Can subliminal advertising be used to corrupt a presidential election? It’s not too late to start reading Freeze Frame to find out.
Advertising executives Darcy James and Sean Higgins are hunted by the police for a murder they didn’t commit.
The pair have returned to Detroit from northern Michigan, where they discovered the secret of the mysterious DVD people have been dying over: it contains a subliminal message designed to urge voters to elect Niles Van Buhler, third party candidate who’s fronting for a Mexican drug cartel. The message was hidden in a TV commercial produced by Darcy’s advertising agency that has been seen by millions of viewers.
They hide out in the apartment of Darcy’s ex-husband, Garry Kaminski, a Detroit cop. We pick up the story as Darcy, Sean, Garry, his fiancé Rosie and Matt Carter sit around Garry’s apartment trying to find a way out of their predicament.
Matt Carter joined us in Garry’s apartment and sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch.
My phone call had found him in bed after a dozen hours at the agency putting finishing touches on the Ampere spot. The urgency in my voice snapped him awake. He knocked on the door twenty minutes later.
A few feet from Matt, Rosie D rode the arm of Garry’s recliner. She had replaced the negligee with a tight-fitting blue t-shirt and jeans.
As the conversation progressed, I surveyed this gathering, the white and yellow lights of Motown playing outside the window, and realized more than just my future depended on these few people.
My hopes had taken an uppercut to the chin. Garry’s attitude had changed since he discovered the so-called Mexican Connection.
“These are drug people, terrorists. It's time to stop playing cop and let the people downtown handle it.”
"What are the odds they'll believe us?" Sean asked.
Garry shifted uneasily in his chair. "I'll be behind you all the way."
“That’s not what Sean asked.” My eyes bored into my former husband. "A plot to compromise the U.S. Presidential election would be hard to swallow even if the Attorney General discovered it. What are the chances of authorities believing a couple of fugitives?"
"I can't answer that. But I am saying that you can't mess with these people. They knew you were here, they'd kill all of us without a thought."
"Garry, you're the only hope of stopping them."
Garry didn't answer immediately. "Understand where I'm coming from," he said finally. "Twelve years on the force...and I'm hiding two fugitives. One of the guys from my precinct stops by for a beer, sees you two, and I'll be lucky to get a job as a crossing guard.”
"You're saying you're going to turn us in."
"You’re catching on."
"Look, Garry. You've let Bacalla and Roland go. The least you can do is give us more time. I've got a couple of ideas, but we need two or three days."
"You’ve got twenty-four hours."
"What are those bright ideas you mentioned?" Sean asked, yawning.
Sean, Carter and I remained in Garry’s living room. Garry had retired for the night; Rosie D had gone back to her apartment after inviting me to sleep in her extra bedroom. Sean would ride out the night on Garry’s couch.
"Damned if I know. But if I hadn't said something, we'd be headed for jail. So let's think fast."
We spent fifteen minutes pouring over options. In the end, we had only one: find evidence. The A & B Media Center was the place to start, and Carter was the man.
"Look for anything suspicious," I told him. "The commercials had to be doctored there. VanBuhler’s people have used the Media Center for months."
"You've got it. Tomorrow's Sunday. The place'll be deserted. I'll be there early."
Sunday, Oct. 24 9:58 a.m.
"They must have you guys humping. This is the second Sunday in a row you’ve been here.” The young dark-haired security guard pushed the logbook forward and handed Matt Carter a pen.
"They can't run the place without me, Scotty."
The mammoth A & B lobby stood empty and probably, Carter suspected, so did the rest of the building. He walked to the elevator and pushed the button for seven. He’d have plenty of time to search the Media Center. He wished he could be equally confident of what to search for. "Evidence," Darcy had said. But what the hell was that?
On seven he headed for the Media Center. He walked through the waiting room, down the narrow hall to the editing suite. Switching on the light, he stopped dead in his tracks. Just inside the door sat a large plastic mailroom cart on wheels, packed with flat cardboard envelopes. The kind used to ship DVDs.
Picking one from the cart, he saw a label addressed to a Minneapolis television station. He cut the tape with his thumbnail, extracted the disc and read the label: "AVC Ampere: sixty second commercial."
The copies had been made on Media Center equipment. Given the secrecy surrounding the Ampere, they would remain here until after the vehicle’s introduction tomorrow night.
Carter inspected the disc, wondering if it were infected with a subliminal message. With the election hairbreadth close, it made sense that the conspirators would make a final attempt at influencing voters.
Carter began pushing buttons on the control panel. He inserted the DVD and, as the commercial began, pulled one of the levers forward, slowing the action until the spot ran frame by frame. There was the Ampere in one city, followed by another. Singers appeared on screen, then the action returned to the car. Carter ran the entire commercial, finding nothing.
He reached for another DVD, this one addressed to the ABC-TV affiliate in St. Louis, and soon had it running frame by frame. Color bars, then Ampere driving city to city. Suddenly the words "VanBuhler: Leadership" appeared on screen, then vanished. Carter reversed the action and as the message reappeared, froze the frame. He stared at the words, his excitement growing. Then he ran the commercial forward, counting twenty more frames with the identical message before the spot ended.
He hurriedly viewed five more DVDs, finding the same twenty-one subliminal frames on two. If the ratio held true, forty percent of the commercials carried a message aimed at altering the outcome of the election.
With Bacalla and Roland in hiding, there had to be at least one other person involved. But how many were there? Carter remembered his father's addendum to Murphy's Law: "There's always one more son-of-a-bitch than you counted on."
Carefully, Carter repacked the discs. As he sealed the last, he heard the door to the Media Center open. He threw the envelope into the cart and switched off the equipment.
At the far corner of the room was a closet. He focused on the position and killed the lights. Placing a hand on the cart to avoid it, he took huge, quiet strides across the darkness and felt for the door handle. Mercifully, the door wasn't locked. He stepped inside and pulled it shut.
His back pressed against the metal shelves behind him, Carter heard the studio door open and footsteps on the carpet. He heard the click of the switch and saw a shaft of light appear beneath the closet door.
Someone moved about the studio. Carter heard the rustle of cardboard envelopes as the intruder shuffled the contents of the cart. He hoped the envelopes he’d opened would go unnoticed.
Footsteps approached the door. Carter pressed himself against the shelves and raised his hands chest high. If the door swung open, he wanted as much room as possible to fight...or run.
Instead of opening, the door remained closed and Carter heard the lock click.
He was trapped.
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