“Smart people seem to have caused me most of my problems.”
“Then maybe you should get smarter yourself.”
—Emmett Delacroix to Christina Roberts
Saturday morning, 4 September 2015
GM: Too late.
Clouds rumble overheard as the church bell tolls midnight, but still a suited young man sweeps among the costumed throngs, grinning and laughing as the ballroom’s lights glint off his mask.
The crowds sweep him up, drape an ermine mantle about his shoulders, place a crown upon his brow. He laughs as they carry him before a throne, then snatches a second crown from the sitting gold-robed figure’s; he is to be king of both courts. The crowd roars at his audacity. The queen swoons. He takes her gloved hand in his, grinning as he prepares to sweep her off her feet, but his mask is so unbearably heavy.
He ignores the rain’s warning patter as he lifts the weight from his head, just for a moment. The queen screams and pulls away. He holds her hand fast and tries to console her, but when he stares into the jewels around her neck, no face stares back.
Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. The crowd screams as the floodwaters rise, and a young man gasps to wakefulness in his bed, his phone’s alarm clock buzzing.
Emmett: He stiffens, briefly, then suddenly relaxes. Dreams don’t come to him often, or at least tend not to stay around for the morning after. A lesser man might wonder what it meant. But Emmett Delacroix blinks and breathes shallowly. He strokes the sweat-soaked sheets and stares at the ceiling.
Em doesn’t have anyplace to be, but he’s as much a morning person as he is a night owl. So he listens to the monotone screeching, and lays alone in an empty apartment, and for a second, Em is nobody and enjoys it.
Then it passes, and he tells Siri to shut her stupid trap, which she does. He paces barefoot through the French Quarter apartment. He should be hungover, but nobody seems to have told his head so. The apartment is more set than home. Tasteful furniture, tasteless dinners in the fridge.
Shower. Brush. There’s bills, letters on the table. His gaze lingers on the pink envelope that arrived two weeks ago. The one with the looping, cursive Mom. He thinks of masks and crowns and for a second, he wonders if he should…
No. He’s not too late.
Em smiles a snake’s smile as he steps outside with a smoke.
He has all the time in the world.
GM: At about a grand a month, excluding utilities, the Saint Louis Street Apartments don’t offer private balconies, but they do offer a communal one. The humid morning air is warm against Em’s bare chest, but one benefit to being a late riser is that it probably won’t get too much warmer into the day.
Beyond his shared balcony, which overlooks the building’s courtyard, Em can hear the sounds of the Vieux Carré ‘rising’ to greet the Saturday morning, if such a term can honestly be said apply at the crack of noon. Lazy jazz from buskers playing for enjoyment as much as crowds at this hour. The clop-clop-clop of horses’ hooves. Occasional groans and slurps of coffee from nearby apartment units. The French Quarter collectively grouses off its Friday night hangover in anticipation of an even harder Saturday hammering.
Emmett: That smile gets wider as Em adds the hiss of butane and crackle of tobacco to the air.
Emmett: “Madeline, Madeline. What am I eating today?” Em smiles sunshine up at the waitress.
GM: “I don’t know, Em, whatever you order?” the wavy-haired waitress answers with a roll of her eyes, though she can’t stop herself from smiling back at the perennial charmer either.
She pours the smooth-talker a glass of ice water and hands him a menu. Past noon, breakfast is off, and it’s lunch and dinner items to break Em’s fast.
Café Soulé is a modestly-priced restaurant literally next door to Em’s apartment building. It’s still a bit more expensive than making his own breakfast, but the convenience can’t be beat. The surroundings reflect the price tag. There’s round, slightly scuffed wooden tables and functional chairs, spruced up with flower vases and Belle Époque-era paintings of ballet dancers and suited gentlemen meeting at, fittingly enough, a café. French flags and cast iron lamp lights give the place an Old World ambiance. At the far side of the room, there’s a modestly well-stocked bar and chalk blackboard that spells out the day’s specials, as well as drinks for a happy hour that’s still a ways off.
