by Tony Bove
Copyright © 2002, Tony Bove, All Rights Reserved.


15: Sniper at the Schmooze Fest



The day started simply, like any day in Las Vegas when a tradeshow adds 200,000 extra visitors. The Bill clone, whose real name was Mark D'Angelo, sat at the counter, alone, at the Blueberry Hill Pancake House on Maryland Ave., just a few minutes away from the largest tradeshow in the USA. Internet Vegas presented a perfect target for those who might want to distrupt the entire industry, offering the highest concentration of rich entrepreneurs that you could ever find on the planet at any one time.

A limousine was out on the curb, waiting to whisk the Bill clone from his breakfast to the loading dock backstage, where his employer would be just finishing his keynote speech. The switch would be made backstage, right after the morning keynote. Mr. Bill Gittelson, America's richest man and chairman of Aggregate Networks, the largest company on the planet, would step off the podium into the gray flannel womb of his entourage of mostly bodyguards. The entourage would then move in unison to the back of the stage and then behind the curtain, where the switch would be made: Mark would replace Bill Gittelson as his clone.

Gittelson had good reason to employ a clone. He was America's richest target. Besides, just being famous was enough to get you killed, possibly for no other reason than the fact that you were famous. Even before terrorists started a campaign to assassinate billionaires, Bill Gittelson knew, prescient as he was about many things, that he would need a clone, at least for travel.

No one really knew, least of all Mark D'Angelo, where the bullets would come from. It could be a terrorist assassin. It could be a disgruntled employee denied a piece of the stock option pie or banished to an irrelevant project. It could be the founder of a company put out of business by the Aggregate Networks marketing juggernaut. It could even be one of the very few employees that were actually fired from Aggregate. They did not rule out the out-of-the-ordinary, one-of-a-kind crazy person with a gun, so commonly found in America. But the chances were very high that if any kind of attempt were made on Bill Gittelson, it would not really involve Bill at all, but his clone.

This didn't seem to bother Mark D'Angelo, the Bill clone, who was now enjoying a peaceful breakfast. Mal Contour sat at the counter just a few feet away, watching him, but Mark didn't notice, and neither did the security force that accompanied Mark on his personal time, largely because Contour was not on their list of journalists to watch out for.

The Bill clone could stop looking like Bill Gittelson anytime he wanted, first by dropping all the impersonated mannerisms and styles of moving, and second by donning a fake mustache. As the Bill clone, he was capable of all kinds of Bill Gittelson impersonations, from simple walks down corridors to a waiting limo, to trademark Gittelson gestures from behind tinted windows. He walked, talked, and looked exactly like Bill Gittelson -- no plastic surgery had been required. The Bill clone took pride in his acting skills, and Gittelson's chief aide, a slightly-built effeminate man named Barry, had once put in a report to his boss that the man's own facial characteristics seemed to disappear, or to actually morph at will, into Bill Gittelson's face.

No one knew about the Bill clone except those who had a need to know -- Barry, Bill himself, Bill Gittelson's wife, and a few of the bodyguards. There had been other Bill clones, but Mark had turned out to be the best choice, and he especially impressed Bill's wife. Mark's first code name was Clone 1.01b, as in the "beta" version of the first clone's first revision. Technically, this meant that he was not formally ready for public use, but could be field-tested. Eventually he became Clone 1.01, available for public use, and stayed that way for a while. He was so good at being the Bill clone that he grew to enjoy the mystery of leading a double life.

He finished his bacon and eggs with enthusiasm. A lot of people work a day job, like it's some kind of act, and then do something else in their spare time. In his case, he worked and lived as a real-life avatar of a famous human being. His spare time was his own and well funded, but he never knew where he would get personal time, as he traveled on demand. He had many of the perks of a corporate credit card user, save one: he couldn't make or change any of the travel arrangements. The compensation, besides a hefty salary, included use of the credit card at any time, as it had a fake name -- Larry McNealy -- with a photo showing Mark D¹Angelo with a mustache, and Mark's version of the Larry McNealy signature. They had even given him a passport for Larry McNealy; it was hinted that they had a complete identity set up, even with a birth certificate and social security number, in case it was needed. Mark would use the credit card freely and offer explanations at the end of the month, but the bills were never too high for anyone to notice. This was how he kept his bar stocked at home -- buying liquor at duty-free airports on the corporate credit card.

Contour watched the man eat, and he knew it, just knew it, this was either Bill Gittelson himself, or a look-alike employed to be Bill Gittelson, as Barcode had suggested. He didn't know how this could tie into the Rob Smolder affair, or the Webomber, or the rumored event about to occur out in the desert, but he was sure that Marker from Fizz magazine was chasing the same story. Typical, wasn't it, that he could beat Marker so easily, simply because he was the kind of guy that would go to a diner like this, while Marker ate steak in his hotel. And why would Fizz put its key man in the field for something as mundane as a story about Gittelson himself?

Contour sighed, weary of chasing the story. It seemed to go everywhere, and he was getting older, huffing and puffing through the maze of clues.

One moment's face,One moment's final fall from grace-- Procul Harum, "Wreck of the Hesperus" (Matthew Fisher/Keith Reid)

It really unnerved Contour to hear Sixties rock music, especially obscure psychedelic rock, blending in with the pop songs and elevator tunes. But that day, it was like the music of the Sixties was following him everywhere he went, which was mostly on the Bill clone's trail, shadowing him throughout the day. This high-tech industry was hard on people. There were rewards, such as money, fame, and power, but they were joyless. There was no sex. The richest people partied the least. The worst example was this clone's boss, the most powerful human being in the industry, a man who could certainly afford to take a lot of time off; a man who did nothing else but work.

The restaurant interrupted its sound track to air a report from the AM news-radio station, and the waitresses stopped to listen. At the World Series in Los Angeles a shot had been heard, and billionaire Angmar Sadraju, a huge baseball fan and cofounder of two of Silicon Valley's most enterprising startups, slumped in his deluxe box seat, dead from a sniper's bullet. Within a few minutes, credit for the assassination had been claimed. It was the third assassination in so many months for the group known as SWLABR. No reason was given other than the fact that the target had amassed billions in personal wealth. The group's charter was to close the gap between the haves and have-nots of this world, to rearrange the financial landscape to benefit the poor. Somehow, killing billionaires was supposed to help advance this cause.

Almost immediately, the Bill clone was on the move, and Contour hastened to get his check and pay it. The Bill clone's limo was off and in traffic by the time Contour got to his car. Fortunately for Contour, Vegas' legendary traffic jam down Desert Inn Road was in full force. He regained his target by the time they reached the back entrance to the Las Vegas Convention Center.

* * *

After the keynote speech, the real Bill Gittelson shed his trademark Cardigan sweater for a leather jacket, and the Bill clone put on his sweater. The limo was waiting right outside at the service entrance. While the real Bill Gittelson took a service elevator with three associates to the penthouse suite at that hotel (registered in the pseudonym of a rumor columnist for one of the trade magazines), the Bill clone strolled with a phalanx of bodyguards out through the service entrance and into the limo. This moment was perhaps the most dangerous part of the clone's job, the likeliest time for an assassination attempt.

