(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previously: Shepherd’s Pie)
Ezmerelda Gibbons was hungry and phoneless. The sun drifted beneath luxury building blocks and strip malls and gaudy fast food signs competing for roadside attention while the ocean sift roared in the darkening blanket of water just southwest. And she walked in her short skirt, enduring a few loutish horn honks and gruesome woos along the edge of Kings Highway. Her heels clacked faster. Cabs had passed her by when she hailed them. So she walked. She could walk four miles in her heels if she had to, although anything more than that would blister her feet, which were already on thin suppurating ice (hence, the pedicure appointment, long ago canceled). And she needed her feet for the fetishists. Well, they’d have to wait. They’d all have to wait. Hopefully, they’d keep. And maybe even weep over small-minded fantasies that were not now on demand.
Because one of her needs was directly related to her ability to pay rent, she persuaded herself — as the roars of the passing cars striated and impaired her ruminations — that she would rather starve than miss out on an opportunity to send a scandalous photo to one of her clients. Sure, she had the webcam and the desktop at home. And she had backups of everything and a one week storehouse of unpublished poses in case anything happened. She was no fool. But this meant that she would be tied to her bedroom, not that she hadn’t tied herself up before to placate her kinkier regulars.
It was the freedom that Ezmerelda lamented. Although what did “freedom” actually mean? Her credit card had the word “Freedom” on it, but how were you free when you were so easily persuaded to plunge further into debt? Her people had escaped slavery a century and a half before. And now they wanted to enslave everyone. If white people understood that, maybe they wouldn’t be so fucking racist. Maybe the Karens would stop calling the cops on Black people. Maybe the Kanyes and the Kyries wouldn’t lose their goddamned minds? Or maybe not. It was far easier for white people to buy into the illusion that everyone was middle-class rather than be honest about their personal spending problems and the fact that they were always short-changed when they tried to buy VIP passes that would untie the velvet rope.
She had two years of savings and it was because she refused to gyrate naked for peanuts. She had too much dignity and self-respect not to name her price. If a lonely man in Topeka wanted to see her hoochie moves, well, he’d have to pay her bare minimum, not minimum wage like the others. And he’d have to wait to hear back from her by DM. He’d have to pay for Snapchat access, where she often posted stories in which she was topless and contorted, rounding the outline of her mouth with her tongue, a move that was always good to keep these easily seduced men (and some women) hanging onto every carnal cadence.
The cops would surely crack her phone’s keycode. Four digits gave you no more than ten thousand possible combinations. And she knew that the more well-funded branches of the fuzz had software that could speed through all the four-digit options and bypass the “too many attempts” lockscreen. There, they would have access to her photos, her videos, and her contacts — that is, if they could crack the additional passwords she had put on there.
The police regularly underestimated the tech savvy of sex workers. This was one of the underlying reasons why there were so many brutal crackdowns: when you combined ignorance, entitlement, and male resentment and it came from dull specimens who looked like pork chops when they squeezed their heavy pinkish bodies into blue uniforms, you couldn’t very well elude the frustrations from those who remained in denial about their true mediocrity.
But dodging this toxic authoritarian temperament — the societal degradation of her smarts — was nothing new for Ezmerelda. Back in Canarsie, she had taken the subway to affluent neighborhoods to examine what white people had left on the sidewalks. This was how she had built up a surprisingly choice collection of classic mass market paperbacks that weren’t even available in her local library. She walked past brothers who mocked her for reading and propositioned her for illiterate acts in the dark. But after she gave one of these cat-calling assclowns a black eye, they left her alone and even showered her with respect. (“I never liked that nigga anyway,” laughed a prominent gang member two weeks after she clocked that brotha. “Thought he was a hustlah, but that ass-beating from you made my boy wack.”
White people were cavalier about what they threw away. Sometimes, they’d toss out their flashy Xmas gifts before summer. And these were often the latest electronic models. Expensive. Extra features that the white people never learned about because they were so fond of junking their unread manuals. They even disposed of their fully functioning high-def sets and sometimes Ezmerelda would call her friend with the pickup to liberate it from its junkyard fate, cutting him in for a piece of the pie when she unloaded these second-hand goods on Craigslist. And because she became so accomplished at scavenging, she was able to put together a desktop in her bedroom, gutting beige cases for their components and trading up with a skeeze stringy-haired dude at the flea market who always showed up with six bulging buckets of computer parts. She even found a functioning printer, although it took her another week to collect the dimes for the pricey toner. And Ezmerelda was not someone who learned things halfway.