It’s a few minutes after Em places his order that his point of contact arrives. Christina Roberts is a handsome, 40-something woman who people her age would describe as wearing it well, and people around Em’s would just call a MILF. The former attorney has long brown hair that falls to her upper back, matching eyes, and faint lines around her mouth that give her face a slightly sad, or at least contemplative expression. She wears a dark suit, skirt, and black stilettos that pair well with her shapely nylon-sheathed legs.
Christina assumes a seat opposite of Em’s and pulls one of the paper menus off its holder, briefly glancing it over. “Hello, Emmett.”
Emmett: Em’s costume change is sudden but seamless, discarding one mask for another in between sips of ice water and the clicking of Roberts’ heels as she makes her way to his table. The cocky twenty-something dressed for a lunch date is gone, and a young entrepreneur is sitting in his seat.
He smiles at her as she sits. “Ms.—” emphasis, “—Roberts. You really didn’t need to dress up for me.”
GM: “I didn’t. I have somewhere else to be after this,” Christina answers as she glances across the menu, then up at the approaching waitress. “I’ll have the eggs benedict and a coffee, please. Sugar and no cream.”
Emmett: “Of course.” His smile remains. “They don’t make breakfast after noon, I’m afraid. Hurts if you’re a late riser who hates to cook. But the shrimp and eggplant pierre’s delicious.” He tilts his head. “Although maybe you’re more of a crabcakes woman.”
GM: The waitress looks as if she was about to similarly remark on the absence of breakfast items. Christina turns the menu over. “Hmm, that’s early. Make it the onion soup instead.”
The waitress writes down her order and replies she’ll be back soon.
The former attorney doesn’t look amused by the much younger man’s remark as she takes a sip of her water. “Let’s make this a strictly business lunch, Emmett. What do you have for me?”
Emmett: A sense of humor, if you wanted it. He spins her the pieces of information she wants to hear, the secrets coaxed from drunk businessman, the interesting bits that come out in bed when people think they’ve already shared the most important parts of themselves. What he overheard from his local cocaine dealer (Westley Malveaux’s off the wagon and the wagon’s on fire). He’s tempted to make it a yarn, force her to sift through the watery anecdotes for the gold, but he’s stayed on her good side—or, her less hostile side—this long, and he’s already pushing her with that crack. So he gives it to her straight and boring, just the way she likes it.
“Worth your while?” he asks when he’s finished. He knows it is, but is curious if she’ll admit it. It’ll make the next part easier if she does.
GM: Whether Christina Roberts enjoys all things in her life straight and boring, Emmett cannot say, though like many professional women she does appear uninterested in trading sexual innuendos with a boy young enough to be her son. She interjects with the occasional follow-up question or request for clarification as Em relays what he’s picked up, and halfway through, the pair’s food arrives.
The onions in Christina’s soup are carmelized to a rich orange-brown hue, though some of that might be from the apple cider and dash of cognac. A fat slice of french bread coated with melted fontina and gruyere cheese lazily floats in the center of the bowl, half-submerged by the chicken broth and beef consomme it’s soaked up. Scattered green chives provide a finishing touch and dash of contrasting color to the dish.
She finally nods in satisfaction once he’s finished, then cuts off a section of the moist bread with her spoon. “Yes, those are some useful tidbits. I suppose that makes it my turn now. What are you curious over?”
Emmett: He leans forward, curious to see her reaction. “Prince Talal al-Faisal al-Saud.”
GM: Christina’s face doesn’t let much slip, but Em’s pretty sure he sees some amount of recalcitrance, or maybe simple wariness, there. “All right. What’s your interest in him?”
Emmett: “I think I might want to make friends. I’m sure he’s employed some of your, ah, services over these last few months?”
GM: “I don’t discuss my employees’ clients, Emmett.”
Emmett: Oh, I’m sure you do. For the right reasons. “I can respect that. But I don’t need to talk about your professional relationship. I’m simply interested in what any acquaintance of his might know.” He quiets as Madeline lays the nutella-and-banana crepe in front of him. Probably not the best choice, given Roberts’ view of him, but he can deal with being called a child.
