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The Best Of 2008
Features


The Ark Project
By Clifford A Hui -- Contributing Author [Email This Story]

Edward Zachary Banner was lying out by his pool, enjoying a rare opportunity to soak up some sun. He took a long draught of iced tea and decided it was time to go inside and start digging through the work heíd brought home as usual. He jumped into the pool to cool down and climbed right back out. As he toweled himself dry, starting at his receding hairline, a booming voice came at him from all directions. "Edward!" He looked around his lot, spacious enough to keep his neighbors far away, but he couldnít see anyone. The voice repeated, "Edward!"

He looked up and, in a puzzled voice, responded, "What? Who is that?"

"Edward, this is The Lord."

"Yeah, right." As he continued to towel himself off, Edward kept looking around for speakers that someone might have hidden in the sparse shrubbery. "This is Adam, isnít it? Iíd recognize your voice anywhere, Adam."

"This is The Lord, Edward."

"Sure, Adam. You were the first person I met at the first ad agency I worked at. We worked there for six years together. Remember? I know you, Adam ... and I know your voice." Ed paused a moment as he continued to gaze around. Then he said, "Adam, if youíre The Lord, do something to convince me." Ed smiled a smug smile. There was a rumble of thunder. Ed looked back up into the sky. It was crystal blue and clear except for the snow that was falling. In a moment there was an inch of snow on Edís deck. He looked up at the sky again and said, "Thatís a neat trick, Adam. Howíd you do that?"

"This is The Lord, Edward. I donít do Ďneat tricks.í"

"Iím still not convinced, Adam. Iím still in advertising, too, you know. We do special effects, donít we? Do something else to convince me." Ed put down his ice tea and folded his arms. He started tapping his right foot on his flagstone patio. He heard a roll of thunder and a lightning bolt crashed into the large umbrella over one of the patio tables, causing it to burst into flames. Then rain fell directly onto the blazing umbrella and nowhere else, extinguishing the fire.

Ed looked around for a moment. A worried expression crossed his face. Then, in a subdued voice, he said, "Okay. Iím listening."

The voice intoned, "Edward, you will build an ark. It will be ..."

"An ark?" Whatever sense of awe had stirred in Ed a few moments ago was now gone. "Are you kidding? Itís been done. Nobody builds arks anymore. Next youíre going to say I need to put animals on it two by two, right?"

"Something like that."

"Thatís never going to work. The carnivores will eat the herbivores; the elephants will bury everything with their shit -- have you seen an elephant take a dump? And vampire bats? You want me on the same boat with vampire bats? Puleez. Get real. Vampire bats and me donít mix. Havenít you heard of ecology?"

"Ecology? I created ecology."

"And I suppose youíre going to tell me itís going to rain for forty days and forty nights right here in Scottsdale." Ed waved his hand towards the Arizona desert over his back fence. "Isnít that rather impossible in the desert?"

Ed heard a roll of thunder and the sound of heavy rain. He looked around his patio. He saw a few puddles from the melting snow but nothing was falling out of the sky. Then he turned and looked toward his pool. The water was rising straight up in a zillion drops, like rain in reverse. It disappeared into the sky. In a moment, Edís pool was empty.

"Okay, okay. Climate isnít an issue. But itís still sand. It soaks up water like crazy. Itíll take more than forty days and forty nights of rain to flood the place."

He heard a rushing sound and saw a torrential downpour of so many drops they were almost solid water but they fell only over Edís pool. In a moment it was full again. A faint odor of fresh chlorine wafted across his yard.

In a soft voice Ed said, "Okay. Okay. I get your point." He paused a moment and then asked, "Am I supposed to build this ark so I can ride out a flood that will eliminate sinners?"

"There is too much sinning in the world, Edward. My creation is being ruined by sin."

"I canít argue with that. But a flood is like taking the nuclear option. It destroys the good with the bad and makes the whole area uninhabitable. There are still a few good souls down here and they shouldnít be punished along with the sinners. Thatís un-American."

"Itís worked before."

"This is modern times, Lord. Each individual is held responsible for his or her own actions now. That concept was helped along, I believe, by the Protestant Reformation."