So she became a power user, hitting IRC channels and sometimes pretending to be a white guy, where she noticed that she got more attention and more replies to her tech questions than under her real identity. And she became so knowledgeable about dip switches and PCI slots and the ideal DIMM sticks for an overclocked mobo that she was starting to get invites for pizza parties in small Connecticut towns, which she politely declined while quoting from the Grant Morrison comics that these honkies were so enamored with. Drop a line from The Invisibles onto an oh-so-white screen of upwardly scrolling text and these slavish geeks would believe that you were delivering a sermon from the mount.
And because her side hustle had ushered in a modest income, she registered a domain, paid for web hosting, and started a password-protected site where Black people, and only Black people, could share their stories (after a verification process) without having their narratives hijacked or appropriated by white liberal do-gooders. She hooked up her people with the new tech. And everyone realized that this was a place where they could be welcomed online as heartily as they were for a real-life block party.
Then she decided to go public. And that’s when everything went south. Quite literally. The hayseeds found her and graffitied the message boards with Confederate flags and Nazi symbols. And she had to shut it all down. You gave white people an inch and they somehow misinterpreted your invite as a Homestead Act stampede no different from the white supremacists who had could claim their 160 surveyed government acres when you only had forty.
She heard the idle of a car drifting beside her. And was that the music from Benny Hill playing?
She looked back. A dusty Ford Escort with a blue stripe running along the side. The car was in need of a wash. And behind the wheel? That woman who had talked her way into the Van Kleason manse.
“Yoo hoo!” said Ali Breslin, who was craning her head as far as she could to the passenger side and sustaining a frightening level of intense eye contact.
“But I want to talk with you.”
“Subscribe to my OnlyFans page.”
“I already did.”
She stopped. Ali flashed her a smile and held up her phone, where a video of Ezmerelda twerking to Big K.R.I.T. was playing.
“Great moves. Did you ever learn tap?”
She had, in fact, taken tap dancing lessons at the age of sixteen. Along with flamenco and sneaker jazz. Until her white instructor took a shine to her that was too close for comfort and only a smidgen short of filing a police report.
“I did take tap.”
“So did I! I was really impressed with your one-legged wing. It took me months to get that down with a shuffle.”
“Nobody else noticed.”
“Maybe they were busy with their hands.”
“They were,” said Ezmerelda, who loosened the beginnings of a laugh before remembering that this white woman was trying to inveigle her.
“Didn’t you get what you needed back at the crime scene?” asked Ezmerelda, returning to business.
“No, I didn’t. Where are you heading? I’ll give you a lift.”
“If I wanted a Lyft, I’d summon one from my phone. Oh, but I don’t have my phone, do I?”
“I can help you with that,” said Ali.
“I have some pull with Teddy. You may have seen our little Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan act.”
“Why you be fucking a cop?”
“He’s actually not bad in bed, although cops are a little rough in the sack. As are lawyers. That’s the funny thing about law and order types. They always seem to like it hard and rough.”
“Yeah,” said Ezmerelda, “tell me something I don’t know.”
“I’m not your enemy.”
“I don’t know if you are.”
“The police will be dropping their investigation tomorrow.”
“There’s something else going on. That’s why I need to talk with you.”
“I don’t have a lot to say. I was a topless maid for Paul. If you pay me the right price, you too can see me shake my titties while I clean your toilet.”
“Don’t be. I know the business I’m in. Do you?”
“Actually, I do.”
“I spent one summer in college dancing at a strip club.”
“Not too many people know this, but I did. And I’m telling you because I’m an ally.”
“Right. Just like Rachel Dolezal. No thanks.”
Ezmerelda started walking faster up the sidewalk.
“I want to help.”
“Because you want a story.”
“Not going to deny it. Paul Van Kleason was a semi-prominent figure. And I’m the only journalist who is going to tell you that I’m hoping to crack the iron gates for my own gain.”
“Yeah, I thought so.”
“There’s a lot more to this.”
“Look, I cleaned his house. He never tried to fuck me, but he liked having me around. Just like many white men go to the store and buy a pint of chocolate fudge brownie. End of story.”
“Actually, it’s just the beginning of the story. Did you know about his wife?”
“What Paul and Sophie did was none of my business.”
“Did you know about the videos?”
Ezmerelda stopped in her tracks.
“Let me give you a lift and I’ll tell you.”
“Okay, but you’ve got to turn that Benny Hill shit off.”
“Fair enough. I was just trying to lighten the mood.”
“White people always do. That’s part of the problem.”
“When you see what I have, you’ll understand why. Come on. It will only take fifteen minutes.”
Ezmerelda opened the door and got in the car.
(Next: Soldiers with Broken Arms)
(Word count: 16,415/50,000)