“You don’t object to gossip, surely?”
GM: Christina takes another sip of her still-steaming soup. “Well, I’d be a hypocrite if I said I did, after how we’ve spent the rest of this lunch. If you want to talk about al-Saud, that’s fine. But anything that could hurt my business is off-limits.”
Emmett: Em nods and gets to it, taking bites of the powdered-sugar-and-chocolate explosion on his plate between questions. He asks general questions first—what’s Prince Talal like? Does he speak good English?— and then slowly works deeper. He fishes for as much as he can get of Saud’s personal business and hobbies as he can, keeping the tone as casual as the setting.
GM: Explosion is right. The crepes have been pan-fried to a buttery gold-brown and are folded in half, not unlike tacos. Slices of banana and liberal latherings of nutella and whipped cream ooze out from the corners. A gentle snowfall of powdered sugar tops off the sweet confection.
“You want some lunch with that dessert too?” Madeline asks wryly.
Christina, meanwhile, is fairly noncommittal where Prince Talal is concerned, and Em honestly can’t say whether she’s acquainted with him personally. It also doesn’t help that Christina is a former attorney, and thus has the educational background to know quite a bit more about Saudi Arabia than the college-uneducated Em does (even if, by Christina’s admission, she’s far from an Arab studies expert).
She does explain to him, first, that she would be shocked if Talal doesn’t speak fluent English. It is the first language of the countries whose oil purchases make up nearly half of the Saudi GDP. Many young Saudi elites also study abroad at Western universities and thus have to speak English. Finally, Talal has more or less set up a life for himself in America—not being able to speak the language would make that pretty hard for him.
Emmett: He smiles through the lecture, nodding even as he grits his teeth inwardly.
GM: As for Talal’s hobbies, it’s fairly common gossip that the Saudi prince loves to dance and party his nights away in the French Quarter. Beyond that (if carousing can be called a hobby), Christina has also picked up that he enjoys boating, water-skiing, betting on horses at the track, and eating out. The Saudi prince might, of course, have other notable hobbies, but those are the ones that other people can most readily observe. If Talal is a bibliophile with a private passion for reading, Christina is in little position to know.
Emmett: Not a complete waste of his time. Just mostly one. He savors the crepe and keeps up friendly appearances, but the games are over, for now. As the conversation lulls to the clink of steel on china, and he reaches for the check, Em hears himself asking without thinking. “How’s Sam?”
GM: “Sam?” Christina raises a questioning eyebrow. “Oh, you must mean Samantha Watts. She’s doing very well for herself. She’s attending, or it might have been throwing, another gallery exhibition in a few days. Money agrees with her.”
Emmett: “Always did,” he says wryly. More than I did, anyways.
GM: Samantha’s former employer seems to consider the young man for a few minutes. “Smart people in her line of work learn to keep business and personal separate, Emmett. Don’t take it too harshly.”
Emmett: “Smart people,” he mutters, “seem to have caused me most of my problems.”
GM: “Then maybe you should get smarter yourself.”
Emmett: “We’ll see. It’s a rigged game, I find.”
GM: It probably wouldn’t be too hard either, part of Em can’t help but observe. His parents are both professors. They probably have enough clout to get him into Tulane. He’s not even that much older than the student body.
Emmett: He could also probably get a job starring in porno. At least that way he wouldn’t have to listen to Professor Mom and Dr. Dad.
He made his choice a long time ago, and now it’s…
“You should probably get going,” he says. “I think we both have better things to do.”
GM: “I was about to say that very thing.”
Christina calls for the bill and hands their waitress a credit card, stating to charge her for the soup and coffee. After Madeline returns with her card, she stands and shoulders her purse.
“One final word of advice, if you’re serious about making ‘friends’. The Sauds are big money. And royalty. They don’t make a habit of rubbing shoulders with plebs like me, much less you.”
Emmett: Em shrugs. “They just haven’t met me yet.”
