Vive Le Front

By Bryan Alston Patrick


The alternative to the carefully worded “merger” would have been going out of business and laying off hundreds in an industry where pretty much everyone was struggling to do the same thing for increasingly little money.  For that reason alone, everybody was onboard, mixed feelings and all, even though incoming publisher and unofficial new owner, Niles Crowe, was an astounding ass who, on only his second day in charge, was instructing gutsy, truth-hacking cyber journalists to “push the envelope.”

“Don’t be shy,” he admonished. “Don’t be afraid to show a little skin.”

Segment producer, Jenny Bowen, was crying in the bathroom when Lane found her (the bathrooms were unisex at the time, until later when Niles separated them as part of an effort to make a hostile work environment suit go away).  Her face was crayon pink and clinched like a fist, streaked with mascara she rarely wore and didn’t really know how to apply.

“This is the fucking end, Lane! Everything we’ve worked for. Everything Hank built. Gone. Destroyed. Just like fucking that!” Her shrill voice bounced off every shiny hard surface in the rectangular space as well as the walls of Lane’s throbbing skull.

He reflexively glanced at the door and trembled slightly in response to her outburst but held steady, determined to be there for her. Not unlike a small child terrified by a violent parental mood swing, feeling desperately ill-equipped yet obligated to provide emotional support.

A brutal hangover shimmered in his glassy eyes, mimicking empathic tears.

“Maybe not.” He managed, massaging his own temples. “Maybe this is just what the paper needs right now to survive.”

Everybody called it “the paper” even though they had never produced a print publication. They had always been a site in a network of sites and they had always called it the paper. It had always felt and sounded right until Niles started saying it.

“So maybe we live to fight another day.” Lane muttered weakly, handing Jenny another fistful of brown paper towels from the stainless steel wall dispenser.

A new wave of tears heaved forth as she ripped a few towels from Lane’s fingers in an unnecessary show of frustration, recklessly misdirected at Lane to let him know his pep talk was backfiring. He was totally failing her.

Jenny whipped away from him to peep herself in the mirror, cringing instantly at the gruesome representation of her inner life. The melting makeup had been a gesture of compliance, to “play ball” with the new regime, its dress code and implicit new appearance standard.

Their old boss and benevolent leader, Hank Squire, had strategically done away with those formalities along with official titles. The unisex bathrooms were his idea too. An efficient preemptive strike in support of transgender employees.

One minor policy change at a time, Hank’s legacy was being erased.  Jenny and others had cooperated early on, mostly in support of Shay McCoy, Hank’s second in command, who had stayed on in hopes of protecting the integrity of the paper as well as those she helped mentor. Shay had been powerless to fend off the appearance codes but clothing and decor were superficial. Small compromises easily made in exchange for preserving the founder’s vision.

Then came the hiring of rightwing conspiracy provocateur, Dennis Peck, news of which had arrived via companywide email roughly twenty minutes prior to Lane tailing Jenny to the bathroom. All those little sacrifices made in the interest of protecting what mattered now looked like idiotic baby steps down the path of self-destruction.

Lane had made no such concessions. He hadn’t even gotten a haircut.

Whether his overgrown brown locks and disheveled blue button-down were a show of defiance or symptoms of nascent alcoholism might have been up for debate had anyone been paying attention. Lane would have amped in favor of defiance but, either way, the move was doing him no favors in return. Nor was much of his behavior in general at the time. Three years into his thirties had tipped the balance in terms of how much binge drinking he could physically hide. The baggy shirt and bushy hair might have distracted from his bloated pallor or called attention to it.

He avoided eye contact with his own reflection and watched Jenny blow her nose. Glistening ropes of snot swung between her nostrils and the soft paper dark and damp with her expulsion, cool and earthy smelling. Unselfconsciously, she tossed the soiled napkin at the wall-mounted waste basket and missed. The wad landed at Lane’s feet, forcing him into another awkward dilemma.

They had slept together months earlier in a clumsy impulsive drunken tumble following an awards ceremony. The scene in the bathroom was somehow more intimate and less embarrassing than the ugly mutually unsatisfying roll in the hay. Lane pretended not to notice the snotty bloom on the floor, staying true to his life strategy.

Jenny blew her nose again in a fresh paper towel, this time carefully capturing all the residual strands. She turned her head side to side, examining her face, sighing at the repair work that would have to be done before she could return to her workstation, and simultaneously at the Herculean or Sisyphean effort to hold on to what might have already been lost.

Another fresh towel went to work wiping away black smears and smudges.  Lane stood helplessly by. Superfluous.

Hank had been ousted during the acquisition of La Carte by Crowe News Group (CNG). The move had generated controversy and with it free publicity, galvanizing Niles Crowe’s reputation as a brazen, narcissistic powerbroker punching his way out of his father’s shadow. The critical consensus painted him as the bad guy. Niles didn’t seem to mind as long as it scared other people into compliance.