"Hmmm. The Protestant Reformation did get a few new things rolling. So you donít think a good flood would get things cleaned up?"

"Well, Lord, with all due respect, no. I think it would just cause more problems."

"Do you have a suggestion?"

"Well, letís see." Ed tossed his towel over his shoulder, rubbed his chin and started pacing back and forth. "If you could ditch the punishment part and just focus on changing behavior, maybe I can help. Thatís what advertising does and I do advertising. That means, of course, that youíll have to forgive past sins and probably a few that occur during the change-over. If you can live with that, maybe we can work together." Ed took a sip of his iced tea.

"Hmmm."

"If we can avoid mass killings, I think your creation will be a better place." Ed looked sideways up at the sky, hoping for some kind of a positive sign.

There was a long pause. Then the voice boomed again. "Do you have a plan?"

"Not right now but I can put one together that Iím sure will work." Ed resumed his pacing. "We would start out by designing a simple but eye-catching logo and put together a motto. A theme song could be an important component, too. We could play it on the radio, in elevators, in malls and stores, on cell phone rings. It could be everywhere. But the most effective approach would be a human face. We need a spokesperson, a representative, someone everybody could associate with the effort. Weíll have to decide on what kind of look weíd want: male, female, scrubbed-clean Mary-Lou-Retton type, paternal Wilfred-Brimly type, maybe even an authoritative Charlton Heston type. We might have to do some focus group studies to find out which type would be the most effective. This could be big."

Ed continued his pacing, gesturing with his glass of tea and spilling some of it on the patio. "You know, itíll have to be a long-term plan because people take a while to change their behavior. We could just focus on Arizona first to try out some approaches. Then expand to cover the rest of the country. After that we could divide the world by cultures and develop a plan for each one. But itís going to cost money."

There was a clap of thunder that made Ed jump. Realizing he had said the wrong thing, Ed quickly interjected, "Not for me, not to pay me. I wouldnít do this to make money for me. But our employees have bills to pay and families to feed and so do the employees of the companies we would be working with. It wouldnít be reasonable to expect them to work for free. Any plan would go nowhere if we couldnít pay any bills."

"And you have bills also, right?"

"Well, of course. It wouldnít be fair to the bank if I stopped paying the mortgage on this place. And I couldnít do a very good job if I had to give up the Lexus because I couldnít afford to put gas in it. Advertising is perception and I wouldnít be very convincing if I camped out in the office and begged for food, would I? And if I couldnít pay the office rent, I couldnít keep my office very long."

"Hmmm. Iíll send a representative. Lay out a plan with him and Iíll get back to you." There was a sharp clap of thunder and then everything was quiet.

Ed stood still, listening as hard as he could. There wasnít a sound. Not a bird. Not a cricket. Not the wind. Ed called out, "Lord? Lord, are you there?" There was no response.

* * *

On Monday morning, Edward Zachary Banner walked into his office at the E.Z. Banner Advertising Agency, his faint shadow of a tan accented by his baby-blue shirt. His secretary, Mary, looked up and greeted him, "Good morning, Mr. Banner. Your tan looks like itís finally starting to come along."

"Thanks, Mary. You look great this morning. But you always do." He smiled. She smiled back, her eyes crinkling behind her wire-rimmed glasses and her face framed by her silver hair that appeared to glow above her blue and gray scarf.

He stepped into his office and had just started looking over the notes he had left on his desk for himself when Mary buzzed him on the intercom.

"Thereís a Mr. Hay-sus Moses from Lord Enterprises here to see you. Heís not on your appointment calendar but he says youíre expecting him."

Ed paused a moment as he mouthed the name to himself. "Of course. Send him in."

A man wearing a white summer-weight suit and a wide smile entered. He was of olive complexion and had a simple bar type mustache. It wasnít clear to Ed if Mr. Moses came from south of the border or east of the Suez but he decided that it didnít really matter. He glanced at his feet to see if Mr. Moses was wearing sandals but he was wearing shoes to match his suit. Ed read his business card, "Jesus Moses, Business Representative, Lord Enterprises." There was no street address or telephone number for Lord Enterprises, only the Email address of jmoses@lord.com.