GM: “In any case, I’m off. Give my number a call if there’s any other gossip you want to trade.”
Emmett: Em smiles and waves her to the door, then takes off himself. He pauses to leave a twenty for Madeline before he goes.
His good mood is melted with the ice in his water.
GM: It’s a several-block and eight-minute walk from Café Soulé to the Ritz-Carlston New Orleans, the hotel where Prince Talal is known to be staying.
The elegant, fourteen-story, five-star hotel is located just off Canal Street, the historic divide between the French Quarter and Central Business District. Its web site boasts 527 rooms, 35,000 square feet of meeting space, a 25,000 square foot day spa and fitness center, one restaurant and one lounge, all within walking distance of the French Quarter’s world-famous landmarks and attractions.
The lobby is a suitably impressive affair. Glittering chandeliers, richly upholstered furniture, tasteful Neo-Classical statues and portraits. Expansive, multi-tiered windows allow natural lighting to pleasantly illuminate the white marble floors. Past a wide set of glass-paned double doors, an indoor courtyard and garden invitingly beckons.
It doesn’t look unlike the one at Em’s apartment. But much larger. Much classier. Much more expensive. The same can well be said for the hotel’s people. A few well-suited guests recline on chairs, reading newspapers (the ones who are old enough to still do that), tabbing through their iPhones (not Em’s much cheaper Android), or engaged in quiet conversation with one another. All eye the comparatively shabbily-dressed young man suspiciously.
Meanwhile, minimum-wage bellboys cart around bags of luggage, while politely smiling receptionists at the front desk see to the needs of the well-to-do clientele. Em can still feel a pronounced iciness, but it’s diminished, not so much through any sense of commonality as the pressing immediacy of their jobs’ tasks.
Emmett: He knows better than to try to talk his way through them, at least for the moment. He effects an expression of dumb awe as he takes in his surroundings, and then forces a blush onto his face as he leaves, attempting to look appropriately intimidated.
GM: The well-heeled guests watch with little-concealed smugness as he slinks away. The suited security guards do not look so overtly pleased, but neither do they make any attempt to follow him.
Emmett: He gets to the other side of the road, gags a bit, and then promptly fishes out his crap Android and calls the number he pulled off the hotel site on the walk over.
GM: “Good afternoon, thank you for calling the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans. This is Sandy speaking. How may I assist you?” greets a receptionist.
Emmett: He sounds like he’s choking on happiness. “Hello! I’m calling for my boss. Do you have a guest there by the name of, um…” He lets the silence drag on a second too long to be comfortable. “A… Tal-al al-Faisal Saudi?” He’s found people are less threatened by idiots.
GM: There’s a slight pause from the receptionist. “May I ask who you are calling on behalf of, sir?” The ‘sir’ sounds all-too forced.
Emmett: Here goes. “Christina Roberts.”
GM: There’s another brief pause and sound of keyboard typing. “Yes, sir, Talal al-Faisal al-Saud is one of our registered guests,” the receptionist confirms.
Emmett: “Can you see if he’s in at the moment?”
GM: “Certainly, sir, just one moment.” There’s a longer pause. Then, “I’m afraid he’s asked not to be disturbed before 2 PM, sir. Can I pass along a message for you?”
Emmett: “I’m sorry, I was told to only speak to Mr., um, Saud. It’s a pain, I know, but I just started working here…” Milk the embarrassment. “Maybe I can call back in a little?”
GM: The receptionist assures Em that it is before wishing him a pleasant afternoon and exchanging goodbyes.
Emmett: He rings again two hours later, after a few vocal exercises.
GM: Em is greeted by another receptionist named Susan.
Emmett: He plays the same game. “Christina Roberts for Mr. al-Saud.”
GM: There’s a brief wait as he’s transferred before a so-slightly accented male voice asks, “Hello, this is Ms. Roberts?”
Emmett: Em hangs up and heads down the street. He glances at the glass castle over his shoulder, at the peak where al-Saud would clearly sleep.
“A pleb,” he says. “My ass.”