To make matters worse, there was no alcohol in the limo's bar to help calm the Bill clone's nerves after the adrenaline rush, and he wasn't allowed to smoke while playing the role. This was Las Vegas, and he knew it would take more than an hour to go the short distance from the Hilton to the Desert Inn, all in dense traffic.

"Let's walk," he said to the first bodyguard next to him in the back of the limo as it sat in traffic on Paradise. He got nothing but the usual stony look from the bodyguard. Oh well... he reached for the portable CD player on the limo seat, rummaged through the discs, picked one, and sat back to listen.

We are spirits

In the material world...

-- Police, "Spirits in the Material World" (Sting)

When the Bill clone finally reached his suite at the Desert Inn, which happened to be the final home of America's first billionaire, famed recluse Howard Hughes, he was left alone by the bodyguards, who had been given the night off. After ditching the sweater for a blue blazer, the Bill clone put on the fake mustache, and headed out to the bar. He was ready for a night with the Larry McNealy credit card.

Safe, unchallenged, and alone, Mark D¹Angelo, posing as the mythical Larry McNealy, could finally enjoy his cigarette and bourbon. The bar was loaded with show attendees, many still wearing their badges. A group on the left were fat, lonesome career salesmen partying together, their guts spilling out over their belts, ties undone; slovenly beasts slurping happiness in the womb-red warmth of the hotel casino bar. The real mavericks of the industry, the interesting people, the inventors, and the rich, were off somewhere else. The socially active ones were at private parties, while the introverts were asleep or eating room-service dinners. The public dancing extravaganzas were for the "booth people" who worked at the exhibits. The really good parties required some initial schmoozing at a booth to get an invitation. Some spent their entire time at the show going from one booth to another collecting invitations. Then they would go to one or more of the beer-soaked decoy parties, where the action was focused on scoring booth bunnies from AdultDex. The decoy parties were set up to divert the crowds from the inner-sanctum parties, which were mostly boring, the talk mostly about technology, and the refreshments mostly wine and cheese.

Mark was not interested in parties, and since he was not a gambler, he didn't see any point in being in Vegas, other than to get laid. Of course he was here to do his job for Aggregate as the Bill clone, and his secret job for Peter Moaning. Mark was the Aggregate insider that would insert the first hook that would enable the rest of the MLF operation. He would do this during the presentation at the press conference the next day, in which he was scheduled to perform for Bill Gittelson, who'd be back at home by then. The presentation required a special Internet connection, and he'd already prepared the insertion routine, so that it would take only a single click of the mouse. For that, he would get a cool $1 million in a foreign bank account.

With that kind of money coming to him, he could afford some of those legendary Vegas hookers, the ones who are so beautiful that they can play this game in the Capital of the Uptight, a county and city government as intensely anti-prostitution as you could find anywhere. It is routine for upscale men to be chauffeured to the next county for a taste of the legal brothels, but if you want a really good-looking woman, like the one in the movie Leaving Las Vegas, you have to hit the most expensive bars of the largest casinos.

But this bar seemed dead, as far as illicit sex was concerned. Even worse, one of these tradeshow lemmings wanted to talk to him. He was surprised that the man, fortyish, wearing a stylish blue blazer, came right over and introduced himself.

"You look familiar," he started, smiling broadly. He was still wearing his Press badge. "Hi. I'm Howard Marker, I write for Fizz." He was referring to Fizz magazine, of course, which his badge spelled out. He held out his hand, and Mark turned toward him, put down his cigarette, and shook it. Marker pressed on. "I'd swear you look like Bill Gittelson, if you got rid of that mustache."

"Nope," the Bill clone said, perhaps too hastily, but without giving Marker his name.

Marker looked him over carefully. This assignment, handed down by Jill Metrose, was the most important of his career. His fellow journalists usually form a party all their own, or migrate from party to party until they find what they think is the right one. They don't hang out in dull hotel bars like this one, and Marker knew he had a scoop. But if this was the real Bill Gittelson, Marker had to pose as a technical journalist, and that would mean trouble. He always felt vulnerable in the tradeshow journalist pack. These were technical people who wrote about speeds and feeds. Most of them were underpaid and overworked, and the power to draw attention and criticize without fear was the only real compensation, along with invitations to the best parties. He wished someone like Tinker were here, especially Tinker, who really knew how to talk like a tech journalist. But he had to try something; Metrose was convinced that Gittelson employed a double.

"And of course, Bill Gittelson doesn't smoke," said Marker, trying to sound innocent.

"Not tonight," said the Bill clone, hoping his tone was not too ominous.

Marker's anxiety was torqued, but he continued. "So, you get mistaken for Bill often?"

"Nope," the clone said, but was not very convincing. So he added, "Wouldn't mind it, though. World's richest guy?"

"Just America's," said Marker, settling down. "There's still a sultan somewhere who has more." The bartender was waiting, so Marker ordered a beer. Mark, the clone, made no move to isolate his cigarette smoke, wondering if it would drive the journalist away.

"So what would you do with all that money?" Marker asked, jokingly.

Mark, the Bill clone, realized that Marker thought he was talking to the real Bill Gittelson. The Bill clone decided to go along with the charade. The clone answered with the usual Bill Gittelson smirk. "For starters, I'd give more to charities," he said. "I heard that Gittelson is a stingy bastard, that he gives away only one-tenth of one percent of his net worth, or whatever," he lathered it on with the trademark Bill Gittelson grin.

Marker was beside himself, confused, and irritated by this confusion, still trying to unravel this knot of mystery. Finally he stopped looking around and looked intently at his subject. He was convinced he was looking at Bill Gittelson, in disguise, but decided that the best thing would be to go along with the charade. "So which charities would you -- I mean, if you were Bill -- which charities would you give to?"

"Well," the clone said, warming up to the subject, "first I would try to get rid of those awful commercials about starving children. Just write a check to buy food and get them to set up proper farms to be self-sufficient."

"That sounds good," said Marker. "Of course, that kind of aid could end up in the hands of cattle barons and farming corporations that are destroying the rain forests."

"Well, I guess I would have to make sure the money fell into the right hands," the clone added hastily.

"OK, well, go on then."

"Second, I'd write a check to help create shelter for all the homeless in America." Then, to add icing to the cake, he executed a perfect Bill Gittelson push of the eyeglasses back up the nose. And, for special effect, twitched the fake mustache.

"Hmmm," Marker paused, again looking intently at this person who look so much like Bill Gittelson that it had to be him. "So you're trying to find out what charities are appropriate," he said at last. "You don't really know, do you?"

It was an odd question to ask Bill Gittelson. Marker's look suggested that he hoped Gittelson wouldn't blacklist him from future Aggregate junkets.