As Ed motioned him into a chair, he asked, "Well, Mr. Moses, what can we do for you?"

Mr. Moses smiled a wide smile showing perfect teeth. "You spoke with The Boss this weekend and our goal remains the same. We want to eliminate sin and we want you to put together a world-wide plan to do so."

Ed raised his eyebrows and eased back in his chair. "Well, we can put one together but it will take some time and  . . . "

"Make this your top priority."

Speaking slowly, Ed tried to get a grip on the size and implications of this new job. "Hmmm. A world-wide effort will require a large staff," he paused and glanced toward the ceiling, "and that requires a ... umm  . . .  a large  . . .  umm  . . .  a large retainer." He glanced towards the ceiling again and reflexively ducked his head slightly. There was no response from the ceiling or anything above it.

Mr. Moses spoke up. "Donít worry about money. We have lots of money." Mr. Moses leaned forward. "Lots." He smiled.

Ed repeated for Mr. Moses some general considerations for the project he had mentioned when he spoke to the Lord. By the time Ed mentioned the Charlton Heston-type spokesperson, Mr. Moses looked a little uncomfortable and began to squirm a little, like his underwear was too tight.

Mr. Moses asked, "Is it possible to use a more subtle approach?"

Ed paused. He got up from his desk and paced back and forth across his office with his chin on his chest. "If we donít want it to be an in-your-face approach, we can make it a below-the-radar cultural shift. Besides, the logo and personal representative can too easily be transformed into a religion." Mr. Moses said nothing. Ed continued, as though talking to himself, "Youíre right. There are already enough religions in the world. We donít need to add another one." He waved his finger in the air. "Weíll use a stealth approach to morality. People will become sin-free and not even know why."

They decided on a plan that included regular studies to monitor the effectiveness of the effort. Ed would provide reports and Mr. Moses would provide checks drawn on the local Scottsdale Bank of the Desert. They had a deal. They shook hands and Mr. Moses left.

Ed called his top people together to work out the details. He informed them that they had a contract with a client who wished to remain anonymous. There were some incredulous looks and some guffaws about a contract to promote "goodness" until Ed showed them the start-up check for one million dollars. They settled down to business. They called it the Ark Project.

Soon Ed and his E.Z. Banner Advertising Agency started the Ark Projectís campaign for consideration, decency, and responsibility. They had regular pop-up ads on the internet as well as subliminal pop-up ads. They had ads and essay articles in magazines and newspapers. They placed "thought ads" at bus stops and on buses, places where people had time to read them and think about them. And, of course, they put a wide variety of commercials on television and radio.

After six months, Ed and Mr. Moses met for a program review. Ed presented Mr. Moses with a thick report full of colored graphs that he pointed out as he talked, "Its working. You can see here that both violent and non-violent crimes are down. And one of our studies shows that even rudeness has decreased. Also, charitable giving is up by over fifty percent. The Ark Project has been successful by any measure." He stepped back and smiled a smug smile.

Mr. Moses shook his hand. "Congratulations. I sing a hundred "hosannas" to you. Your work has met our goals and is very effective even with these modest efforts." He smiled. "Now we are ready to go national."

The national campaign of the Ark Project expanded on everything Edís team had done successfully in Arizona. As before, they carefully avoided anything that hinted of religion. The Ark Project was to promote behavior, not to proselytize.

To help promote the feeling that the ads and other manifestations of the Ark project were a genuine cultural shift and not a directed effort, the role of E.Z. Banner was kept secret. Ed set up shell organizations to conduct different parts of the project and they each operated independently and without knowledge of the others. Ed Banner and only a few of his lieutenants knew the whole picture.

The various shell organizations had billboards and ads on the internet, TV, radio, and in newspapers and magazines. They created radio talk shows, arranged for celebrity endorsements, and provided motivational speakers. They introduced a cartoon show, toys at fast food restaurants, and a breakfast oat bran cereal in T-shapes and called "MORALI-Ts." They sponsored TV shows and made movies. The shell organizations established awards for charitable behavior, heroic behavior, community service, compassionate deeds, and volunteerism. The Ark Project incorporated any and every aspect of American culture that could be manipulated by money and it was spending ten million dollars each day. It was everywhere.