GM: Em has a nagging feeling in his gut as he hangs up. Several minutes later, his phone is ringing.
It rings and rings. Finally, it dies, and a middle-aged-sounding woman states over the voicemail, “I advise you to pick that phone up, Emmett, if you don’t want al-Saud to know about your interest in him.”
Emmett: Click. “Ms. Roberts! I’m afraid I’m still full from our last meeting, but I might be able to make lunch tomorrow.”
GM: “I just got off the phone with Mr. Al-Fawaz, one of al-Saud’s assistants. He said he spoke to one of my employees, but the line died. The employee was a young-sounding man.”
Emmett: “That is odd.”
GM: “Yes, especially after a young man with no apparent concept of client confidentiality was prying into my relationship with al-Saud.”
Emmett: “As I recall, I agreed not to ask you about your clients. Not the other way around.”
GM: “Last chance, Emmett. I’m in no mood to play games.”
Emmett: Em rolls his eyes and hopes she hears it. “Last chance for what, exactly? You called me. Do you want an apology? Some kind of repayment?”
GM: “Let’s start with what your real interest is in al-Saud, and why you would try to impersonate one of my employees.”
Emmett: Em replies promptly, “I’ve found money may agree with me too, Christina. He has a lot of it. I plan to take most of it.” He strides into an alley. “As for the impersonation, I just wanted to see if he was a client of yours or not. I’m still gathering intel.”
GM: “Oh, isn’t that reassuring. You’re willing to throw my business under a bus for your own convenience.”
Emmett: “Hardly. If your business could be undone by a confused phone call, it wouldn’t have lasted this long. You didn’t tell Mr. Fawaz that the man who called him was a thief who you shared information with, I assume?”
GM: “Don’t tell me what is and isn’t good for my business, Emmett, when you don’t have a clue how it runs. You’ve put me in a difficult position with al-Saud, too. Can you imagine how, or are you just making this all up as you go along?”
Emmett: “Both, actually. This level of improvisation takes a large amount of imagination.” He grins into the phone line. “I imagine there was some manner of arrangement between you two of which I was unaware, that I violated?”
GM: “Try there being too many ways an ill-considered ‘get rich quick’ scheme by a petty grifter who understands nothing about Saudis could go south and too many links between him and me.”
Emmett: “Not quick,” he corrects. “I’m observing, learning. First contact is a ways off. Samantha waited three years for hers to pay off, yes? Mine may take longer, although I probably won’t have the option of sucking his cock to speed things up.” He pinches his nose. “What do you want to get out of this, Christina? We beat around the bush plenty at lunch.”
GM: “What do I want? How thoughtful of you to ask, Emmett. What I want is complete uninvolvement in any illegal activity that could balloon into a diplomatic incident—if your scheme actually works. So I’m weighing my options. It would be safest, and simplest, just to tell Prince Talal everything I know.”
Emmett: “But you aren’t doing that because you’re talking to me.”
GM: “I’m not doing that because I’m waiting to hear if there’s a better one. Which seems unlikely at this point, but it costs nothing besides a few minutes on my phone plan.”
Emmett: Em closes his eyes. He sighs.
“If you fuck me on this, you take damage too. Maybe, maybe, Talal will forgive you enough to live and let live. That’s a thing in Saudi culture, right?” He lets a moment of silence elapse before continuing. "But he sure as hell won’t be your customer anymore. And judging from what I’ve heard about the bastard’s appetites, that’s a lot of Café Soulé lunches you’re flushing down the toilet. Not to mention what’ll happen to your business if word gets out about how you sold information to a hustler about one of your clients.
“Granted, as you’ve rightfully pointed out, I don’t know anything about how your business runs. Just your name. And Samantha’s name. And two or three of your other girls’. I actually don’t relish screwing my allies just for convenience, Christina, but as you just noted, I am quite petty. Petty enough to screw over my enemies as I go down for them. Are you ready to hear what I have to offer, or should I start typing up my confession for NOPD?”
His heart hasn’t thumped this loudly in years.
