My cue came as I looked out the window at the smoking ruins of Riyadh's southeastern quarter.
"What this town really needs," said the Vice President, "is a Hooters."
Prince Salman scratched his scalp through his kuffiyeh headgear. The Minister of Culture's briefing papers neglected to mention the Veep's tenure on the Board of a global restaurant franchise during the interregnum.
"Maybe even a couple of them," added the Vice President.
"What is . . ."
"Family-style restaurant," interrupted the Vice President. "Sports TV, chicken wings, cute waitresses. Hard to explain if you haven't seen one. They have one in Cater."
"Qatar," corrected a pinstriped aide. "Like the TV show."
"Whatever. Didn't used to be. But they have a very nice new Hooters. Even imported the waitresses. Mostly from the flagship in Boca, I hear."
In the plaza outside, a pair of UN armored personnel carriers worked their way through the rubble, prowling for stray mujahideen. I saw phantoms of its reinvention: Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, Warner Brothers Studio Store, mega-Starbucks. Anchors for a sprawling retail complex staffed by a legion of thonged Method dropouts. The Mall-al-Khali.
The Vice President fidgeted in his wool suit, scratching a marbled thigh.
Through the window, my mind projected the scene: A newly conceived pop star, surrounded by a crowd of thousands of young people filling the plaza. As the music cranks up, she dances to the front of the stage and rips off her fundamentalist vestments, revealing a hot brown Britney. Selling Pepsi, making peace.
The Prince leaned back, unimpressed by talk of battered poultry and other white meat. Four lieutenants and a coterie of bodyguards surrounded him. The Vice President's detail included a couple of geeks from State, three White House flaks, four Secret Service agents, and me.
"Let's hear from Mr. Horshak, our liaison from Hollywood," said the Vice President. "They've been working up some scenarios on the kinds of things we'd like to see to update your media infrastructure."
I leaned forward in my chair, lasering in on the prince.
"Right. Thank you, Mr. Vice President. It's like this. There's more to life than CNN and Al Jazeera. That narrative is way too heavy. People need an escape from the drudgery. They need a few laughs."
The Prince crossed his arms.
"The idea is to present the contemporary Arab experience through the vehicle of our best media product configurations. You'll be amazed how well people can be anesthetized from the pain of a bad day by twenty-two minutes of situational comedy."
One of the grand viziers produced a Siemens Weltmeister 9000 cell phone from beneath his robe and scrolled for a speed-dial.
"And if we can put together some sure-fire hits, there's serious revenue for the Kingdom on top of the cultural pacification. Example. The biggest thing these days is reality shows. You can do regular lives of famous people, a la The Osbournes — move a camera crew in with a colorful member of the royal family. Or regular people in extraordinary situations. Think Survivor: Guantanamo Bay."
The Veep dropped me a smart bomb stare through his bifocals. As his cyborg heart ground a gear, I scanned the crib sheet on my PDA.
"OK. Maybe that's a bit over the top, but it gives you the flavor. Now here's a classic. Three's Company. One guy, two cute chicks, one house -- let the hijinks begin! It's just been revived in the States, and the original still plays hot in reruns. Total cash cow -- only set you need is the same old apartment. And here's our twist: the guy's a warrior for Allah, a righteous hard-case from The Foundation, doing his flight school junior year abroad Afghan exchange thing in sin city Los Angeles, where a screw-up by his handlers has him rooming with two lusciously lustful pieces of All-American poontang. A brainiac blonde bombshell who edits the conservative newspaper on campus -- we're thinking a curvier Reese Witherspoon with a CNBC wardrobe -- and a brunette Jackie Brown black mambamba afro-surfer chick. Kind of hard to concentrate on those jet fuel usage tables when she walks out of the shower!"
The Vice President and the guys from State broke into grins. The Prince's gaze drifted to the picture windows, following a quartet of black helicopters blasting Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song over the battlezone.
"Lot of variations on that one, your Sheikness," I continued. "Think Friends. One New York apartment building -- could be San Francisco, Miami, even Washington -- whatever you think your people would dig -- two units. In one, we have the 'foxes,'" I said, doing my best Steve Martin as the swinging Czech brother, "four cuter than cute up-and-coming urban professionals. The barista novelist, the actress waitress, the phone-throwing lawyer, the marketing guru. Kind of a younger version of the Sex and the City gals. And across the hall, a sleeper cell. Wait 'til the episode where the girls redecorate the guys' apartment!"