Hank had edited and produced news for PBS, The New York Times, The Washington Post and several web-based news services in the transition, including without limitation Tao Jones, Resolver and La Carte. He was both historian and innovator, widely credited as an architect of the new business model to save news.

La Carte and its counterparts overseas may finally spell the end of western media hegemony,” wrote Karen Hu in Tao Jones (prior to their partnership with La Carte). “With the newspaper business gasping for air like a beached whale, the challenge is getting first hand news that hasn’t been stepped on by every corporate advertiser with a conflict of interest.”

“Hank built it perfect.”  Jenny said through clenched teeth and puckered lips, touching up her lipstick before removing the rest of the mess. “He put everything in place.”

Their business model had been working just fine until it wasn’t, for reasons nobody seemed to understand beyond the CNG cover story about the gentle corporate giant swooping in to save an important, beloved boutique from going under.

Jenny used the corner of a paper towel to erase the apricot gloss that had gone outside the lines of her upper lip.

Lane watched her movements.  The fabric of her burgundy blazer stretching between her shoulders.  Strands of dark blonde hair falling out of her hastily compiled bun.  Brusque and practical. Just moving it out of the way so she could get to work.

Her face was puffy from crying but still pretty.  She had been steadily losing weight for months. Her self-confidence increasing inversely.  The shakeup at work had threatened her discipline, as it had Lane’s.

While her efforts to watch her calories and get to the gym had been visible, his unspoken promises to get his drinking under control were known to no one else. Only Jenny, through the caring and intuition that had evolved from her original crush, had any clue.

“None of this makes any sense.”  She said to Lane’s reflection.  Her voice was lighter.  Collected and contained. But traces of the rasp remained from yelling. “How did this happen?”

Unbeknownst to Niles, an investigative piece had been secretly taking shape as to how CNG wagged its many tentacles to turn the financial and legislative tables on La Carte and its sibling papers.

Somewhat ironically, that story began with Lane Brooks, the reporter least qualified to investigate a series of events mired in economics.  Lane couldn’t keep track of his own personal finances, let alone follow the money in a convoluted episodic piece. Hank had another guy for that.

Derrick Warren had minored in finance while getting a degree in computer science at Baruch.  After graduating, he landed a boring but very lucrative tech support gig at a big advertising agency that did huge media buys everywhere, including in La Carte.  Hank was on his way out of a meeting with an account exec when he met Derrick in the elevator.  How he lured the kid away from sixty-grand a year was, according to Derrick, “that mystical Hank shit.”

Jenny was holding eye contact with Lane through the mirror.

“Did you not just hear me right now?” She asked him.

“I thought you were being rhetorical.”

“No, I’m not being fucking rhetorical.”

“Why are you asking me?”

“You really don’t know?”

Lane shrugged.  “Economics.”

“That’s bullshit.” Jenny chirped. The lipstick stood erect on the counter next to the sink. She was back to cleaning up the mascara with a wet paper towel. “And you know it.”

“I don’t know that I do.” Lane said.

Unlike Derrick and Jenny, who had backgrounds in finance and journalism respectively, Lane had majored in poetry at a large, midwestern state university before wandering into record reviews that caught the eyes of Hank and Shay who were looking for someone to write music, art and culture. Most of what Lane had written at the time came out of late night blogging. His stuff was spontaneous and impressionistic. Hank claimed he could “hear the music in Lane’s prose.” He also believed Lane had a kind of “empathic understanding of the artist’s point of view.” He wanted “new voices” at La Carte, who would stand out. “That means looking beyond recent journalism grads.”

Shay had strongly agreed until it came to actually working with Lane. Out of the gate, he struggled with deadlines and meetings and showing up on time and anything having to do with following direction.

None of that mattered very much as long as he was writing about indie rock or “new trends in painting.” Lane had no trouble finding cool shit to cover or engaging artists conversationally.

“The guy can talk to anybody.” Hank marveled. “I think he could write hard news if pressed.”

Shay had responded with an eye roll and a maternal smirk. At the time, Lane was totally busy going to shows and gallery openings and experimental performance pieces. As long as Shay basically ignored him, he kept churning out content. As soon as she assigned him something specific, the passive-aggressive avoidance, delays and missed deadlines kicked right in.

Late one night, six months or so into Lane’s tenure in arts and culture, he and Shay wound up on the elevator, both on their way out after most everyone else had left. All of a sudden she was telling him about her first marriage to a man. How she had fallen in love with a female colleague at the LA Times. Both of them lesbians in straight marriages. Years later they were both divorced and living together, partners for nearly a decade before Jenna passed away from a rare form of small cell cancer that had crept along without detection all the way to stage four. Lane listened intently to the epic synopsis of love and loss. By the time they reached the lobby there were tears beading in his eyes. He was completely calm and present. Resting in what appeared to be a kind of deep, loving peace. After that he was another one of Shay’s surrogate children at the paper. One of her favorites, in fact.