GM: Emmett’s heart beats and beats in his chest with a steady thump-thump. It’s loud enough, in fact, that he barely hears the ‘click’ on the other end of the line. His phone screen spells it out for him though:
Then he starts running.
Emmett: He considers calling back. No. He may have lost everything but he’s kept his pride this long. So he runs, without thinking, without breathing. He hasn’t hit the gym in years, used to scoff at the kids that did, but now he understands, he can feel the burning, and his steps clack to a beat—
He finds himself at his apartment before he realizes he’s headed there.
GM: Passersby in the street stare, gawk, or simple grumble at Emmet as he pushes through crowds. After several minutes, the grifter arrives back outside the blue doors to Café Soulé, and the next-door ones to the St. Louis Apartments where he dwells. Once a fantastic deal at a killer location, to the distraught Emmett they now seem all-too close to Talal al-Saud.
Emmett: There’s not much to pack. Clothes, thrown in his one suitcase. His laptop. A few pictures of Benjamin Franklin get pressed into his wallet. In less than ten minutes, he’s tearing out the door.
GM: This late in the afternoon, the apartment complex seems largely empty. No scents of coffee or cigarette smoke emit from the nearby units. Just next door, patrons peacefully eat their lunches. He can even hear Madeline casually asking, “And what’ll it be for you, sir?”
“Hey, misser, whassa hurry!” cackles an old black man with a gold tooth as he dashes off.
Emmett: He starts walking, quick, backpack across his shoulders and suitcase dragging. He does his best to look like a tourist while he’s at it; it helps that he’s never felt quite so lost. The day, he has to admit, has not gone to plan.
Shit. Shitshitshit. One phone call. One fucking phone call.
He hails the first taxi he sees. He feels too dizzy to walk.
GM: The yellow cab pulls up. Too-loud, distinctly foreign-sounding discothèque music blares out, as does the pungent smell of left-out hummus and other, less identifiable dishes that look maybe like burritos. The driver has tanned, dusky skin and Middle Eastern features. He grins widely at the distressed “tourist” as he asks in an accented voice not dissimilar from Mohammed’s,
Emmett: An hour ago, if you can get me there. “Marigny.” He gives the name of a place he’s stayed the night before, under better circumstances. Not that that’s saying much.
GM: Emmett searches his phone during the cab ride over. To his distress, he finds that the roach motel he last stayed at in Marigny has closed. There are a few hotels in the bohemian district, but they’re mostly of the three stars and up variety, and Emmett won’t be able to afford much more than a single night on his budget. He also finds several lower-budget places in Tremé, Mid-City, and the CBD, where he could stay for longer. Further, increasingly cheap places, can also be found further away from the city’s central hub.
Emmett: He pinches his nose in frustration. “Change of plans.”
GM: The blare of overloud music from the car’s speakers is Em’s only immediate answer.
The cabbie drums his free hand along the dashboard in tune to the screaming stereos.
Emmett: Em leans forward and raps the driver lightly on his arm. “Oi.”
GM: The dusky-skinned, scraggly-bearded man glances over his seat. “Eh?”
Emmett: “Can you head towards the CBD?”
GM: The hummus-smelling driver nods along, though whether in tune to the music or Emmett’s request is hard to say. The cab, however, changes direction.
Emmett: Em leans back as it does. He hates to think, but he finds it an unfortunate necessity. He’s been scared of the police, first and foremost, but he doubts they’ll be involved. Possible, but unlikely. Saud will either ignore him or deal with him privately.
GM: The Warwick Hotel is a twelve-story high-rise located just by City Hall, Tulane Medical Center, and the Orpheum Theater. Despite its size and stately neighbors, however, the hotel seems to lurk in their collective shadows. Em’s first tipoff is the poorly-designed website. The nearly solid canvas of pink background dotted with white text looks like it was put together in the ‘90s. Unlike the glass castle that was the Ritz-Carlton, the Warwick looks more like a solid concrete block that’s had holes poked in its flank for windows.
