Downstairs, Michael found Mr. Budd still sitting with his hands on his knees, as promised, and telling Emily a story about…something. Emily’s body language was relaxed, and she was watching him with a slight smile.
“So I looked at Jerome and I looked at Tabitha, and I said, ‘Well, if the two of you are having the steak, then I guess…”
“…I’ll have the lobster.” Emily said the same time he did, and they both chuckled. “Come on, that one’s older than you.”
Mr. Budd, still laughing, looked up and saw Michael watching them from the stairs. “Oh, thank god,” he said with a laugh, moving his hand from his knees to the glass of whiskey on the table. “How long does it take to grab a couple of games? I was about to get DTs down here.” He took a decent-sized drink of the whiskey and set it back down on the table. “Seriously, you two were about to watch me wrestle snakes.”
Emily looked up at Michael as he joined them and gave him a wink. “Mr. Budd was just trying to pass off stories from the Milton Berle Joke Book as his own.”
“She’s a tough cookie, Michael. Those kill at city council meetings.”
Emily had apparently fetched the cards and Yahtzee from the living room while he was gone. Michael put the two games down beside them, and Mr. Budd surveyed their options. “Well, what should it, then?”
Emily shrugged. “Yahtzee’s fine.”
Michael pulled the lid of the box off and got out the score sheet. “There’s like a hundred dice in here.”
“Nobody likes an exaggerator, Michael. (Yes, young lady, I know: pot, kettle.) There are only twenty dice in there. My wife is the Yahtzee fan in the house, and the rest of us play every few weeks to amuse her.”
Emily and Michael caught each other’s eye. It was hard to imagine The Darling Budds participating in Family Game Night, but it apparently happened.
“At some point, Lillian mentioned that the game was basically solitaire for four players, and there was nothing aside from a shortage of dice to stop us from playing at the same time and then comparing final scores. My wife loved the idea—never mind that all four of us silently rolling dice somewhat defeated the idea of playing a game together—because it allowed her to get more games of Yahtzee in before we got bored and turned our attentions to gin rummy or, more likely, liar’s dice.”
“What’s liar’s dice?”
Mr. Budd looked at both of them incredulously. “Really? You don’t know liar’s dice?”
Emily and Michael shook their heads.
“Hold the phone…forget Yahtzee!” Mr. Budd suddenly left the table, headed for the kitchen. The two were alone for a moment.
“You were okay, down here alone?” Michael whispered.
Emily nodded. “I was fine. He’s just lonely…imagine Alexander locked up for a month and you’ll understand.”
Lucas Budd came back with three Mardi Gras cups, which are cheap plastic tumblers thrown from floats to commemorate different parades. Every pantry in the New Orleans area holds at least a dozen. “Okay, look, this game has exactly three rules…”
It was a simple bluffing game that involved declaring how many of the dice under all of the players’ cups showed a particular number. Other players could challenge this…if the original statement was a lie, the liar lost one of his dice. If it was true, the challenger did.
They learned the game in about forty-five seconds, then listened as Mr. Budd rhapsodized about the epic games of liar’s dice that had been played at his fraternity twenty-five years before. Eventually they began playing.
Lucas Budd had no sympathy for the rookies, and slaughtered them five quick games in a row. Emily eventually caught on enough to give him a serious challenge, and began winning every other game. Michael, all things considered, was curiously bad at the game. His bluffs were almost always called, and he was out of every game before either of the others.
Even though it was a simple, repetitive game, they played for an hour or so. Lucas, as he now insisted they call him, was enjoying himself immensely, and his odd behavior at the beginning of their visit was all but forgotten now. Emily and Michael—who had been almost as isolated as him—were having a good time, too. They were hanging out with a Budd again.