Hank had dialed it from the jump. Lane really could talk to anyone. And everyone seemed to open up to him.

Getting information was never his problem. Staying focused on an angle was the challenge. He would almost always get lost in the wilderness of abstract, elliptical meaning.

That wasn’t much of an issue while he was covering painting, sculpture and dance but all that changed when he finally stumbled on to harder news.

By then, Lane had been corresponding and collaborating with Zuri Ndereba for close to a year. She was his main connection to African art and culture. She also had crazy connections throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia. They were fast friends and stayed in touch most of the time, even when they weren’t working.

Zuri wrote art and culture for a paper called Sasa that was being translated into about twenty languages. Zuri was also a senior editor with more fluid job responsibilities than Lane’s. Publishing out of Kenya, Sasa didn’t have the kind of money that western papers like La Carte, Resolver, Dimensione or Parallela had but they were growing, especially from Hank’s revenue sharing model that split ad rates on derivative content. When Lane used material provided by Zuri or her colleagues at Sasa, La Carte broke them off some ad money, calculated by a totally transparent piece of software that generated automatic payments using a simple formula built on document comparison and ad sales tied to a particular piece.

Hank and Shay had also introduced subscription bundling tiers that allowed their subscribers access to multiple papers around the world all translated in hundreds of languages (his original goal had been 10,000). The deluxe package included every paper in the “family.” Most readers put together their own custom packages, distributing subscription fees evenly among the selected papers.

Smaller papers, like Sasa, benefitted tremendously from the combination of ad revenue, subscription and reuse fees coming from the bigger western papers. The western papers benefitted from the competitive edge they were gaining over traditional corporate media with sources everywhere around the world providing content with unbeatable instantaneity.

“Omnectivity” had become the new objectivity. Half-hour network and local news programs were unfunny jokes people accidentally watched for a few minutes when their digital recording schedules messed up. Twenty-four-hour news channels (and their online companion sites) gradually lost their last shreds of credibility as conversational “poly-optic” reporting exposed their barely concealed corporate agendas.

The momentum of social networks combined with the electricity of guerilla newsgathering was knocking down walls. Everyone in the game felt a revolution coming. It was only a matter of time.

When Zuri first got tipped off about gray market technology moving to the West in sea cans along with legal African imports, she wasn’t even sure it was worth talking about. She mentioned it to Lane casually, late one night between rounds of webcam sex (she was doing a stint in London so the time difference was workable).

She had attended a gallery opening for a young painter named Lakicia Kimani with a vibrant acrylic style blending urban modernity with rural tradition and openly referencing the works of Jacob Lawrence. She and Zuri totally hit it off and wound up jawing most of the night with Somali pirate turned gallery proprietor, Faysal Uzi, a naturally magnetic dude holding on to his street name as he matriculated into high society. Uzi’s career transition had required a venture into smuggling black and gray market goods including clothing, accessories, tech and art. He later admitted in casually self-aggrandizing fashion that he kept a foothold in the smuggling game, “like Han Solo.” He said. “But only until I can pay the bills with fine art alone.”

Zuri declined a small number of sexual overtures that night but agreed to meet Faysal Uzi again for coffee the following day. It was then that the story had first begun taking shape. A pirate and a smuggler and a natural in the art world. From international criminal to arbiter of taste.

Lane liked it right away and let it slip to Derrick over drinks one night, having already had too many. Derrick, however, was just mildly buzzed and couldn’t help poking around that same evening. In the process he stumbled on a holding company in the Caymans that had purchased a large number of African masks and statues that had managed to circumnavigate customs before landing at a European distribution center with a Paris address.

Based on a cursory look at Zuri’s notes, Derrick had a hunch that the artifacts had started their journey on Faysal’s ship. Like a pro, he had gotten around customs as he had so many times before his operation had gone near dark. According to Zuri’s notes, that had to do with a literal boatload of health issues suddenly besieging his guys, most of whom were young and stout with little history of illness.

“Something about the phones.” Faysal had told her. Zuri had noted in the margins “he is referring to gray market cell phones aka ‘burner phones’ hidden in some of the artifacts.”

After reading Derrick’s late night email, Lane looked up the Paris distribution center on Google maps. Some of the rudimentary 3D building renderings were labeled while others were not. Some of those labels were current while others lingered from businesses such as Toute La Musique and Blockbuster that no longer existed. Over the pin on Rue Dauphine it read “Lumiére Importer.” Directly across the street was a small building labeled “Cafe Le Front.”