It was an odd question for the Bill clone to answer. But Mark took the plunge. He had nothing to lose. His life had been uneventful. So many people in the world wonder, what is it like to be Gittelson? He knew something about what it is like, and he also knew the real Gittelson. The real Bill Gittelson sends his clone out to foreign countries on safari or cruise ship, with celebrities and the powerful, while he stays in Seattle and goes to work at six in the morning. What Gittelson really likes to do is make money. Not the green kind you use to buy things like drinks and prostitutes, but the purely abstract kind locked up in stocks and bonds. The numbers themselves -- that's what he loves. The ratios. The percent that goes directly to him. He has no sex life to speak of, other than his pretty, fiercely independent wife. He's boring. Most successful people are.

But, the clone thought, what would I do with 60 billion dollars? Or is it 80? The other day Aggregate's stock went up by a few points, and Gittelson earned another 1.2 billion dollars. In one day. There are small countries that produce less than that in a year. Gittelson could probably give every man, woman, and child in America a petty amount of cash, say $5,000, and still have plenty for his family to live on for the rest of their lives. He most certainly could fund the entire library system of the planet. Just one day's earnings could fund the next stadium in your city. Certainly, the next time you walk into an ice cream store, you might think about what it would be like to buy the place, just so that you could get that ice cream a little faster, with more toppings, and from a more friendly cashier person… whatever.

But Mark, the Bill clone, knew that being rich was not like any of that. Yes, you could buy the airline that's making you wait for hours before the plane takes off. Yes, you could finance the building of an expressway to get you to your office more quickly. You could even turn your home into the equivalent of Graceland. But that wasn't what it was like. And he could not explain it to someone like Howard Marker, even though Marker had experienced a meeting of the Assholes Club. Because when you make that much money in one day, or even one year, you join a special club all your own.

So the Bill clone sat quietly, thinking about Marker's question, and thinking about his past, growing up in a working class neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey. Mark's third-generation Italian-American father was a butcher. Mark grew up surrounded by meat, bones, blood, large knives, and the smell of groceries in freezers. All his life he associated blood with work -- work he didn't want to ever have to do. Mark wanted to be an artist. Unfortunately, most of his renditions of human beings resembled hanging torsos of cattle, but with no blood dripping from them.

He followed the personal computer revolution out to California, and went to the early Homebrew Computer Club meetings at Stanford, on the advice of someone who called himself Tinker down at Peet's Coffee in Menlo Park, that the latest graphics technology would be first discussed there. This is where Mark first saw Bill Gittelson. At that time, with Mark's long hair and flowing beard, no one suspected that Mark looked like Gittelson, except that they were the same size, same color hair, and wore nearly the same glasses.

Gittelson was a simpler man then, leading the uncomplicated life of an entrepreneur. Mark remembered a speech Gittelson made to the Club on that first day he met him, imploring its members not to indiscriminately copy the software that Gittelson's company had so painstakingly produced, because he needed the money desperately to keep his new company going. Back then, people had absolute faith in Bill Gittelson. He seemed so confident. He could argue thoughtfully with anyone on the merits of different operating systems. He looked just like the other nerds in the audience. Compared to the cofounder of Planet Computer, who at the time was noted for his programming skills, wild haircut, and huckster personality, Bill Gittelson was an everyday, honest, hardworking businessman, nothing more.

Over a decade later, Mark landed a job at Parthenon, digitally retouching works of art in high resolution. Parthenon was the company Bill Gittelson founded to license vast libraries of art for future digital delivery. Mark imagined the place was something like the Philadelphia Art Museum, covered in marble and populated by lots of smug, meticulously neat librarians. He found instead a building shaped like a giant cubicle and filled with mostly cubicles of flannel-shirted, bearded nerds in jeans. Most of them were spending nearly all their time worrying about how to "port" digital versions of major works of art from one encoding format to another.

He remembered years of boredom, of unceasing rain and cloudiness that would turn everything outside into the color and consistency of porridge. There really wasn't much else to do in Seattle except drink coffee and work, unless you were into taking heroin and leaning against lampposts with other members of the grunge rock scene. The record companies had already scooped up the best groups in this scene before Mark had arrived. Courtney Love was already a movie star; Kurt Cobain was already dead.

When Mark showed up for work the first day, everybody thought he really was Bill Gittelson, and word must have reached Bill. He spent only a week at Parthenon getting oriented, and then Barry came for him. His pay was doubled, and he was promised a lot of free time, in return for becoming the Bill clone. During the weeks when Bill Gittelson would not be traveling, just hanging out in his office, Mark would be given assignments to write "dummy text" for the prototypes of various Web content projects. With a background in technical writing, he had no problem coming up with "dummy text" that was convincing as editorial content for prototypes that would be shown to executives around the world. But it was still "dummy text" with no real significance, a clone of the real thing -- a man of no real substance.

But now, if he had a chance to change that, he would. Moaning and the MLF had just provided the key to his escape.

This journalist Marker was so confident, so smug in his belief in the objectivity of his own eyes, that the Bill clone couldn't resist pretending, for the first time in his life, to be the real Bill Gittelson on his own time. The act that started it all was a simple, well-executed Gittelson smirk, followed by the usual push of his eyeglasses to keep them from falling down his nose. Then he bobbed forward and backward a bit on his barstool.

That was enough. That was all he needed to do to become the most recognized philanthropist of the information age, capable of feeding millions of starving babies and sheltering the homeless.

Journalist Marker was still making his investigation. "So," Marker asked, hesitatingly, "So what do you think of the show?" It was clear that he was now hooked, and that he thought he was talking to the real Bill Gittelson.

"Oh, it's a good show," the clone said. "Lots of interesting hand-held devices, cool software. I like the emphasis on the Internet as a platform, and Open Source as a standard."

With that remark, the clone had dropped a bombshell. Marker was perplexed, to say the least. Never before had Aggregate Networks' chief executive endorsed a standard his company couldn't control, that in fact his company was preparing to fight.

So the clone gave him another smirk. "And once again, Aggregate Networks will take advantage of all its momentum," he said, again pushing up his eyeglasses.

It was perhaps this final act that brought Marker to attention. He was now convinced that Bill Gittelson was playing with him, warming up to him, perhaps even using him for this evening of cruising Vegas in disguise. And Marker had Bill Gittelson all to himself, no need to jostle for position, shoving competing reporters out of the way.

He was so anxious about his dumb luck that he didn't notice the reporter from the Vegas newspaper, who had taken a seat directly across the bar and was now using a miniature digital camera to snap a few stills of the close encounter.

Marker had steered the conversation toward how deals are made in the industry. "Don't you think deals are made right here in Las Vegas that couldn't be made in any other place?"

"Not really," the clone replied, adding a false aura of authority, for he had never actually done any high-tech deal anywhere, let alone Vegas. "Deals are made mostly in private, but they are reaffirmed in public, at the parties and so forth." Again, he shamelessly applied the Bill Gittelson smirk.

