And you think you’ll get away with it?”
“Right now we envision him merely as a backup,” Diabolos said, “in the event Kip can’t perform for health reasons. We’d put him onstage and he’d lip sync to recorded music, same as the real Kip or any other big act these days.”
“And when it’s all over?”
“Well, you said the project loses several thousand kids a year,” Elgin said. “You said you had someone in mind?”
“Wait a minute,” Diabolos said. “All due respect, Congressman, but I’ve been discovering talent for over fifty years. I think I’m better qualified to find the right person for this job.”
“Not negotiable,” Steele said.
Diabolos sighed, fed-up: “We need a willing collaborator for this to work.”
“You get this boy. Or you don’t get me. Or would you rather I rang up Buddy Wunderkind and told him this personally?”
“So the boy you’re giving us,” Elgin said, raising a hand to calm Diabolos. “What about him?”
“He comes out of New York QUOLO. He’s been under lock and key for a couple week’s observation. Repeat offender. Sex offender, punk rocker. Real street trash. He’s hard core. But he’s still young. You can mold him into whatever you need. Oh, and I hear he has musical ability.”
“So long as he’s physically fit, and reasonably smart, he can be trained,” Elgin said.
At the door the Congressman drew Elgin and Diabolos into a huddle. “Good luck. Keep me informed. I’ll pull every string and twist every arm I can behind the scenes to help you, but don’t ever expose my involvement in this.” He looked at them. “If you do, you’re working without a net.”
On the elevator, descending, Diabolos shuddered, thinking of all the ways this could go wrong. He whispered to Elgin: “I don’t like him forcing some strange boy on us. This could be disastrous. Suppose the boy isn’t willing?”
“I hadn’t counted on this. But our psych research people have modalities we can try.”
“Let’s at least meet the boy first.”
“Bad idea. Our psych people warned us that anyone the Kip clone will have a relationship with post-op should not meet him and imprint on his memory pre-op.”
They rode down in the elevator silently for a moment.
“You know, this is a rather dark thing we’re doing,” Diabolos said. “Man’s inhumanity to man, and all that.”
Elgin yawned. “Spare me your European pseudo-intellectual nonsense, Demetri. This is a sound business strategy.” Cool, confident, without a qualm. “And it’s going to work.”
As they walked to the limousine, Diabolos felt, beneath his worry, a little envy. Every crooked deal in his life had involved overcoming some moral or ethical reservations, but Elgin had an advantage—no reservations at all.
First published in 2003, ‘Frankenrocker’ is being updated for a new expanded edition and adapted for long form television.