Niles waved Lane through his office door even though he was still having a conversation with a disembodied female voice on the speakerphone.

“He feels really badly about it, Niles.” Said the phone.

The office had been a corner conference room. Niles had the crew repurpose the space for him rather than moving into Hank’s old office. It’s like he knew where to draw the line between effective aggression and just making people hate him.

“That’s because he should feel badly. He should feel awful. What he said is inappropriate by any reasonable social or professional standard. It’s arguably unforgivable.” Niles’ thinned out Melbourne accent was a sharp object made of compressed air and sound waves.

Once his desk, chair and computer were set up, he had hit the ground running. Framed posters of paintings by Edgar Degas, Mark Rothko and Georgia O’Keefe leaned against the wall in diagonal stacks. A gray leather love seat was piled with story files and other administrative business. Decorating was a low priority. Functionality ruled. Niles picked minimal furniture, neither modern nor antique, just efficiently situated in the space.

“And, again, he feels terrible about it. I assure you.”

“I don’t understand why you think that matters, to me, or anyone else. It’s not my job to tell a middle-aged man how to conduct himself in his affairs. If he’s so profoundly stupid that he’s in the habit of saying things about which he later feels terrible, then I’d say he likely deserves to spend every remaining moment of his life in agonizing, bottomless despair. Do you not agree?”

The phone sighed.

Lane started to back out of the office but Niles froze him with a manicured hand. The nails. The tan. The watch. The cufflinks. Custom white cuffs on a custom powder blue shirt. Perfect lines running to the perfect angular white collar edging up to the perfect hairline. The hundred dollar haircut maintained on a weekly basis so the length never changed.

Lane hovered in the doorway representing perfectly antithetical sloppiness.

“Niles.” Said the phone.


No answer from the phone.

“We’re in agreement then?”

“I suppose we are.”

“Good. Then next we speak, I will expect you to have something worthwhile to impart. Don’t ever waste my time again with a call such as this one or by any other means of communication. I have a meeting now. Good day.”

Niles ended the call with a button and motioned Lane into one of the chairs.

“Mr. Brooks. Nice of you to drop by.” Instant warmth rippled outward in a tonal shift no less than chameleonic.

Lane grabbed a seat and tried unsuccessfully to appear relaxed and unfazed by the phone call.

“Name two of your favorite Russian painters.” Niles said.

“Current or like all-time?”

“Current. Actively creating work in the present.”

“Easy. Katerina Molotov out of St. Petersburg.”

“Shall I assume the surname is professional for incendiary purposes?”

“Nope. I thought the same thing but it’s her real name. She is the great, great, great niece of the man who mixed the cocktail.”

“Cool. Who else?”

“Second, I would,” Lane’s eyes drifted upward in contemplation, “have to say, Sergei Andropov, I guess. Moscow native. Girl magnet. Total acrylic badass.”

“What’s the hottest story you’re working on right now?”

“Well, uh, I think the African export series I’ve been developing. But I heard we might be killing it. Is that true?”

Niles’ brow creased. He made a move for his notepad and skimmed for something to do with that topic. “No.”

“No, we’re not killing the story?”

“Not according to my notes. I have here from my meeting with Shay last week that we’re going to revisit it this week.”

“Revisit? So it might still be killed?”

“I don’t see it being killed.” Niles said.

“Okay. I hope not. I just want to mention that I’ve personally worked very hard on this series, as has my correspondent in Kenya.”

“Yes, I see that. Your correspondent over there is Zuri Ndereba, correct?”

Lane nodded.

“That’s great work, the pair of you.”

“Thank you.” A paused lingered too long, spurring Lane to manufacture content.

“She is great. Zuri, I mean.”

“I know. I’ve seen her. She is hot.”

“She’s an amazing writer,” Lane powered by the hot remark, “and she always seems to find these awesome angles that keep getting deeper over time.”

“Agreed. She is the whole package. I want to see more of her in action. Have her telling as much of the story as she can on camera. Really spice it up. Find the backbone of the crime story.”

“Actually, Mr. Crowe.”

“Niles. Please.”

“Niles. Right. I was actually thinking the piece is pretty cool as is. You know it’s got some intrigue as well as the art angle. So it fits what my readers dig while also kind of giving them this quirky tour through the Nairobi underground where former pirates are smuggling art and curating gallery openings.”

Niles cracked a smile. Lane read it as an opening.

“This guy Zuri found. They call him Faysal Uzi. He’s gone from being a Somali pirate and a gunrunner to an arbiter of taste. He’s this kind of folk hero who.”

“I read the flash. Uzi is fascinating. We’ll need a face-to-face with him, of course, so that’s what Ms. Ndereba should be working on if she’s not already.”