The Gang’s parents treated their kids’ friends well and rarely condescended to them. But they were still parents, and even David’s dad could be the adult in the room when necessary. Lucas, though, as he played the dice game, was something else entirely: he treated them not just as teenagers his kids knew, but as friends. He taunted them, he mocked their defeats, and he got genuinely (though good-naturedly) upset when they beat him. It was as though they had met a new student at Beaumonde disguised as a strung-out middle-aged dad. (Emily idly wondered if his previous standoffish behavior, back before the scandal, was really an attempt to not give into this side of his personality.)
Eventually, they played so many games that the black dots of the dice began to swim in front of their eyes, and the cups were pushed away. Lucas’ whiskey had been forgotten during the game, but he now took a sip from the glass and sighed happily.
“So, let me see, I think I came out on top by four games.”
“Come on, you weren’t keeping track…”
“Oh, were you? Then how do you know I wasn’t?” He peered over the table at the slim watch Emily wore. “I guess we better get down to business…you guys have to be out of here by eleven. I got a junior high kid coming over later and we’re gonna party.” He cleared his throat, then took another drink. “That was a joke.”
“What sort of business?” Michael asked, putting the dice back in the box.
“Well, obviously it involves the predicament you’ve found me in. I don’t mind telling you it’s a little delicate, though. Here, let’s go back into the other room.”
In the family room, the fire had burned down to bright coals, and the air conditioner unit—running on top of the already strong central air—had made the room chilly. Lucas reached up over his head and turned it off, exposing his hard swollen belly as his t-shirt rode up. “We should have brought chairs in…just pull those two boxes over. They’re full of papers, they’ll hold you.”
He took a seat in the leather chair they’d found him in, a few hours before, then pulled the electric blanket back across his legs. Emily and Michael sat on two overstuffed file boxes at his feet, the dull red glow of the fire across their faces.
Lucas looked at his hands, then on each side of his chair. He’d remembered the blanket, but not his drink. “Damn,” he whispered softly. And then he took a deep breath, yawned, and began to talk.
Before we get into this, I want you to remember that we’re talking politics…and not just politics, but Louisiana politics. And not just Louisiana politics, but New Orleans politics. Understand? Amateurs mess around with lobbyists and bribes and whatnot, but down here we’ve moved far beyond that. We’ve refined corruption into an art.
What I’m trying to say is, the first lesson is to not take it personal. I…well, I need to tell you something about the father of one of your friends. But we can’t hold the child responsible for the sins of the parent. You don’t hold Andre responsible for what Reuben did, do you?
Of course not.
So if I tell you something about…about Robert’s dad, you’re not going to take it out on Robert, are you?
No. No way.
Where to begin? I’ve known Jerome Johnson since before we were your age. We went to St. Odo’s together, then Beaumonde, then Tulane and Tulane Law. I know him better than I know anyone. And now we’re both on city council together.
I’m good at what I do. I have an aptitude for it, and I like doing it. But believe me when I tell you that Jerome is operating on a whole different level. Have either of you ever played pool?
I’ve played before. My cousins have a table.
You win by knocking the balls into the pockets, right? And that’s what most people try to do. But every now and then you’ll play with someone who isn’t just concerned with the shot he’s trying to make…he’s also trying to get the cue ball into position for the next shot. Look, this is a terrible analogy, but you understand what I’m saying, right? I just knock balls into the pocket, but Jerome is always lining up the next shot, and maybe even the one after that. You understand?
Between the two of us, we control enough of the city to take the mayor’s office next year. Jerome had the black vote, not to mention the entire Johnson Machine behind him. I had the rich white Uptowners in my pocket, and when it came to sheer numbers, we knew Huynh would get the Vietnamese at the polls in a big way. Hell, maybe more than once. Together, we could have taken over the city in a cakewalk. There’s just one problem with that, of course.
Well…you don’t run for mayor together. Sure, everyone would have known that Lucas Budd For Mayor, or vice versa, would have meant Budd and Johnson…but at the end of the day, one man’s name would be on the ticket, and one man would get the big desk, and one man would be ordering new business cards. Jerome wanted to be that man.
So…he did what he had to do to get me out of the picture.
You’re telling us this was a set-up?