"You mean, mostly to plant press rumors or otherwise apply spin control," replied Marker.

"Yes," the clone answered. Then, of course, he bobbed a little, and pushed his eyeglasses once again. It was enough.

"So, are you going to any parties tonight?" asked Marker.

"I'm not sure," replied the clone after some hesitation.

Marker pulled out all the invites to parties that he¹d stashed in his blue blazer, and spread them out on the bar. In the mess of ecstatic exhortations, glamorous graphics, and elegant refined engraved invitations, the Bill clone saw one simple invitation in black and white, with a top hat and cane. It was an invitation to a late night party at one of the suites right there at the Desert Inn, hosted by one of the most famous computer journalists, John Qwerty.

"If anything, I'll go to the Qwerty party," the clone said to Marker.

"Yes, of course," replied Marker. "I've known John for a long time. I used to write for his magazine. Everybody who's really important will end up at that party some time tonight."

Until that moment the clone had no intention of following through with the charade. He could see no reason to. If he wanted to have a good time in Vegas, he could just use the corporate credit card and make up some explanation a month from now. But when Marker described the party as the most important one at the show, he gave it some thought. He knew the real Bill Gittelson wouldn't be going. And he thought about all those pretty public relations women who worked for Aggregate. They would all think he was Bill, of course. He could walk off with one without having to use the corporate credit card, without having to make up a story. Why not?

So Mark took the plunge. He stood up, shook Marker's hand. "I'm gonna leave now, but I'll meet you at that party, out in front, about 10. OK?"

"Sure!" replied Marker exuberantly, still shaking his hand. At that moment, across the bar, the reporter's digital camera grabbed a still image that he thought would make his career. Bill Gittelson in a mustache, in disguise! Cruising the Las Vegas bars! With a famous journalist undercover!

* * *

Meanwhile, Bill Gittelson -- the real Bill Gittelson -- had been pacing the corridor between the two mammoth suites at the top of the Hilton, muttering to himself. Bill was in a foul mood, waiting for an old-fashioned fax from Moscow. Using unencrypted fax for an agreement is just asking for leaks, and their Internet connections were too insecure for email.

In a rare moment of self-reflection, Bill stared out at the brilliant glitzy lights of nighttime Las Vegas. From the top of the Hilton, he had a 180-degree view of the Strip, from the profoundly deep blue MGM Grand Hotel, the world's largest, on up past the sleek black pyramid with the bright white light shooting up to the heavens, the giant castle, the miniature replica of the New York skyline, the pink flamingos, on up to the aquamarine elegance of Caesar's Palace.

He probably was not thinking what other mere mortal human beings would be thinking if they were suddenly worth $80 billion or so, such as, how many of these hotels could I buy right now? Which one is Park Place? Which one Boardwalk? If I buy all the hotels, would I win the game of life? No, he was not thinking anything like that. Who knows what he thought? Certainly not Barry, watching from the darkened bedroom attached to the corridor. Barry remembered the days when Bill could romp around Las Vegas like the big shot he was, unafraid, unescorted. Back in the early Eighties, Las Vegas was a huge oyster containing many pearls. The celebrities, the shows, the girls, the impulsive gambling... All past now.

Bill was in town alone that night, wife back home tending to their new daughter. As was his custom, he kicked back with a movie on the tube and a room service dinner, surrounded by technical journals and trade magazines, a prototype tablet PC at the ready in case he really wanted to answer any of the hundreds of emails he'd received that day. Bill loathed socializing, even at his level -- the level of CEOs, diplomats, politicians, famous novelists, Hollywood stars. He had nothing to say to any of them. These high-level people were either inarticulate in social settings or simply uninteresting. Instead, he caught up on badly needed rest and relaxation, and would catch the first flight back to Seattle at 6 a.m. He had a company to run.

* * *

Outside in the chilly night air, Howard Marker waited for what he thought was Bill Gittelson in a not-so-clever disguise, to show up as promised. This time Marker had armed his jacket with a digital voice recorder and a miniature digital camera, and put his trusty reporter's notebook into his back pocket.

Ten minutes late, the Bill clone strolled up the long parkway behind the Desert Inn casino, smoking a cigarette, wearing the mustache. No one paid any attention. Marker saw him coming, and stood there waiting, amazed that Bill Gittelson could nonchalantly walk up the parkway like that; the man could easily buy the swank hotel.

As the clone approached Marker, dropped and stepped on the cigarette, and pulled off the fake mustache. They walked in together; up the elevator, and into the suite. People immediately recognized him as Bill Gittelson, not a question about it. The crowd parted as they entered, showing a path to another room. Many glamorous people, skilled at the art of socializing, lined this path looking ready to pounce on the billionaire icon. The atmosphere was of controlled pandemonium, like a violin drawing a long high note, highlighting the tension. Marker led him down this path to the back bedroom, through the industry's richest strata to the top of the class, a place Marker had never been before: the back room with the ultra VIPs.

Inside the VIP room, the party was quieter, and ambience more like affluent acceptance. The guests were playing a game popular with VIPs, called "Shakedown Street". It's a party game similar in form to "The Prince of Wales" (with the lyrics replaced by "Nothing shakin' on Shakedown Street / Used to be the heart of town / Don't tell me this town ain't got no heart / Just gotta poke around.").

When the bottle of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay points to you (with the words "just gotta poke around"), you're supposed to answer, "not at me."

Everyone politely shouts, "Then who?" And you are supposed to name a company most likely to go belly up by the end of the year. Participants then place virtual bets, such as sponsoring a round of golf or an evening at a famous restaurant, to be called at the next big conference in Palm Springs in January.

The Bill clone sat next to someone Marker knew -- a prominent venture capitalist. There were, in the room, at least several high-level executives of companies that Aggregate had threatened to sue. The clone tried to ignore everyone, including the attractive, blonde ex-programmer turned venture capitalist that the real Bill Gittelson had dated long ago, before meeting his wife. Marker saw her smiling at Bill from across the room. Marker had read somewhere that she and Bill used to make love in a bed littered with software manuals. Right next to her was Trudi Goldstein, the doyenne of the digerati, the consultant to Wall Street, eyeing Marker suspiciously, looking a little bit too closely at them.

Then it dawned on Marker. Was this the impersonator Jill Metrose so fervently believed in? She had sent Marker to Vegas to watch Bill Gittelson, to watch his every move. Was this why? And now… had he unwittingly brought the impersonator to the VIP party? He looked at this version of Bill, at the sudden pleading look on Bill's face, saying in effect, get me out of here. Marker thought for a moment -- which is better, a story about Bill Gittelson on the loose in disguise, or a story about a Bill impersonator fooling a party of VIPs?