The front doors aren’t defaced by graffiti, nor do any homeless sleep by them, but there’s nothing that particularly impresses visitors with the place either. No hanging multinational flags, no doorman who surveys Em with a silent air of disapproval. This is the sort of place where traveling businessmen resigned to staying at lower-middle management and tourists on a budget go to stay.
The lobby is clean and tidy enough, but virtually deserted. A bored-looking receptionist, just as low-paid as her Ritz-Carlton counterparts but less expected to hide it, awaits to check Em in.
Emmett: He rubs his neck as he approaches the receptionists, and asks if they have any openings. Lip trembling: “Do, uh, do you take cash?”
GM: Em registers clear suspicion on the receptionist’s face as she answers that they do. There is also a $100 deposit on top of the room fee for cash-paying guests.
Emmett: Em spins a yarn in a voice that unravels as it gets longer. His wife’s kicked him out of the house, and she froze his card, and it’s fucking humiliating, but he knows he deserves it…
GM: The receptionist skeptically looks the young man over for a moment… he doesn’t look the age of your typical married homeowner. In the end, though, she accepts the cash, albeit with a $100 deposit that won’t be refunded if the room gets trashed or cops get involved.
Emmett: On the bright side, if either comes to pass, the deposit will be the least of his problems. He gives his name as Albert Marlowe and moves on upstairs.
GM: Em makes his way to his room on the 6th floor. It is a plain and functional affair. Cyan carpet floor, white comforter that covers all of the single-sized bed, TV just across from it. A desk and two chairs sit in the corner by the bathroom door. The bedside table has the usual lamp, phone, and bible.
Emmett: He checks his watch.
Emmett: That’s excellent. He’s lost himself a home in three hours. Hopefully a temporary situation, but even so, it stings. He unpacks, or at least unzips his bag, before collapsing onto the bed, squeezing his eyes. He becomes aware of something in his pocket, probably stuffed blindly there at the apartment. He pulls it out, scowls, and drops the pink envelope by the bible. Should have left the damn thing.
He glances at the bible.
GM: He finds it in the cabinet of his bedside table.
Emmett: It’s been a long time since he’s been in a room with one. He flips through the Good Book. Any words, God? Any advice? I’ve been waiting a long time.
GM: Opening a few random pages takes Emmett to the following verses.
“God blesses those who realize their need for him; and who mourn will be comforted.” Matthew 5:3-4.
“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” Timothy 5:8.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:15.
Emmett: “Yeah. Fuck you too.” He puckers and spits on the page, aiming for the Big Guy’s name, before dropping the book by the bed. He hopes Clarice is watching.
GM: The petty gesture goes unresponded to in the privacy of his room.
Emmett: He lays his head down for a minute. He’s got to get to work soon, but for now…
GM: Sleep comes easily enough to the harried young man. He awakens from his nap several hours later, the clouds dark and purple against the early evening sky.
Emmett: Much like the morning, he finds himself staring at the ceiling. Wondering. Still lying prone, he pulls out his phone and places a call.
GM: Numerous rings sound before the phone finally speaks up. Em can hear muffled noises in the background, some of which sound like they come from young children. “Eveline Merinelli speaking,” sounds a woman’s voice.
Emmett: “Hey, Lena. It’s me.”
GM: “Oh, hi there Em. How’s things?”
Emmett: “Great,” he lies. “Just went to an audition today. Went well.”
GM: Lena sighs. “Emmett, you’re not a teenager. You can’t get in trouble from Mom and Dad if I tattle you aren’t looking for a job, if that’s what you’re worried over.”
Emmett: “Maybe I just aim to please,” he says. “How’re the little bastards, huh?”
GM: “Try aiming for being honest to me then. I’d find that a lot more pleasing than whatever make-believe story you dream up.” Lena’s tone is more sad than angry. This is far from the first time she’s been disappointed by her baby brother’s continual lying. As if realizing further discussion is fruitless, simply in no mood to revisit the worn subject, or both, Em’s older sister continues, “Maya and Noah are doing good. They started Pre-K and first grade not too long ago. Maya came home with her ‘first homework assignment’ actually excited to be doing it. The teacher made it like a scavenger hunt, counting up objects around the house.”