“Yeah, okay. But that might be.”

“Shay and I are meeting on this tomorrow. You’re more than welcome to join us.”

Niles was reading something on his monitor, no longer looking at Lane or listening to him. Waning interest detected. Lane showed himself out.

“Hold on.” Lane said to the webcam. “You’re frozen.”

“Say again?” Said the still photo of Zuri with one finger in the air signaling the onset of a rant.

She was looking paramilitary sexy in a sand and cactus desert camo tank top with her hair piled on top of her head, crownlike, held in place with hand-finished mahogany sticks. Niles would no doubt approve. Lots of visible dark skin. A “boldly afrocentric look.”

Lane wore a black G-Star knit cap someone had loaned him one cold night out on the town, after-partying with a big group of label and management people following a Tanya Morgan show. Together with the black Adidas track jacket, the effect was supposed to be slimming but instead left him looking like a longshoreman trying to be trendy.

As usual he had tidied up the area immediately surrounding his coffee table and sofa. All clutter had been temporarily relocated just outside of webcam range.

“Just.” Lane typed random keys and clicked on the touch pad. “There’s a glitch.”

“A glitch?” Said the fixed image. “Can you still hear me?”

“I can hear you. Yes.”

“But my lips aren’t moving.”


“So it’s rather like one of those satellite fed war reports where they lose half the signal and have to substitute the reporter’s head shot, yeah?”

“It’s more annoying than that.”

“Is it then? Oh well. Perhaps we should reboot?”

Lane had the cursor hovering over “Quit” when suddenly Zuri jump cut into motion again, drinking from a promotional coffee mug with the Iron Maiden logo on it. Unaware the glitch had self-corrected, Zuri appeared pure and direct, as though she were alone. She swallowed and set the mug down before arching back in her chair, busting a deep stretch and the yawning facial expression that came with it. Lane watched her until she had completed the move and returned to a composed, upright seated position.

“Lane?” Zuri asked and waited. “Are you still at least hearing me?”

She reached for the mug again and paused before sipping.

“And we’re back.” Lane said.

Realizing she was live again, Zuri took the mug from her lips too fast and spilled.

“Damn.” She said, wiping drip from her chin.

“It’s cool, Z. Just me here.”

“Yeah, but I went and added honey in this tea. Now I’m going to be sticky.”

“Want to call me back?”

Zuri shook her head. “Better not risk it. Let’s jump in. Nothing new on my end. Faysal is still MIA.”

“Really? How long has it been now?”

“Well over a week, approaching two.”

“Should we be worried?”

“I am worried.”

“You don’t seem worried.”

“When have you ever known me to seem worried, Lane?”

“Good point.”

Zuri had grown up throughout an on-again-off-again civil war with different warlords rolling through her village every few months. Both her parents had been academics and activists. Both had paid the ultimate price fighting for the justice in which they so passionately believed. Justice they hadn’t lived to see and many others had given up on ever seeing.

“Any clues as to his whereabouts?” Lane asked.

“A couple, yeah. But nothing very concrete or helpful. It’s possible he vanished on his own volition, perhaps evading apprehension.”

“Other possibilities include?”

“Murder. Kidnapping. Robbery gone sideways. Locals here certainly knew Faysal had money.”

“Damn. Okay. So the good news from the Big Apple is our new boss likes this story.”


“Bad news is he wants Faysal in front of a camera ASAP.”

“Oh. Right. Sorry, Lane. But I doubt that. Even if he comes round in a day or so I doubt he will make himself that visible. Were everything hunky dory he might consider it but he’s missing for a reason. Something is off.”

“I hear you. I’m just telling you what the boss said. Part of it anyway.”

“And the other part?”

“More on that later. The first question is what are we doing with this story if Faysal is out of the picture.”

“Don’t say out of the picture.”


“It’s so final.”

“I didn’t mean.”

“I know. Just keep in mind when you happen to be talking to people accustomed to other people disappearing on a regular basis, always leave your statements open-ended.”

“Right on. Message received.”

“Can you handle the new boss? Or is he as bad as all the chatter online suggests?”

“I don’t know. Shay says he’s a pragmatist. I can see that. Corporate tycoon types, especially ones who inherit their power, tend to get blown up online. So who knows. He actually seems okay aside from firing Hank.”

“I don’t think he fired, Hank.”

“He did, Zuri. It’s a known fact with a press release and everything.”

“So now press releases are fact based? You know better than that.”

“I know, but, this is happening right in front of us.”

“Or so it appears. I say Hank quit because he refused to be second in command and Niles fattened up his package in exchange for concessions on the official story. This way, Niles looks like a strong, decisive asshole instead of a sniveling corporate parasite alienating real journalists.”

Lane took a second. “Okay. Good theory.”