The party of VIPs grew even quieter as philanthropist Randall Pomposti, the financial wizard behind Fizz and other ventures, entered the room. He was looking for Gittelson, as they would be sharing the podium the next day at the Aggregate press conference to announce a new charity venture after Bill Gittelson's presentation.

Marker froze when he saw Pomposti. He was a tall, dark, intense-looking, extremely confident man in a dapper olive suit. "Howard," Pomposti said in a whisper to Marker, "introduce me to your friend."

So Marker introduced the man he thought was a Bill impersonator to Pomposti, who assumed the man was the real Bill Gittelson.

"Pleased to meet you again," Randall Pomposti greeted Bill with an oily handshake. "We should talk a little about tomorrow's press conference." Within a microsecond, Pomposti's business card was in the clone's hand.

The Bill clone did the Japanese thing: he looked down at the card, then held it with both hands, studying it for a moment. Then he looked up, straightened up, and bobbed his head forward and back. Pomposti reciprocated. Everyone in the room was watching. The game was partially suspended for a moment.

The Bill clone had been trained to handle such moments in public. He was supposed to smile, avert his eyes, and amble off slowly, bobbing at whatever the person says, but not responding. He started this maneuver, but Marker grabbed his arm.

"Can we talk to Randall about what we talked about before?" Marker asked him. "He could be helpful."

"Sure," the clone replied, bobbing, smiling. So Marker led them both off to the empty balcony overlooking the Desert Inn pool with the magnificent skyline of Vegas behind it, leaving the VIP room nearly silent with anticipation.

Marker did most of the talking. He talked to Pomposti about Bill Gittelson's need for a more comprehensive announcement that would be more specific about how the charity money would be spent. Of course, the Bill clone kept bobbing and smirking, trying to figure out how to get out of there. A casual remark at a hotel bar about charities, and now this!

Pomposti launched into a proposal for a foundation that would be jointly sponsored by Gittelson and Fizz magazine, demonstrating his prowess for strong-arming favors from the rich and powerful. The foundation would provide funds to developing countries to improve their libraries, data management facilities, and law enforcement agencies. Pomposti was quite convinced that this plan would offer benefits to everyone involved with it.

The Bill clone kept nodding, bobbing, agreeing. Pomposti was quite ready to get started on the plan, and of course the nods meant yes. So Randall Pomposti went back into the VIP room, the inner sanctum of the digital gliterati, and announced the plan to everyone. While he told everyone to keep it confidential, at least three trade magazine publishers heard his remarks and made plans for stories.

Out on the balcony, Marker took a hard look at the man who would be Bill Gittelson. "You know, if you are an impersonator, your story would be worth a lot of money, and I'm the guy to talk to about that."

The Bill clone looked away, at the Vegas skyline. He smiled. "First, get me away from these people, and second, get me one of those cute PR girls for the night. Then we can talk."

They left the inner sanctum, averting their eyes as best they could, heading toward the door, which was unfortunately blocked at that moment by the ebullient Joe Balboa, number two man at Aggregate. Balboa steamed through the room, shooting off wise cracks at friends and foes, making sure to say hello to all the important journalists, on his way to greet the pair.

"Hey boss, what's up," he said to the Bill clone, looking around the room in his usual hectic style. "Haven't seen you out and about for a while," he said, looking furtively at Marker and then back around the room.

The clone's blank, slightly drunk expression seemed to cover him for the moment. "I came with him," he slurred back, then started off by himself toward the door. Balboa shot a hostile look at Marker, who immediately followed the clone. Neither Marker nor the clone knew whether Balboa was even aware that Bill used a clone, but since he had a reputation for knowing almost everything in the known universe, they didn't put it past him. Marker and the Bill clone reached the relative safety of the hallway, and Marker stopped to talk to an attractive, twentysomething brown-haired woman, a PR account executive who happened, luckily, to be from Aggregate Networks' usual PR firm. She joined them, and they hurried to the elevator.

* * *

The next day dawn arrived on time and so did the Las Vegas Sun newspaper, with a front-page photo of a disguised Bill Gittelson hanging at the bar with Howard Marker. "Nerds Just Like to Have Fun" was the headline, but the story went into some detail on the VIP party and Bill Gittelson's promise to start some kind of charity foundation with Randall Pomposti and Fizz magazine.

The story also mentioned the joint Aggregate-Fizz press conference, to be held at noon that day in the main convention center auditorium. Jill Metrose was schmoozing so many freelance journalists in the press lounge that it nearly caused a minor scandal. She was never known to be so accessible, but there she was, in a flagrantly enticing bright red outfit, cajoling the newspaper press and anyone she could grab to come to this press conference. The only person she skipped was Brendan Barcode, who of course showed up anyway, with video cameras dangling from his neck, smartly attired in a grey pin stripe suit three sizes too big.

Bill Gittelson, of course, was furious. He had to postpone his trip back by at least two hours, so that he could direct some damage control in this situation. The press conference originally planned that morning about a new type of personal gadget had to be scrapped. He spent the early morning berating his hungover clone for his transgressions, then berating Barry for having hired the clone in the first place. Barry politely pointed out that he could arrange a form of punishment and retribution for Mark, as long as Mark would sign an agreement and play his Bill clone role as best as he could for the upcoming press conference.

All the Bill clone could think about was how he'd screwed things up. Now he wouldn't be using the presentation, and couldn't insert the code for Moaning and the MLF. He also couldn't get word to them.

* * *

The pressroom had a festive atmosphere, a party thriving on bad coffee and questionable Danish pastries. Columnists and reporters from staid publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal sat pensively, looking seriously at piles of press kits with their ties already loose at 10 a.m. Gadflies and freelancers gathered around the rambunctious Mal Contour, who was holding forth with various conspiracy theories, half of which were probably right, especially the one about a Bill clone. But most of them laughed in disbelief and started making up clone jokes. The main topic of debate was the ethical conundrum of fellow journalists and carpetbaggers from the mainstream media who were commanding seven-figure advances for books about the so-called "new economy" while the economy had actually reverted back to older, less glamorous attributes.

Veteran flack Jessie Doubter hovered at the entrance of the pressroom, handing out flyers and cracking jokes with other nervous young flacks in suits also pacing the outside corridor. Press conferences were scheduled for each half-hour in the rooms down the hall, but no one went to them. The working press people were preoccupied with rumor and scandal, and especially with Bill Gittelson's past charitable donations now under intense scrutiny.

Technology writers generally look for the flaws, just like mainstream journalists, but they mostly miss the contrived angle, the mainstay of mainstream TV news. Like the hook in a popular song, TV news can drive a point home with just a phrase and a shrug. Technology writers tend to take many paragraphs of wrangling and justifying before they even make their point. Jessie was explaining all this to Tinker, who wore a Computer Press Association press badge, the lowest order among freelancers who can't get any other kind of accreditation for the trade show. They were old acquaintances, having survived many tradeshow parties and press conferences with the same practiced ease and humor, the same healthy cynicism. Jess's stunning daughter, a Marilyn Monroe blonde in a low-cut very revealing red dress, was perched by the door of Jess's client's press conference, giving journalists steamy looks while handing out press kits.