"Didn't you have some sample clips you were going to run?" said Mr. Undisclosed Secure Location.
"Just getting to that, sir." I grabbed the remote, turned on the spiffy Philips plasma display the Prince had in his boardroom, and hit play. Cue one sparkly jingle.
I was nursing a second highball in my suite at the Marriott when my new deep cover PSYOP chums found me. The bell captain had hooked me up with some black market rotgut after Customs confiscated my stash of mini-bottles from Air Force Two. A hotel without a bar is a real drag, especially a Mormon hotel in a Moslem town.
On the tube, Flight 23 widow Ashley Breem was laying on the Christian beauty and sexy grief with anchor Curry Slice during East Coast breakfast time. I was now one of 27 people with a need to know she's an actress, hired to help build the myth after the Veep had to give the order to shoot the sucker down and save the White House.
I ignored the knock but they came in anyway.
"Dude," said Berzerkowitz. "Don't come fucking running, okay? I hate having to use this pass-key I swiped from the maid."
"Hey," I mumbled. "It's the A-Team. Where's Mr. T?"
"Barf city," said Ana, making herself at home on the Simonized furniture. "Bathtub looks like a Sam's Club serving of Baba fucking Ganoush."
Ana and Berzerkowitz were part of a strike team within Force Loki, the new global media jamming battalion nominally under the control of the Pentagon's OPLAN 71 Command, but basically an autonomous bunch of nutballs. They also shared the black hole in the federal budget from which my paycheck now originated. Marty Berkowitz was a Navy Lieutenant, ex-SEAL Team 6, with expertise in deep urban infiltration, close quarters combat, and bad Seventies television. Hyper little guy with the hardened physique of an Olympic middleweight wrestler, raised on Froot Loops and protein shakes. Ana Cruz was a veteran of the Special Collection Service, the clandestine arm of the NSA responsible for implanting bugs in the places no radio boat or satellite could penetrate: webcams in Putin's dacha, soft worms in Pyongyang, keyboard ghosts in Baghdad, that sort of thing. Amateur biathlete with Kevlar hot pants -- Blue Crush
meets The Green Berets
. Mr. T, Tom Li, was an Afro-Chinese-American Army grunt -- Ranger muscle who'd also tested as a master hacker.
"He's happy to sit in his room and blow up web sites," I said.
"Yeah, well we're definitely not taking him on tonight's field trip," said Ana.
"Little urban spelunking," said Ana. "Need to make some sneakernet file exchanges at the TV Tower."
"Isn't that a hot quarter?" I asked.
Ana grabbed the light fixture with a deft touch, and pulled her feet to the ceiling. She looked back between her legs and smiled.
"Absolutely," she said. "We need you to tag along."
"You've got to be fucking—"
"We save that for after," she said. "Better with the adrenaline boost. You've been seconded to our unit. Tom's idea."
"You can hack my org chart box all you want, but I am strictly here for the pitch session. I don't even have an extra pair of shoes, for God's sake."
"Dude," said Berzerkowitz as the feline Ana dropped backward to the carpet. "I heard all about it from the State Department geeks. What do you do, come up with that shit during the commercials? Why not an Austin Powers riff? Chasing down the Leader in his Kyrzgystan hideway with the help of three heavily armed soft porn stars and President Schwarzenegger."
"Hey, man, we spent weeks on that stuff, product of four long Saturday brainstorming sessions in McLean, Ft. Meade, and Century City. The whole thing was pre-approved by like seven different agencies. You gotta start out outrageous to crack their brains open. They'll bite. And don't forget that the studios have agreed to slide a nickel off every overseas distribution buck into our
budget. So cut me some slack."
"Yeah, well you need to redeem yourself," said Berzerkowitz. "Take some of those pilots you brought and put them out there on a channel. See if your cathode ray dope doesn't get sucked right up, end run around the mullahs. Hearts and minds stuff."
"Jesus. We can't do that. The Saudis will go ape shit."
"What," said Berzerkowitz, "you think with a fucking guerilla army lobbing bio-grenades from the minarets and two NATO armored divisions grinding up the streets and knocking down the buildings the bad guys left, the sheiks have time to worry about what's on TV?"
"They figured it out after last time," I replied. "Like the Frog said, 'the Gulf War did not occur.' TV is reality, and reality TV ain't."