Emmett: Ok, sis. I’ve actually been a conman for the last five years while you were getting your medical degree and raising a family. It’s more fun than being an actor and probably pays better, too, until recently, since I just pissed off a literal Saudi prince—I know!— who may or may not be willing to get NOPD involved, making me the center of a diplomatic and legal shitstorm. Or, you know, just getting me killed. And Dad said I wouldn’t go anywhere without a college degree, amirite?
He smiles. “That’s nice, Lena. Really, it is.”
GM: “Nicer memories than I have of doing homework during my school years, at least.”
Emmett: “Maybe not as nice as my memories of getting you to do mine.”
GM: “Yes, all two years of that before college came along, so you enjoyed that while it lasted. You weren’t too much older than Maya is now,” his decade-older sister remarks. Meanwhile, Em can hear childrens’ indistinct voices in the background, though louder. And what sounds like a dull clinking.
“Listen, the family and I are just sitting down to dinner. You doing much for the rest of tonight?”
Emmett: He hesitates. “I don’t know if you want me there tonight. Not looking my best, lately.” And there is the distinct possibility somebody will look for me there.
GM: “Well, invite’s open if you change your mind. It’s a weekend, so we’ll be watching a movie with the kids before going to bed.”
Emmett: “Sounds cute. Might be I’ll show.”
GM: “Okay, dinner’s on the table, I gotta go. Mom and Dad say to pass on ‘hi’.”
Emmett: “You—brea—up. Bye.”
GM: “What? All right, bye Em.”
Emmett: He tosses the phone back on the bed and runs his hands through his hair. Then he starts to change. Time to make some money.
Saturday night, 4 September 2015
Emmett: Roberts called him petty. She wasn’t wrong about that.
But he’s not just any grifter.
Emmett’s an artist.
He works his way through the CBD, then through the Quarter and Marigny as the night drags on, paving his road with broken promises and a smile. He slides from bar to lounge to park. He decides on a mark, and waits. He wears a suit, too. White men in suits have been stealing ages longer than anybody else.
It was equal parts terrifying and hilarious when he first realized how easy it was to separate people from their common sense. A smile gets you far, and the right words get you farther. People feel grateful for the silliest reasons.
“Want to take my place? You look like you need it…”
“Don’t look now, but I think I saw that guy slip something…”
“I think you dropped your wallet…are you sure?”
Then comes conversation. Most people rarely say anything important at all. A conversation’s a dance, and it doesn’t take much to make people think you’re their new best friend as long as you make the right gestures and take the right steps. Especially when you make yourself sound a lot like them.
“Dude. You don’t even know…”
“…I know, it’s awful. I’ll never understand how somebody could…”
“…act like an ass, but you’re better off without him.”
Then you make them feel powerful. For most people, that means feeling needed. Trusted.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“I hate to ask…”
“…rock and a hard place…”
Sam—Samantha—once asked him how he could make people behave like idiots. He had told her that that was the thing; he didn’t. Most people are idiots anyway, and they believe a world of bullshit long before he gets to them, and it doesn’t matter how rich or soft they’ve had it. Businessmen believe in God. Scientists believe in politicians. College professors believe in the human spirit.
People believe in what they want to, Em told her, tracing her hair with his finger. And all I do is give them something they want to be true.
“I could probably hook you up, yeah…”
“…know her—yeah, seriously. Free tickets, every tour.”
“The guy at the door knows me. You just have to tell him my name…”
“…I just need a little help, first.”
All the world is Em’s stage, and all the boys and girls the played.
Several hours later, Em counts his “winnings” in Hamiltons and Jacksons and Franklins.
GM: Life, the young scam artist concludes, is good. It’s probably not a conclusion shared by the people parted from their money. But life is also a game, and it’s a zero-sum game. You can play to win or you can sit out and lose.
Em knows which he’s doing.
Next: Caroline I