The E.Z. Banner Advertising Agency had shed all of its former clients, increased its staff over ten-fold, and moved into a larger building. Its shell organizations were scattered around the country and were growing in size and number. And Mr. Moses kept sending checks.

Ed was so busy that he needed a chauffeur so he could work or rest on his way to and from the office. Mary was now his personal secretary and, with her calm demeanor and concern about his personal well-being, took better care of him than his own mother ever had.

For almost two years Mr. Moses stopped by Edís office regularly to check in and offer encouragement. On the latest visit he noted, "The Boss and I are pleased. The Ark Project isnít as dramatic or as fast as a good flood but things are moving in the right direction."

"Yeah, itís slower than a flood but weíve eliminated mass killings. A good flood would have to start with mass killings so I think just starting this project put us way ahead of the game. And weíve changed the behavior of millions of people without getting any of them killed. Even Jesus, the original Jesus, didnít do that."

Mr. Moses smiled a beatific smile. "Yes. The two years youíve been working on this project have brought changes of almost biblical proportions. Itís quite impressive how influential money can be when itís properly applied. I sing a thousand "hosannas" to you. Your success is and will continue to be in the history books." He paused. "So now itís time to do something else."

Edís jaw dropped. He sputtered, "Do something else? Iím just settling in. Iím in the groove now. This is not the time to change. What do you mean Ďdo something else?í"

Mr. Moses leaned forward, looked Ed in the eyes and softly said, "Itís time to go global." He leaned back and smiled.

Edís eyes got big. He leaned back in his chair. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He had been so busy that he hadnít had time to think about global efforts since that first day of discussions. "Thatís enormous, just enormous. The obvious and nuanced cultural differences are staggering. And mass marketing doesnít exist in some places. I have to think about it."

"Think about the Ďhow,í not the Ďif.í" Mr. Moses then handed Ed a check for one hundred million dollars. "For background research and other associated expenses for the expansion. And also start-up costs." He smiled.

Ed looked at the check with all those zeros. He had never seen anything like it. His hand holding the check began to shake. He looked up at Mr. Moses.

Mr. Moses was still smiling at him. "Send me a note when you and your staff have a plan roughed out. Iíll come over and we can discuss it. We can model the new contract on the current one if you like." He got up to leave.

"Sure, sure. That would be fine. Iíll call you in a few days."

They shook hands and Mr. Moses left. Ed called his lieutenants and spent the rest of that day and all of the next with them roughing out a plan. Finally, after almost a week, they had something to discuss with Mr. Moses. Ed sent him an Email requesting a meeting the next morning. Then he went home and opened a bottle of expensive wine to celebrate the new contract and, looking longingly at his empty lounge chair by the pool, to console himself for all the work that awaited him.

* * *

In the morning when Ed approached Maryís desk, he noticed two gentlemen in business suits and short haircuts in the waiting area. One was standing behind Mary, looking over her shoulder. They both had small American flag pins on their lapels. Mary managed a "Good morning, Mr. Banner," but she looked more worried than cheerful.

The man standing by Edís office door displayed a badge and introduced himself as Agent Redd and his partner as Agent Weite. He didnít offer to shake hands. He opened Edís office door and gestured for Ed to enter. "Please, come in. Weíd like to chat with you a bit." Ed entered but Agent Weite remained outside with Mary.

Inside Edís office was another man in a business suit, short haircut, and American flag pin in his lapel. Agent Redd introduced Agent Bleu.

Ed nodded to the two of them. "Good morning, gentlemen. I hope we can make this quick. Iím expecting a visitor soon and we have lots of important business to discuss."

Agent Redd responded. "Yes. Weíve been monitoring your Email for the last few months. Weíre also looking forward to meeting Mr. Moses. Heís a hard man to find. It seems that you and your secretary are the only people whoíve actually seen him. You donít happen to know how we can find him, do you?"