“Anyway, what are you going to say to Niles? You’re meeting with him tomorrow yeah?”

“How did you know?”

“Easy guess. He wanted you to speak with me and update him, yeah?”

“You got it. I’ll tell him Faysal is still missing. That’s that. Even if we had him he might not sit for an interview at this point. And I’ll do my best to pitch him on the story as is, with the twist that our charismatic protagonist is missing for potentially lurid reasons.”

“Ooh. Lurid. I like that.”

“I’ll suggest we finish the current draft and let him read it with the possibility of doing a follow-up-piece-slash-sequel when Faysal resurfaces, assuming we succeed in putting our readers in suspense, as I know you can.”

“We can.”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever put a reader in suspense.”

“But we’re writing this story together.”

“Um, I think you’re writing the story with me in sort of an advisory role, fine-tuning for American readers.”

“That’s not what I agreed to.”

“Look, it’s better this way. You’re Stevie Nicks and I’m Jimmy Iovine.”

“Stevie, huh?”


“Mm. She’s cool. For a white girl.”

“Great. So you’ll pen ‘Edge of Seventeen.’ I’ll come in and play the tambourine.”

“While eating a tangerine?”

“Ha, ha.”

Zuri was quiet.


“Sorry. Now I’ve got ‘Gold Dust Woman’ playing in my head.”

“So we’re good?”


“I’ll touch base tomorrow and let you know what Niles says.”

“You round over the weekend?”

“Um, yeah. Sure. No plans really. Why?”

“Want to schedule an off-the-record for Saturday?”

“Of course. Just say when.”

“Eight o’clock my time.” Zuri said. “There must be wine and new music.”

“Oh. There will be.”

“And Lane?”


“You were going to tell me something else before. Something about Niles.”

“Oh. Yeah. That. It can wait.”

“Just tell me now. It can’t be that bad.”

“It’s not. It’s just kind of weird. It makes me uncomfortable and it might make you uncomfortable which will make me more uncomfortable.”

“Unless Niles wants me to go undercover in a trafficking ring I think we’re good.”

“No, no. He has a thing for you.”

“A thing?”

“He thinks you’re hot.”

“Are you setting us up?”

“NO!” Lane barked. “Not in any way, no way. Ick. No. He just wants to promote you on the channels, elevate your profile. Style you up and all that. He thinks you have star potential.”

“Why on Earth would any of that make you uncomfortable?”

“Oh, I was just, worried I guess, you know, about your integrity.”

“My integrity is bulletproof.”

“Of course.”

“I mean literally. Bullets have been fired at me and here’s my integrity. Entirely intact.”

“I know. That’s not what I meant I was.”

“You’re sweet, Lane. I’m fucking with you. Partly. I appreciate your looking out for my honor but you can tell Niles that unless he wants me topless in the field with a bone through my nose, I’m game for pretty much anything else.”

“You can tell him that.” Lane said. “I’m not really in the mood to be internet shamed into obscurity for the rest of my life.”

“Paraphrase as needed. If Niles wants to kick down some wardrobe money and up our production value, I am all the way in.”

“Great. I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”

“Yeah? How pleased?”

“Nope. That’s a trap. I can see the tripwire from here.”

“Will he be pleasing himself, I suppose is what I’m asking.”

“Nope. Not biting.”

“Do you think he’s in bed right now, wanking away with my profile photo full screen on his tablet?”

“Okay. That’s nice.” Lane said. “Thank you for that parting image.”

“My pleasure. And his.”


“In your version is he barefoot or wearing socks?”

Lane covered his ears. “La, la, la, la la, la.”

“I bet he wears those icky sheer black socks that rich guys wear.”

“Totally hanging up now.”


Niles and Shay were already talking when Lane walked in five minutes late as usual, making an effort in proper office attire, dark gray slacks and a bluish pattern shirt the nice lady in SoHo picked out for him, removed from dry cleaning plastic that morning. He had looked great in the mirror with no one standing next to him but there was Niles dressed like he just stepped off the pages of GQ.

And Shay in a brand new high end pantsuit. Silvery sleek with space age lines. An electric blue wig with just the right amount of makeup. When Lane first met Shay she wore her hair in a tight, spherical afro, seventies intellectual style. Since then she had switched to more practical straightened wigs but post-merger she was adding polish and bling by the day.

Lane was more out of place than ever and getting in late on the discussion in progress. Niles greeted him with punitive eyes while maintaining his verbal stride. His tacit authority was a superpower, invisible and mysterious, like the innate sense of entitlement that propels the few beyond the self-doubting many.

“I’ve studied up on Zuri Ndereba,” Niles confessed, opening a video file of one of her earlier reports, “she’s easy on the eyes but she can do more. We can get her a modest wardrobe budget. Perhaps there’s a stylist in Nairobi she could hire.”

He double-clicked Zuri’s profile link and arrowed through a photo array compiled by a third party aggregator algorithm. Zuri in London interviewing Ugandan ballerina Nadia Obote in a pub. In Madrid strolling El Retiro park with architect Carlos Fresnadillo. Back in a rural Kenyan village speaking Swahili with the tribe’s herbalist for a piece about ancient remedies still relevant in the world of modern medicine.

“You’re thinking we should raise her profile?” Shay said.

The second guest chair was piled with more files. Lane had to squeeze in on half a cushion on the love seat. He started to cross his legs and changed his mind, finally squirming into a still position with both feet on the floor and his knees completely together, trying to look comfortable.

Niles sat back from his desk, reclining in his ergonomic chair with his legs apart, consuming square footage. Big arm and hand movements claimed airspace and wafted pricey cologne at Shay and Lane.

“I think she’s a potential star.” Niles said. “She’s smart and tough and international and she’s hot.”

“I like it.” Shay said. “A gorgeous African woman out front.”

“What we need to determine in this meeting,” Niles bounced a glance off Lane, at once inclusive and corrective, “is whether or not we want to introduce her to the world with the Faysal Uzi story.”

“Wait.” Lane said. “Are we hiring Zuri away from Sasa?”

Niles gave Shay a look that said he was open to that.

“I don’t know that we’re there yet.” Shay said “I think Niles is interested in elevating the profiles of some of our in-house talent. Is that a fair statement, Niles?”

“Absolutely. We’ve got some great brilliant voices here. I want the world to know what I already know.” He turned to Lane. “There’s no reason to think our efforts to this end will in any way detract from the success of our sister papers, Lane. If that’s your concern.”

“No. Not really. I’m just curious because.”


“Because I think, you know, Sasa is really important to Zuri. I feel like she mainly works with us because it helps her paper.”

“We’re all on the same page.” Niles said. “I just want you two to figure out what we need to do to sex this story up.”

“Sex it up?” Lane said. “I thought it was pretty sexy already.”

“I’d say it has sexy potential.” Niles said. “But you need to press Zuri to dig deeper. This Faysal Uzi has more going on than we’ve heard so far.”

“Okay. But, like, what are you wanting her to find, specifically?”

Niles looked at Shay, handing it off.

“We’d like to have more anecdotal history of his career as a pirate.” Shay said. “First of all. The piece so far is a bit thin on his background.”

“I know.” Lane said. “But Zuri’s been careful and respectful. It wasn’t easy getting this guy to talk about his past. Or to talk at all. If we press him too hard, he might bounce.”

“I don’t think he will, Lane.” Niles said. “I’ve known criminal types all my life, all over the world. They love having their stories told. True, it may take someone like Mr. Uzi some time to warm up and spill his guts but he wouldn’t have come this far if he didn’t like the attention. He won’t back out. I’m confident.”

Lane was nodding. “Okay. I hear you. I’ll talk to Zuri.”

“Is that a but I hear approaching?” Niles asked.

“Not so much a but,” Lane said. “I just want to be able to tell Zuri why we need this.”

“You can tell her the piece needs more heat or it’s not running.” Niles said. “And while you’re at it tell her we want a sit-down video interview with Uzi. I want to see him and hear him. So will the audience.”

“If I tell her that she’s not going to be happy.” Lane said.

“My job isn’t making Zuri or you or anyone else happy.” Niles said. “My job is guiding the writers, reporters and editors at this paper to shape stories that capture the attention of a wide audience. Not just the hipsters in Greenpoint and Silver Lake who read your stuff. If La Carte is going to survive it’s going to be on big fat ad sales. Understood?”

Lane nodded. Reluctantly.

“What now?”

“I’m just afraid this story isn’t what you guys want it to be.” Lane said. “This was a story we thought would really appeal to the hipsters you mentioned. I don’t know that a broad audience is going to get it, no matter how many quirky criminal anecdotes we throw in.”

“So then I suggest you look for a bigger connection. A terrorism angle, for instance.”

“There’s nothing pointing to that.” Lane said with a hint of frustration bleeding through his hangover exhaustion.

“Trust me when I tell you Lane that everything in the world is intimately interconnected.” Niles said. “If a gunrunner and smuggler like Faysal Uzi hasn’t rubbed elbows with a few terrorists I will be very surprised.”

“But if he hasn’t then the story isn’t going to run in La Carte?” Lane said.

“Let me put it this way.” Niles said. “If all we’re talking about here are third world hackers smuggling cloned mobile devices in masks and statues, I’m not sure that’s news. Before we make the call either way, we need to dig deeper. Are we clear?”

“We are.” Lane said flatly, hiding resentment.


Offline, Shay pulled Lane aside for a moment of exposition in her office. Door closed. Arms crossed. Stand-sitting on the front edge of her desk.

Lane took a seat and looked up at her. Awkward, sure, but his hangover was amplifying gravity. His legs demanded a respite.

“It’s probably hard for anyone to understand, Lane, but I’m trying to keep this paper alive, in some form approximating Hank’s vision. In order to accomplish that, some concessions have to be made. Niles isn’t dumb, Lane. He knows business, particularly the media business.”

And Niles did know the media business. His mastery of the game went way beyond Shay’s understanding at the time. Neither she nor anyone outside Niles’ inner circle really understood the almost surreal extent to which Niles, via the massive trans-media network built by his father, Norman, with its roots magma-deep in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, had gone to drive La Carte to the edge of bankruptcy before swooping in to take the reigns.

Via some offshore holding companies, Niles and CNG’s COO, Gillian Gibson, had become majority shareholders in a small but aggressive Silicon Valley venture called SpiderWeb, merged it with a Delaware Inc originally named OmniSpan, subsequently shortened to OSF, cannibalizing the former startup’s technology along with several competitors in cable, internet, cellular and fiber optics.

Taking over La Carte and other papers of relative size hadn’t been part of the original plan. It was just one of the many perks that came with controlling various aspects of an industry with market shaping influence. These were things Niles had grown up learning from Norman. To him, it was second nature.

Hank’s model was already struggling to keep up with rising operating costs and shrinking ad revenue, both dynamics created by unseen market forces by the time CNG officially launched Subversive Media—a majority owned subsidiary competing directly and indirectly with La Carte and the nu-press, using sensational, conspiratorial misinformation as its audience bait. Subversive hired existing talent from radio, television and print and they invented new talent. They marketed at skate parks, rock shows, metal shows, hip hop shows, raves, cafes and campuses, getting the word out that they were exposing and deconstructing the “big lie.” Niles even managed to get Noam Chomsky to sit for a straight-faced interview. On top of everything, they charged low ad rates because they could afford it with CNG’s deep pockets and a quickly growing share of the audience flocking to their flashy, noisy, “sexy” shows.

Meanwhile, CNG lobbied Congress to further loosen intellectual property laws online, making it increasingly difficult for content owners to collect reuse fees on material they owned. Ironically, CNG would directly reverse its position and lobby in the opposite direction two years later when it was their own IP getting poached by critics, competitors, satirists and parasitic web entities.

The multifaceted, surreptitious market reshaping strategy had already tilted the playing field against indies like La Carte.

Niles didn’t go after them directly until Hank launched an investigative series probing into Subversive, exposing all its ties to CNG and other hegemonic media firms and players. Hank and Shay had interviews lined up with former employees of Subversive and CNG, talking internal politics and “business development strategies” that shed high-beams on what was really happening.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that what they’re doing is subversive,” wrote culture critic Alison Mitchell in Tao Jones, “the question is who and what is being subverted. Who is being manipulated and at what cost? Does anyone care?”

To be fair, a portion of La Carte’s market cared and pockets of academics like Mitchell cared. The majority of the western browsers, however, weren’t interested enough in La Carte’s deconstruction of Subversive to stop reading and viewing it. Public debate didn’t get much further than arguments in bars between loud, often hateful, defenders of their favorite Subversive conspiracy screamers and their more reasonable, less audible opponents criticizing the same screamers.

“Perhaps the most damaging consequence of Subversive’s market prominence is the hijacking of the left,” wrote Mitchell in a related post, “reducing ‘both sides’ of a fictitious debate to pure, self-pollinating bombast. In doing this, Subversive and its ilk are magnetizing the potentially useful energy of thoughtful dissidence and wasting it like electricity running all night in an empty office tower.”

In her book, Duh Mock-racy: The Erasure Of The Left, Mitchell goes further into it:

“If you listen to and examine the perspective espoused in every [Subversive] piece, article and segment, it’s hard to get past the conspicuous absence of any call to action. The sum of its content is a point of view that the world is completely controlled by an ultra-secret conspiracy of players with unlimited financing and access to information. Such a cabal would realistically be impervious to any individual, community or government opposition. To the would-be budding political activist on the left, content such as that provided by Subversive and its cohorts is the perfect reason to stay home, take bong hits and play video games. If you sort of want to change the world to make it a better, more compassionate and just place for all living creatures, a massive conglomeration of writers, editors, videographers, graphic designers, sound designers, advertisers, marketers and daft yet compelling talking heads repeating the message all day every day that you’re up against an invulnerable, all-powerful opponent may take the wind out of your sails. The glaring irony here is that Subversive is the deadliest weapon in the arsenal wielded by the powerbrokers it claims to combat, if they even exist in the manner alleged.”