“Smart people seem to have caused me most of my problems.”
“Then maybe you should get smarter yourself.”
Emmett Delacroix to Christina Roberts
Friday morning, 4 September 2015
GM: Too late.
Clouds rumble overheard as the church bells toll midnight. A costumed young man dances among the ballroom’s throngs, laughing as chandelier-light glints off his mask.
The crowds sweep him up, drape an ermine mantle about his shoulders, and 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; 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 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 Friday morning, if such a term can honestly be said apply this close to 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 Thursday night hangover in anticipation of the always-harder Friday hammering.
Emmett: That smile gets wider as Em adds the hiss of butane and crackle of tobacco to the air.
Friday noon, 4 September 2015
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.
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. “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. 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. Em honestly can’t say whether she’s acquainted with him personally. She does explain to the college-uneducated young man, though, that she would be surprised if Talal doesn’t speak fluent English. It’s the first language of the countries whose oil purchases make up nearly half of the Saudi GDP, after all. Many young Saudi elites study abroad at Western universities and have to learn English. Plus, 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 fairgrounds, and eating out at fine restaurants like Antoine’s and Commander’s Palace.
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 mean Sami. 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 still professors at Tulane, last he heard. They could maybe get him into the college. He’s not 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.
Friday noon, 4 September 2015
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 clientèle. 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, 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. 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, zis 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.”
Friday afternoon, 4 September 2015
GM: Em has a nagging feeling in his gut as he hangs up. Several minutes later, his phone is ringing.
Emmett: He lets it go to voicemail.
GM: The phone rings and rings. Finally, it 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.”
“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 a grifter’s ill-considered ‘get rich quick’ scheme 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: “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 even works. I’m weighing my options. It would be safest, and simplest, just to tell 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.
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