"All in the family, Jess?" Tinker whispered.

Jess leered back, with that insane look of his that suggested anything and everything is OK in the eyes of commerce. "Did you see this yet?" He shoved a one-page brochure on something, Tinker didn't know what and couldn't really concentrate on it, something to do with satellite Internet access devices. "This is hot, really hot," Jess said in the same way he always said it, deadpan, like it was really nothing at all.

Tinker tried to read it standing there, but he couldn't concentrate on it. The CD from the FBI agent burned a hole in his pocket. Charlie had told him to meet him at the press conference, because something important would happen there. Peter Moaning had told Charlie that the press conference was the key to the entire event. Tinker shuffled back and forth from one foot to another, doing a sort of tension foxtrot.

"How about this?" Jess was pulling another sheet out of his jacket pocket, like someone on the street with an armful of watches for sale. "A new multimedia tool. It combines drag-and-drop assembly with streaming media types, and it's got an encryption plug-in that supports ICE. This is hot, really hot."

ICE? Must be an earlier version; they couldn't possibly… The tradeshow swirled around them, people were bumping into them, and besides, Tinker was on a mission to find Charlie. He smiled and waved the brochures, hey, see ya later Jess, stay in touch. He went into the pressroom to get a pass for the Fizz press conference.

Behind the curtain, in a cubicle reserved for VIP press meetings, Jill Metrose was struggling to control her breathing, cell phone and pager at the ready, fingers poised over laptop. As far as she knew, it was the real Bill Gittelson back there in an inner sanctum, preparing his speech. She needed final approval on the press release she was jointly releasing with Aggregate. Her story about a Bill look-alike was on hold.

Pomposti was at the podium ready for the conference. He was scrolling through his speech about the plan, dubbed SaveWorld 1.0, to set up a foundation. The hastily written charter for the foundation was somewhat incoherent, and Pomposti knew that the mainstream press would report that the entire event smelled like a publicity stunt for Fizz. No matter. The average Fizz reader, even the person on the street, would think it's a great idea.

A few minutes later, as journalists poured into the conference room and grabbed seats, a call came through on Metrose's cell phone. Joe Balboa, the number two man at Aggregate.

"Jill, thanks for taking my call," he started, with sincerity, even though it would have been unthinkable not to take his call. "Listen, as far as we are concerned here at Aggregate Networks, the release you are about to send out is OK with us. We just want to keep a lid on the specifics, you understand. We've crossed out some paragraphs; my assistant just emailed you the edited draft."

"Sure," blurted Metrose. It made sense to her. Aggregate can't disavow the plan, due to the pressure on Bill Gittelson to give more to charities. And Aggregate can't let millions in advertising and PR go to waste, which would happen if Fizz carried an editorial grudge. Bill couldn't buy Fizz outright. He couldn't be devious in any way about this. Most of all, he wouldn't want to be castigated in the mainstream media.

"We would also like to add a statement from Bill to the release," said Joe Balboa.

"Sure, go ahead," said Metrose, wondering why Bill didn't simply tell her, since he was in the back room.

"The quote is included in the draft. It reads, 'With all good intentions, I must say that in my opinion, no single human being has all the answers. I just want to put the money where it will do the most good. I hope that Fizz magazine will play a major role in deciding how it could do the most good, and I thank Randall Pomposti for volunteering to do this.' That's it, that's the entire statement."

Jill Metrose smiled. My god, she thought, how the worm turns! Aggregate just pinned Randall to the wall, garnering free publicity from Fizz for the next two years, at least. No more cover stories about how Bill is losing touch. No more critical articles about Aggregate Networks for at least two years.

She could just see the two of them, Joe and Bill, concocting this plan like two college kids in a dormitory, plotting mischief. "Y'know," she imagined Joe saying to Bill, "some high profile projects are just what we need to promote our secure servers. We could donate stuff to backward countries… and it would all be Randall's idea, not ours." Yes, indeed, to help them develop their police states, but also to consolidate Aggregate's control over the world's Internet nodes, especially China's. Not to mention chalking up all those political favors.

She was ready for the press conference. She could talk about all this raving philanthropy for the rest of the day, but somehow she would have to put aside all these other thoughts. Such as how Bill could make large, public donations of technology that locks governments and their enforcement agenices into Aggregate Networks' security systems. All in a day's work.

* * *

The press conference was packed. Brendan Barcode, right up front with his video camera on a tripod, shouted at people to clear his view. Mal Contour smirked in a corner. Tinker sat near the back, searching the backs of heads for some sign of Charlie. He thought he recognized, off to the right, the head of the FBI agent who'd talked to him the day before. Howard Marker, uncharacteristically, was up front, behind the podium with the other Fizz people.

Randall Pomposti gave his speech while the Bill clone sat nervously at a table next to the podium. The Bill clone would not be using the presentation laptop today, and therefore, he couldn't do what Moaning and the MLF was expecting him to do -- he couldn't perform the crucial code insertion into the backbone of the Internet that would enable the OtherNet after the blackout. Whatever plans they had now would not work, and the Bill clone had no way of alerting them.

Randall ended his speech with statements about each company's role in the plan. "We at Fizz magazine have donated space for Mr. Gittelson to explain his plan in a future issue, and we have offered him access to our extensive archive of information about the problems facing the world today." Then he introduced Bill Gittelson, and the Bill clone ascended to the podium to stiff, formal applause.

The Bill clone read the prepared speech. It consisted mostly of the usual platitudes one would expect to hear in a speech about philanthropy. Then he thanked the audience, giving them his boyish smile and pushing his glasses up his nose.

A dull thud suddenly pierced the room, sounding like a stack of books hitting the floor, and the podium splintered in front of the Bill clone. The rifle shot, muffled by a silencer, had just missed him. For at least a second, no one moved or uttered a word. Then the Bill clone dropped to his knees behind what was left of the podium and someone screamed. Pandemonium broke loose. The Bill clone¹s handlers grabbed him, while Pomposti grabbed a frozen Jill Metrose and dropped back behind the curtain.

* * *

The story about the assassination attempt on Bill Gittelson, and the nature of the press conference where the attempt occurred, appeared on the six o'clock news. The would-be assassin got away, and speculation focused on the organization known as SWALBR, whose charter was to assassinate billionaires.

Commentators were sympathetic and described Bill Gittelson as a ruthless, eccentric, but lovable billionaire who may have cunningly captured the leadership of the industry through monopoly power but who, at heart, simply wanted to use his money to help the world. His tics and mannerisms were savagely illuminated by editorial cartoons. Later that week his caricature would make an appearance in Doonesbury as the muddle-headed, pointy-eared, ultimate nerd named Bobby Fence. He was as ubiquitous as a Jay Leno joke, and even merited a Letterman Top Ten list, "Better ways for Bill Gittelson to save the world"…

10. Fix your software. Please (as told by Letterman's sidekick, Paul Schaffer, grinning from ear to ear).

Letterman: Paul, I thought you kept up on these things, I thought you could restore a PC with just your teeth. Doncha think, Paul, isn't that right? (I dunno, sez Paul).

9. Throw away your old, tired code and start using something new (as told by Steve Jobs, celebrity founder of Apple and Pixar).

Letterman: Paul, didn't that guy make a lot of money in the computer industry, and then lose it, and then make a lot of money in movies? What's this world coming to? (I dunno, sez Paul).

8. Buy up all the copyrights to the world's greatest art and music, and then give them back to their original owners, saying "I was only kidding." (As told by comedian Dennis Miller.)

Letterman: You know, Paul, he could be wrong. (I think you're right, sez Paul).

7. Adopt every hungry child in the world and give them a week's worth of spam and a pocket computer (as told by former presidential contender and businessman Ross Perot).

Letterman: Gosh, Paul, I sure miss that guy. Where are the real leaders when you really need them? (I dunno, sez Paul).

6. Take control of the Hilton hotel chain, and replace the Conrad Hilton biography in every night table with the Gittelson ghostwritten autobiography, The Road I Led. (As told by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator from New York and former First Lady.)

Letterman: See Paul, we do have class, don't we? I bet she has more than an autobiography hidden away in her night table. (I bet she does, snickers Paul).

5. Give billions to libraries in Seattle, whether they need it or not (as told by Tim Berners-Lee, cofounder of the World Wide Web).

Letterman: Gosh, Paul, who was that guy? (I dunno, sez Paul).

4. Get a life (as told by a very angry Robert DeNiro, who added a grunt).

Letterman: Gosh, Paul, who was that guy? And why was he so mean? (I dunno, sez Paul).

3. Buy an island off the coast of Costa Rica and begin experimenting with computer-controlled human beings (as told by Ozzy Osbourne with his family in the background screaming blipped-out obscenities).

Letterman: Paul, I think we need to talk to the producers about the standards we have for this show. I mean, in terms of market share, we are in a position to set the standards, are we not? (I agree, sez Paul).

2. Develop a sense of humor, like when pies are thrown in your face (as told by Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun, with a pie dripping down his face, adding "you jerk").

Letterman: Gosh, Paul, isn't that the guy responsible for my 401K heading south? (I dunno, sez Paul).

And the final, number one "Better way for Bill Gittelson to save the world" as told by former U.S. President George W. Bush:

1. Clone yourself and stay home.

[Band starts uptempo number as the audience applauds...]

The assassination attempt had in fact drummed up more publicity for Aggregate and Gittelson than Aggregate could have instigated with its own PR machine. Even the Webomber got into the act, dive-bombing from secrecy into Aggregate's home page, exposing damaging emails and revealing the secret of the Bill clone, although no one was ready to accept this as fact, given the lack of credibility of someone that would hack another's site. Bill Gittelson himself countered with a message that apologized for the intrusion and promised an upgrade that would beef up security against these "information terrorists," as he called them.

All of which led the Bill clone to wonder whether he'd been set up. Was Moaning for real? Did Aggregate conjure up this entire plan to test his loyalty? Or were there real assassins coming after him? Did they think it was his fault the press conference subject matter was hijacked by Fizz magazine? Did they think he did it on purpose in order to keep from doing the code insertion for the MLF? And what if the bullet had hit him? The bullet nearly demolished the podium, and it was sheer good luck that it did not hit him.

When the Bill clone emerged from his hotel in his usual disguise, he quickly ducked the bodyguards and whoever may have been following him by sneaking through the huge MGM Grand Hotel parking lot out to the alleyways and back streets to Paradise, where he caught a bus to the Hilton. In the lobby he found a pay phone and made a call to a public phone in a café in Jamaica, near Blue Mountain.

A whispery voice on the other end told him how to find Charlie O'Brien.

* * *

Charlie was on time, but he knew he had only about ten minutes to make this connection. He'd been contacted on the fringes of the press conference, before the assassination attempt, by Eric via his wireless email device and an ICE-d message, telling him to watch Gittelson and see what he does, hinting that perhaps the "Gittelson" that Charlie saw on stage was not what he seemed. Eric also told him to meet the Aggregate insider at the Hilton after the conference, and to not tell anyone, not even Tinker. He was just getting back to the conference when the shots rang out. He connected the thought that the assassin might be one of Grogan's people. Otherwise, why would Eric care about some irrational group of billionaire killers?

So Charlie told Tinker to meet him later, behind the Hilton, and they both dropped out of sight, hoping to shake any tail from Grogan. Charlie ducked into a Chinese restaurant to wait for his meeting, and Tinker snuck into a dinner show by the reunited Monkees. As in parallel universes, both had a secret to hide from the other -- Charlie's message from Eric, and Tinker's contact with the FBI.

At the appointed time the lobby of the Hilton was jammed with trade show attendees looking for ways to beat the taxi lines. Charlie stood in an obvious place, in front of the giant Buddha statue gracing the front of a Japanese restaurant, right next to the restrooms. Eric's message had said that the insider would recognize him. Five minutes passed, and then someone who looked a lot like Bill Gittelson, except with a mustache, appeared before him. "You Charlie?"

"Yes," whispered Charlie. "Eric sent you?"

"The Voice of Jamaica sent me." But before Charlie could open his mouth, the insider warned, "Don't ask." He sidled up to Charlie, facing the same direction, looking out from the Buddha at the crowd. "Someone's after me. Agents from Aggregate, or the FBI, or worse, Grogan." The name snapped Charlie to attention. The insider watched the crowd, shifting from one foot to the other. Suddenly Charlie realized that this guy did not just look like Bill Gittelson, he was either the man himself or a flat-out impersonator. His haircut, the way he walked and talked…

"The press conference we wanted to do got changed," said the insider, "and I couldn't insert the code for Moaning because I didn't get a chance to use the presentation laptop."

"That means the Event won't work?"

"That's right. And as soon as certain people find out, they'll be upset. And I think Grogan already knows, which is why…" He glanced up and down the lobby. " You have to help me get out of Vegas."

The insider watched the lobby entrance for a minute, then turned to face him, and looked him in the eye. "I've spotted someone from Aggregate security coming this way. We need a diversion. Here --" and then he ripped off his fake mustache. "Let's go."

They started off toward the conference area, the Bill clone and Charlie. Whispers flew through the crowd as heads turned, "There goes Bill Gittelson" on every mouth. A small entourage enveloped them, of people who wanted to ask Gittelson a question if they could get his attention, but mostly they kept out of his immediate space out of common decency. These were, after all, professionals in the computer industry, not a gaggle of groupies. The man had just hours ago dodged a bullet! Bill Gittelson was the hero of Internet Vegas.

As they entered the Hilton conference area, the entourage had grown to about forty people, effectively blocking the path of anyone that might be pursuing them. The Bill clone and Charlie went for the first keynote conference room and swept by the security at the door, which then blocked the forty or so followers that tried to jam in there with him.

The commotion of the Bill clone's arrival reached the speaker at the podium, and he stopped his speech to formally welcome Bill Gittelson to the session. All eyes turned to the back of the room at them. The clone bobbed furiously in trademark Gittelson fashion. People were polite and didn't interrupt the session to ask questions, but the speaker at the podium was visibly disturbed, and when he reached the Q&A point in his presentation, he offered the audience microphone to the Bill clone. "Perhaps Mr. Gittelson might have a comment or a question?"

The Bill clone walked up to the mike and stood there for a moment, lost in thought. It dawned on Charlie that this was indeed a Bill Gittelson impersonator, but employed by Gittelson. So Moaning's inside man had been a Gittelson clone! Most likely he was the one who was nearly killed by the would-be assassin. Charlie put it all together: the man was now on the outside, just like him, on the outside looking in. Trying to escape from the project, from Grogan, from the FBI, from Aggregate… from just about everybody.

The Bill clone looked up at the podium, reached for the mike, and looked exactly like the real Bill Gittelson as he spoke. "Aggregate Networks is about to announce a change in its security plans for the Internet." A hush came over the audience. "The company values personal privacy, and will soon endorse the latest ICE-based encryption software from HADES without any government-related restrictions." A gasp could be heard from a member in the back who understood what this meant. "What happens today will decide the future of the Internet itself. I want you all to know that we intend to make the Internet safe for all people of all countries."

A cheer went up, everybody started clapping. The speaker looked perplexed. He was probably thinking, what kind of ploy is this? The Bill clone politely bowed and waved goodbye and motioned to Charlie to follow as he headed out a side door.

Like an episode of the Keystone Kops, men in blue suits had found the session room but missed the Bill clone. Charlie led the Bill clone out a side entrance and right into the exhibit hall. After about thirty seconds, just standing in an aisle looking at an exhibit, the two were surrounded by admirers, detractors, question mongers, all the celebrity smitten. They formed a kind of security entourage, the best they would get under the circumstances, so the Bill clone started working the show floor with these people. Eventually Barcode and his video crew found them and completed the picture. Bill Gittelson on the exhibit floor!

At one booth the Bill clone played a flight simulator, standing next to a grade school kid. The kid asked how he could someday be as important as Bill Gittelson. The clone told him, "Just don't believe the grown-ups. There's always a back door." The kid seemed to know what he was talking about.

At another booth, a group of kids were playing a new version of Sim City. The Bill clone used the secret key combination he learned at an Aggregate cubicle party months ago. It still worked: the trick automatically added millions of dollars to the simulated city's coffers for more game playing. As he left them, Barcode showed up in time to capture the kids on camera saying "Hey! Bill Gittelson cheats!"

The Bill clone headed straight for the Aggregate Networks booth, and Charlie followed, thinking he was crazy. But with any luck, the clone told him, the real Bill Gittelson was on a flight somewhere, and none of the key people who knew about the clone would be there. Sure enough, the booth was staffed with people trained in how to deal with the inevitable moment when Bill Gittelson would show up at your demo station to put you through your paces.

The clone went up to a demo station, played the usual routine act, and slipped quietly behind the curtain with Charlie. The entourage could not follow and were forced to endure the latest Aggregate presentation, which lasted about ten minutes. That was just enough time for a PR person in the Game Development division of Aggregate to arrange a limo to pick up the Bill clone and his friend out front. A phalanx of Aggregate employees accompanied them out to the front. The Bill clone and Charlie both had to suppress their smiles at the irony of the situation; the company was so large and partially dysfunctional that its employees would be unwittingly aiding their escape from its own secret surveillance team. No one questioned anything as they left the convention center surrounded by a sea of green golf shirts, all emblazened with the Aggregate Networks logo.

* * *

Charlie and the Bill clone made it to the airport as the sun set. The Bill clone had an American Express card, and they ducked into an agency to rent a car. The Bill clone picked it out, a red Chevy convertible with white leather seats, a "red shark" -- "not to imitate but to pay homage to the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," he remarked to the desk clerk as he signed "Larry McNealy".

"What now?" Charlie asked as they sped up Paradise, the Bill clone at the wheel.

"I drop you off at the Imperial Palace. AdultDex. You'll find Peter Moaning there. I have a CD of the insertion code. I don't know if you guys can use it, because you need access to a control point on a backbone." He handed the CD to Charlie. "Eric said I would get whatever I needed, moneywise, as long as I can get away and disappear." He flashed Charlie that trademark Gittelson smile.

Charlie didn't answer, thinking that maybe this Bill clone might still report back to somebody. And he didn't want to tell Moaning about the insertion code CD or the fact that the insider had not accomplished his mission. Perhaps Grogan would tell Moaning, but Charlie thought instead that Grogan would probably just have Moaning killed, as he was even less useful than the insider, which Grogran tried to kill without hesitation.

Night fell as they drove up to the Imperial Palace Hotel, and it was surrounded by dark blue police vans and police cars. All hell was breaking loose. FBI agents had cordoned off the exits for the Imperial's convention center, and the Las Vegas bureau chief and his aides were moving up and down the aisles, collaring the manager of each exhibit. From among those collared they had identified four of the dozen suspects on their list of the owners of major porn and gambling site hosting operations. It did not matter that most of these sites were offshore. The owners were themselves on Nevada soil, and the FBI had a deal with the gaming commission.

Men in blue suits blocked the entrances to the casino and exhibit hall. If Moaning was in there, he was trapped in the porn exhibition. Charlie slipped into the hotel through the kitchen and out the back entrance. He was due to rendezvous with Tinker at the back of the Hilton, a few blocks up the Strip. Just as he reached the back parking lot, all the lights went out.

All the power in Las Vegas had suddenly been cut off.

* * *

In the eerie blackness and pandemonium, Tiffany jumped out the back exit of the Imperial Palace through the fire escape doors, with Peter Moaning, into the dark night. They followed a crowd of bimbos in skimpy outfits, running right past FBI agents in blue windbreakers, out to the street. Moaning was panting, trying to keep up. Tiffany saw her moment, and stepped sideways, into a different crowd on the sidewalk, and started off down the sidewalk, losing Moaning, who was looking straight ahead for her. She spied the red Chevy convertible idling in the traffic just past the roadblock, and she ran up.

"Please, I need a ride!"

"Hop in," said the gentleman. Tiffany crouched down in the seat as they sped off. From about 100 feet away on the sidewalk, Peter Moaning saw his blonde bombshell get into the car. He didn't notice until it was too late that two blue suits were ready to grab him from behind.

"Say, you look a lot like that guy, that billionaire," Tiffany said as the gentleman driver hit the accelerator and drove off into the blackened night, into what now seemed a ghost town version of Las Vegas.




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