Edís eyes glanced back and forth between the two agents. "Uh, no. Actually, Iíve never had to find him. I always sent an Email and he showed up here. Never failed. Except  . . . " Ed looked at the clock on his wall. "Except he seems to be a little late this morning."

"We can wait. Mind if we look around?"

Ed shrugged. "Help yourself." There was only one file cabinet and Agent Bleu started looking through it. Ed sat down at his desk.

"You donít happen to have any pictures of Mr. Moses, do you? Maybe one of the two of you shaking hands after closing a deal or something like that?"

"Nope."

"Contracts as large as yours and no pictures?" Agent Redd, with a stern expression, looked closely at Edís face.

"Iím not much on pictures of clients. Do you mind telling me what this is about?"

Agent Redd looked at Agent Bleu then he looked back at Ed. "You, Mr. Edward Zachary Banner, are a suspected co-conspirator in a money laundering scheme operated by Mr. Jesus Moses and probably several others. Itís so large that it could cover all the illegal operations in the country."

Edís jaw dropped. "Money laundering? Illegal operations? With all due respect, Agent Redd," here Ed paused for dramatic affect. Then, almost shouting, "Youíre crazy! Neither I nor E.Z. Banner Advertising agency have anything to do with money laundering. And you canít prove it."

Agent Redd displayed a smug expression and said, "Banking records at the Scottsdale Bank of the Desert show that a Mr. Jesus Moses has an account there in the name of Lord Enterprises and that he has deposited hundreds of millions of dollars into that account in cash. That in itself is not a crime but itís highly suspicious, donít you think?" Ed looked surprised. Agent Redd started pacing back and forth in front of Edís desk. "Also, thereís no record of any person at the bank receiving those deposits; not exactly a crime but against banking regulations." He stopped pacing and looked at Ed. "Highly suspicious, donít you think?" Ed looked puzzled. Agent Redd resumed pacing. "In addition, despite all the money that Lord Enterprises is moving around, thereís no record of Lord Enterprises ever filing a tax return." Agent Redd stopped pacing and pointed his finger at Ed. "That is a crime." Ed looked worried. Agent Redd resumed his pacing. "Also, all the moneys in the account were spent by check immediately after they were deposited. And do you know to whom each one of those checks was made payable? Take a guess. Take a wild guess." Agent Redd bent over, put both hands on Edís desk and looked Ed right in the eye.

Ed pushed back in his chair. Softly, he offered, "E.Z. Banner Advertising?"

"Bingo! Mr. Banner. Bingo!" Agent Redd slapped Edís desk with the palm of his hand. "Highly suspicious, donít you think?"

Ed was indignant. He stood up and glared at Agent Redd. "As I said earlier," here Ed looked Agent Redd up and down, a hint of a sneer on his lips, "the E.Z. Banner Advertising agency does not launder money. We have a legitimate contract and each expense is legal and documented. You can check with our accounting people if you like." He paused. "I assume you have a warrant."

"Indeed, I do." Agent Redd slapped a fat envelope down on Edís desk. "And my people are talking with your accounting people right now. And with your contracts people. Weíre all over this place."

"Well, you do your worst. But let me tell you something. E.Z. Banner conducts itself in a one hundred percent legal and ethical fashion, period. If youíre planning to make an example of us, you have a fight on your hands. We will not be crucified."

Agent Redd didnít say anything. He just pulled his thin lips into a smile. Then he settled into a chair and said, "Weíll just wait here for Mr. Jesus Moses."

Ed took a deep breath and calmed down. He sat back down in his chair. "If heís not here by now, I donít think heís coming."

"Did you tip him off?"

"How could I? I didnít know you were here. But, you know," Ed paused, lowered his voice to conspiratorial tones, and glanced around his office as though checking to see if anyone was watching, "he has ears and eyes everywhere."

Agent Redd raised one eyebrow, smiled a smug smile, then rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and pressed the tips of his fingers together. "Weíll wait."

They waited all day. Jesus Moses never came. At the end of the day, Agent Reddís colleagues carried off boxes of documents and computer drives.

Search as they might, Agent Redd and his colleagues could find nothing out of order with the records of E.Z. Banner. They grudgingly returned everything and neither Ed nor E.Z. Banner was charged with any crime.