Of course it was a set-up. Jerome knew I had enough support that he had to make it as bad as possible. So: gay sex, underage gay sex, drugs, you name it. He couldn’t just throw a hooker at me and get some pictures. He had to make it indefensible, so no one could stand up for me. Have you ever heard the term ‘scorched earth?’
That’s exactly what he did. Burned my career to the ground and salted the soil. Nobody would dare stand up for me now. On the news they call me “controversial,” but that’s wrong…”controversial” implies that they are two sides, that people are arguing about it.
But, hey, don’t take it personal. Hell, I feel honored to be his target. It’s nice to know that he respected me enough to throw everything he had at me.
What can you do about it?
Nothing is what I can do about it, at least as far as he’s concerned. He’s already lining up his next shot. You know, I lied just now when I said that no one would stand up for me…he’s been standing up for me, and looking like the bigger man for it. Genius. Did you guys see that article in the paper about the speech he gave last night?
I was gonna ask you about that.
Did you see how the speech ended? He started out defending me, but by the end what was he really talking about? Forgiveness. Forgiveness. You see? If I’m quiet, if I don’t fight back, everything goes away and he makes a big deal out of forgiving me.
So if I’m good, if I sit here alone in this guarded house with my phone bugged and my internet mysteriously out, then one day the charges won’t stick, maybe the evidence wasn’t collected right, and I’m allowed a disgraced retirement. Or a trip to rehab followed by a tearful reunion for the cameras. Forgiveness. And maybe, if I’m very very lucky, he’ll even put me in charge of the meter maids.
That’s what he wants, anyway. For me to be quiet.
What do you want?
An excellent question. What do I want?
Well, Jerome’s support is hardly unanimous…there are plenty of people in this state who want to keep him out of City Hall. Some of them don’t want to see the Johnson Machine back in power, and maybe some of the hillbillies up in Baton Rouge just don’t want to see another black mayor. A lot of them were counting on me to get the upper hand. Well, you see how that went.
But that resistance to Jerome is still there…if I fight back I’ll have a lot of allies ready to join me. He wants me to give up, to stay silent. But maybe I’m not quite ready to slink away yet. Maybe I feel like getting a little ornery.
What could you do?
Well, like I said, no one can defend me in public, so the only way I can fight back is to prove he set me up, and that he did it just to consolidate his power. My lawyer says there are already people out there getting evidence.
But we gotta be quiet about it right now, and we have to protect ourselves. Believe me, when Jerome finds out he’s fighting for his life, it’ll be like a nuclear bomb going off at City Hall. Nobody will be safe. And it’s naïve to think he’s already hurt me as much as he can. I still have a wife. And I still have kids.
Ah, shit, look at the time. I didn’t want to just spill it all out like this, but we’re cutting it close. Look, there are…places that my allies can’t get. People they can’t be seen talking to. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but Jerome has a lot of people reporting back to him. You guys just met a couple of the more obvious ones.
I’m gonna lay it on the line: a few of your friends’ parents have information we need. Not information about the set-up, but information that can protect us from Jerome when push comes to shove.
And, well…I need you guys to get it for me.
I see how you’re looking at each other. I’d be skeptical, too. But it makes sense…there’s a chance that anyone close to me is being watched, and that includes your friends’ folks. But nobody would suspect the two of you. And it’s nothing dangerousm you’ll just be picking up an envelope here, a disk there. They’ll either know you’re coming or won’t be too surprised.
We don’t have time. Listen, I know you guys wouldn’t do it just for me, I’m not that gullible. But the sooner this mess is over, the sooner the twins can come home.
Geez, you guys gotta get out of here. I wish we had the luxury of going over this in detail, I really do. But Ron The Baptist shows up most nights around eleven, and I need you to be long gone by then.
Who’s Ron The Baptist?
He’s the guy in charge of the guards out there, I’ll explain later. Look, guys, we’re out of time. I’ve been honest with you, I laid everything out in the open. I can fill you in on all the details the next time we meet, but for now I gotta know:
Are you in? Or are you out?