February 10, 2010


Previously: After a late-night encounter with Lucas Budd, Emily and Michael snuck into the Budd house. After hearing his tale of an epic set-up at the hands of his friend Jerome Johnson, the two agreed to help Mr. Budd clear his name. Their first assignment was to get a mysterious document from Harry Sebastian, David's dad.
Emily and Michael couldn't put it off any longer: it was time for them to visit Harry Sebastian. So they made plans to hang out with David and then, on the damp evening of a wet Wednesday, they entered the Sebastian house through a side door, the one with the security keypad that every Gangmember knew the code for. David wasn't expecting them for another half an hour yet.

On their way to Mr. Sebastian's office, they passed through a hallway that Valerie Sebastian, David's mom, had apparently set up as an impromptu art gallery. The interior design of the large Sebastian house was ever-changing, and neither Michael nor Emily had ever seen this display before. The hallway lined with photographs of Lillian and David in romantic poses

These pictures were used in advertisements for Surroundings, Mrs. Sebastian's French Quarter "lifestyle boutique." Lillian had been appearing in the ads for about a year and a half, and David had started posing with her in the last six months or so.

David wasn't a bad choice for the ads: he was very pretty, and his blond hair and delicate features made him look more like Lillian's twin than Alexander. But he also looked like a teenager in a way that Lillian didn't, and everyone wondered why Valerie didn't use Lillian's boyfriend, the more mature-looking Michael, whose olive skin and dark curls would have contrasted and complemented Lillian's look.

The photos, in gauzy black & white, were blown up and placed inside heavy but plain wooden frames, then lined down the hallway at exact intervals. The ads, Valerie said, weren't just pictures, they were a story: here was a young beautiful couple in love and living a lifestyle that others dreamed of, a lifestyle that could be purchased at Surroundings.

Emily and Michael couldn't help but slow down and look at the pictures as they passed. They missed Lillian, they missed David (even though they were about to see him), and they missed the promise that these pictures represented. Michael, his languid and distant mask already in place, looked impassively at each one, but Emily shook her head as they moved down the hall.

"This is really sick," she whispered. "It's like David's mom is trying to prove something to guests. 'Of course my son likes girls...and here are the photographs to prove it.'"

Michael, of course, said nothing.

The last photograph in the hallway, the one leading out into a tastefully minimalistic sitting room, was the best of the series, and the one that was used most often in Valerie's ads. Lillian, wearing a modest blouse ($79) that exposed nothing, not even the hollow of her throat, sat on a brown leather settee ($1999), with David on the floor between her knees. Lillian's burgundy skirt ($215) was lifted demurely up to her knees and, leaning forward, she had slipped her hand down the front of David's partially-unbuttoned tuxedo shirt ($185). With eyes closed softly, David rested his cheek against her forearm, his mouth slightly open.

The focus of the shot, though, was Lillian's face, and the look of undisguised longing she gave the viewer. Without showing anything more than her shins, the photograph was almost indecent: her eyes were hooded and dark, her bangs fell across her face, and her full lips—clearly moistened moments before by her tongue—were parted and expectant. You could almost hear her breath, shallow and quick from desire.

It was an arresting image. The other pictures in the series were good photographs, but this was a classic. Valerie knew it: she ran the ad so often that she had to go out of her way to continue carrying the products featured. The photographer himself knew it: it was currently on the front page of his website, the first image visitors would see. Even random adults knew it: a modified version of the picture—with David cropped out and Lillian turned into a flatly colored illustration—was spotted by one of Litta'Bit's friends on a flier to promote a local club's DJ night.

At school there was the rumor that this picture had gotten Lillian discovered by an international modeling agency. It was said that she would soon be departing for New York, London, Paris, Munich. The truth wasn't nearly as exciting: a local talent agent had merely called to ask if she would consider modeling in ads for other New Orleans businesses. Lillian had declined.

Michael looked briefly at the photograph, then turned away. To anyone else, it would have seemed no different from the cursory, almost dismissive, inspections he'd given the other pictures, but Emily could tell that he didn't want to linger in front of this one. She saw the fleeting darkness come over his features, like the shadow of an airliner slipping quietly across the unchanging ground below.

Of course it hurt him...of course it did. When you saw the photo you sighed because the image seemed so tangible and real that it was easy to imagine, if only for a second, that lovely Lillian was speechless with desire for you. But only Michael, and Michael alone, had ever actually seen Lillian look like that. And now she was gone.

For just a second, as they left the hallway, Emily put her hand on the inside of Michael's arm. He didn't react, but he didn't pull away like he normally would have while in character. She squeezed his arm through the cotton of his thin button-up shirt, then let her hand drop. Following Michael across the sitting room, she felt sad for him (of course), and she felt jealous of Lillian, but she felt something else, too: pride in her ability to know when Michael was hurting, and in her ability to soothe him.

They paused at the bottom of a staircase and looked up at David's bedroom. It was only six-thirty, and he wasn't expecting them until seven. From behind his door they could hear softly muted drum machines. Michael nodded at Emily, and they continued on to Harry Sebastian's office.

They found David's dad on the couch, his feet propped up on the front of his desk. His tie was loose and his collar button was undone, and he was wearing house slippers styled to look like large oversize basketball shoes. An unlit cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. There was a stack of manila folders to his right and one open on his lap, but Harry Sebastian ignored them. He slowly shuffling a deck of cards and staring absently out the window.

"Yeah?" he said, the cigarette bobbing up and then back down. He didn't look over.

"Harry?" Emily said, because he had never allowed them to call him Mr. Sebastian. "Do you have a second?"

"Oh, shoot." Harry dropped his feet and set the cards on the small table by the couch. "Mike, Emmy! How are you? I thought you were David. He's the king of sneaking up on me while I'm working. Just between the three of us, I'm thinking about making him wear a bell when he's in the house."

"That's a great idea. You know how much he loves accessories."

Harry Sebastian threw back his head and laughed, his fedora almost tipping off. "Ha! That's great. He's in his room, I think, if you guys want to go on up..."

"Actually..." Emily said, looking quickly over her shoulder at Michael, who nodded at her, "we're here to see you."

"Oh! Well, come in, come in." Harry gathered up the files and looked around for a place to stack them, finally placing them on the side table, under the deck of cards. "We'll make it official, then: you guys sit over here, I'll take my place behind the desk like a real lawyer."

Michael and Emily came into the office and he shut the door behind them. The rest of the house was carefully designed by Valerie and her swarm of interior decorators to function as a backdrop for Surroundings' photoshoots, but Harry's office was the chaotic heart of the home. It belonged to him and him alone: every flat surface held precarious stacks of law journals and old notebooks and manila folders. Unframed movie posters (Animal House, Caddyshack, The Big Lebowski) and all-but-unused calendars from the last few years were scattered along the walls. The desk was a little too big for the room, but it held piles of opened mail, dirty coffee mugs, handheld video games, a broad assortment of paper scraps, and photos of David and Valerie. An Ole Miss bumper sticker and two receipts were taped to the wall beside his chair. Harry swore he knew where everything was, that he had a system.

"So, what's up?" He walked behind the desk but didn't sit down. His hands went to the back of his old faux-leather chair. "Speeding ticket, fender bender? Um...DUI?"

"No, no. Nothing like that." Emily glanced over at Michael. "Lucas Budd sent us. He says you have something of his."

"What?" Harry looked from Emily to Michael. He closed his eyes and opened them again. "What do you mean?"

"He said you'd be expecting us."

"Not us," Michael added, in the slow, bored, and slightly dreamy voice he used in public. "But someone."

Again, