The Assistants

Camille Perri

The Assistants

prologue

YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD of my former boss. And even if you haven’t heard of him, he has influenced you, I promise. Ever watched the all-day news or seen a big blockbuster summer movie? Him. Do you read the newspaper? What about one of those glossy magazines with magenta cover lines like Dirty Talk Hot Enough to Make His Boxers Combust? Him. Odds are, if you exist in the modern world, Robert owns all or a portion of the media you consume. He hovers around number thirty-five on the Forbes billionaire list. I was his assistant.

All important men have assistants.

That’s the first principle I want you to remember.

Do important women also have assistants? Yes, of course. But men rule the world. Still. That’s the second principle I want you to remember. Men still rule the world. Not because this is some feminist manifesto, but because it’s a simple fact essential to how this all started. And that’s what everyone wants to know — the reporters, the bloggers — what they all want to know is how we did it.

How Did Two Little Girls Outsmart the Most Powerful Man in New York? That was the Upworthy headline. I’m thirty years old; Emily’s twenty-eight. My five feet four inches on tippy-toes brings down the average, but Emily is a solid six foot something in heels. Not so little. What Upworthy meant was “powerless.”

A BuzzFeed story read: Modern-Day Robin Hoods Look More Like Charlie’s Angels. They Photoshopped us into swimsuits and put guns in our hands.

Gothamist dubbed our network the Secretary Sisterhood of Thieves! (Exclamation theirs.)

Rumors, all of it. Internet chatter. No one knows for sure what actually happened.

So, let me make this perfectly clear. It wasn’t stealing, really. And it was almost by accident that we discovered just how much money there was out there for the taking.

That’s the third principle I want you to remember. There is enough money.

There is so much money.

1

HERE’S HOW this whole mess started: Robert had to be in LA for a big meeting with his West Coast Titan Corporation execs and his Boeing’s engine had the gall to malfunction.

“Tina!” he yelled from inside the soundproofed glass cube of his office.

Robert isn’t a yeller by nature, but he had no other choice in order to overcome the soundproofing, forcing his voice to travel through his open office door. I knew it was my name he’d called by the tone. We each had our own tone. If it had been his deputy he’d wanted it would have been a gruff monosyllabic bark; for his senior editor it would have been a throaty holler; his executive producer called for a higher-pitched squawk. My skill at deciphering these subtleties was critical because it was my job to fetch whomever he called. When he wanted me, his voice dropped to a quieter bellow that bordered on a plea. It was a more intimate sound because with me Robert’s needs were always personal — he had an upset stomach and required TUMS, he’d forgotten a birthday and needed a last-minute gift, or he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how to upload this new software onto his iPad. Robert’s vulnerable call for me was a daily assurance that I was essential to the success of this castle of a man — a man whom half the world considered to be a monster because they could never come within earshot of understanding him.

In less than a second I was at his desk, notepad in hand. Behind me a wall of flat-screens flashed the news being broadcast by Titan and its so-called competitors. Robert had the uncanny ability to devote a small portion of his gaze to each screen simultaneously. In all he owned nine satellite television networks, one hundred seventy-five newspapers, one hundred cable channels, forty book imprints, forty television stations, and one movie studio. His total audience reached around 4.7 billion people, which came out to around three-fourths of the population of the entire globe. But the news was his baby. He was never not watching it, analyzing it, shaping it. That’s why he situated his office at Titan News headquarters, where he could keep close watch not only on his wall of flat-screens but also on his journalists. A man as powerful as Robert could have hidden himself anywhere, pulling at the strings of the world from a lounge chair in the Seychelles, unseen by his employees — but he needed to be here at the center of it all, at the hub.

Our office didn’t look like a newsroom that you’d imagine from movies or TV drama series. The floors below ours were more like that — the broadcast, print media, and digital newsrooms, each of which could have easily passed for something out of The Matrix. And there was an entire floor of flashy studios used for our nonstop news coverage and thrill-a-minute opinion shows. But our office on the fortieth floor was far less exciting, just row after row of desks and cubicles. Still, we were the brain of the whole operation, the source from which all orders trickled down. Titan’s chief editors and all of Robert’s most trusted deputies had desks on our floor so Robert could pull them into impromptus with the business leaders and celebrities he met with — and so he could foster relationships between them and the political-party representatives (yes, from both parties) who came to lobby him. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what the fortieth floor lacked in flash it made up for in influence.

Robert had his shirtsleeves rolled up and was rubbing his dark-haired head with both hands like he always did when he was upset. For a man his age, Robert had a surprisingly full, thick head of hair, which he attributed to a hearty diet of smoked meats and aged bourbon.

“I need to be on the next flight to LA,” he said. “And have them bump the seats around mine.”

Robert made requests like this as if he were ordering a pastrami on rye at the corner deli, or in his case, maybe braised brisket on a roll.

“You’re flying commercial?” I asked.

“Don’t get me started. The Boeing died and they tell me there aren’t any jets available for the rest of the afternoon. Can you believe that shit? Not one. I used to be somebody in this town, you know that?”

In the six years I’d worked for Robert, not once had he ever flown on a commercial airline. I glanced at the clock. In order for him to make the LA meeting on time, he’d have to be on a flight in the next two hours.

“And make sure they comp me,” he said.

“The airline?” What amounted to buying out half of first class on a flight that would be leaving almost immediately, Robert wanted for free. And he expected it to be done as simply as saying “hold the mustard.”

“Okay,” I said.

Robert brought his hands down from his head, placed them flat on his desk, and looked at me amiably with his big brown eyes. “Thank you,” he said.

That’s something people who haven’t met Robert can’t understand — his graciousness. They see a seventy-year-old media tycoon accused of evading every tax and law imaginable to expand his multinational domination. They see a sinister businessman accused of single-handedly making a mockery of news journalism. They see a one-percenter with a “Don’t Mess with Texas” bumper sticker on the back of his Mercedes. But actually, Robert’s a very nice man.

So I called the airline, used my executive voice, and politely explained our crisis situation.

“You do understand this will cause a great disruption to our other first-class passengers,” the phlegmy-voiced woman on the phone said. “But because Mr. Barlow is such a valued customer we’re happy to accommodate him.” She sounded like one of Marge Simpson’s chain-smoking sisters.

“Thank you,” I replied, perfectly mimicking Robert’s amiability.

All sweetness and light, Robert always said. That’s how you have to talk to people, all sweetness and light, but tough as stewed skunk.

She clicked away on her keyboard. “The total fare will come to nineteen thousand, one hundred forty-seven dollars.”

I had the urge to gasp. That was a high enough figure to make flying in a private jet sound fiscally reasonable.

“Ma’am?” I said. “I do understand this is terribly short notice and you’re going to great lengths to accommodate Mr. Barlow’s sizable request, but I was wondering if it would be possible for this fare to be complimentary.”

Silence.

“Hello?”

More silence. Then laughter, then the clearing of mucus, then finally—“You’ve got to be fucking kidding.”

“Excuse me?”

“Who does this guy think he is?”

“Ma’am,” I said again, which always made me feel slightly Southern in spite of my New York roots, and also a little bit like an asshole, “did you just curse at me? I’d like to speak to your manager immediately.”

“There is no way we’re comping Robert Barlow,” she said.

I glanced at the time and then at Robert’s desk. He’d already left for the airport, unable to even fathom that his request would be denied. Jesus, no wonder he never flew commercial if this was the treatment he got. Asking to fly for free or not, where were these people’s manners?

“Fine,” I said. “We’ll pay the fare. But as soon as I hang up this phone I’m filing a complaint with your customer service department.”

“Credit card number, please.”

I recit ...

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