Jesus Moses, however, was now the subject of a nation-wide manhunt and on Interpolís most-wanted list. Ed thought that surely Mr. Moses and Lord Enterprises would be able to get around the efforts of mere mortals and the Ark Project would continue but weeks passed and Ed had no contact with Mr. Moses. There was no further money from Lord Enterprises and Ed could see the end of the Ark Project looming ahead.

* * *

It was Saturday morning and at his regular coffee house Ed ordered his usual latte and cinnamon twist while he read the paper. His server, a short, plump twenty-something woman with curly blond hair placed his order on his table. Ed mumbled, "Thanks."

"Youíre welcome, Mr. Banner," she replied with a smile in her voice.

Ed looked up from his paper with a puzzled expression. No one there had ever called him by name before. Her name tag read ĎAngelica.í "Do I know you?"

Angelica smiled and then spoke to him, but not in her normal voice, that of a woman in her twenties. Now she had the smooth dulcet baritone of Jesus Moses, "Donít worry about the Ark Project, Ed. It was an excellent effort but, obviously, we canít continue it as we have envisioned. Just let it fold quietly."

Edís mouth hung open as he stared at Angelica. He nodded slowly.

Angelica continued, "Donít be afraid to let your employees go. All who look for other jobs will be successful. Trust me on this."

Ed nodded.

"The Ark Project was only part of a bigger effort. That bigger effort will continue without the Ark Project. The Boss and I appreciate your hard work and devotion. You have a good soul, Ed, and you shall be rewarded."

Then Ed snapped out of his shock. He smiled and said, "Rewarded? Well, if my reward is in this life, tie a red ribbon around it so Iíll know it was from you, okay?" He peered into Angelicaís face but got no response. He repeated, "Okay?"

Angelica put the bill down by Edís latte and, in the voice of a twenty-something woman, asked, "Is there anything else I can get for you?"

Ed gave his head a quick shake, as though to clear it. Then he said, "Uh, no. Iím fine. Thanks." As she turned to go, he wrinkled his brow and asked, "Angelica, your last name wouldnít happen to be ĎMoses,í would it?"

She stopped and turned toward him, saying, "No. Itís Mercury, like the Roman messenger god." Then she hurried off to serve another customer. Ed smiled to himself.

With the money running out, Ed terminated his contracts, laid off his employees, and sold everything that E.Z. Banner owned. As he walked out of the E.Z. Banner Advertising building for the last time, he turned around on the sidewalk and gazed up at the tall structure. He could see the windows to his old office on the twelfth floor. He edged back and took a long look at the marble facing and the chrome-framed doors, admiring their trim lines and glowing appeal for the first time. He edged back farther and felt a bump and a jostle. He turned around to see a trim woman with short dark hair, a surprised expression on her face. Shopping bags and boxes from uptown stores lay about her on the sidewalk.

Her surprise flashed to anger and just as she opened her mouth to speak, she paused a moment and looked at him more closely. Then, in a congenial tone, she said, "Ed Banner? I havenít seen you in ages. How are you doing, Ed?"

Edís apologetic expression turned to puzzlement as he said, "Weíve met?"

She smiled and extended her hand. "Iím Joy Tailor, Adamís sister. We met a long time ago. I had long hair then so Iím not surprised that you donít remember."

Ed grasped her hand warmly and smiled, entranced by her crystalline blue eyes. "Oh, sure. I remember now. IĎm sorry about my clumsiness. Let me help you with your packages." He retrieved her bags and boxes. As he handed them to her, he said, "I just happen to be free this afternoon. Do you have time to join me for a cup of coffee? I believe we have some catching up to do."

Ed and Joy saw a lot of each other after that, sometimes at the upscale restaurant she owned in the city center. One thing led to another and after about a year they were married. After a blissful honeymoon of eating and drinking their way through France, they returned to a fulfilling home life together and to their respective pursuits. Ed was now applying his advertising and management expertise for a charity and Joy returned to running her business with new ideas for dishes. Her hair was long now and sometimes she tied it back with a red ribbon.

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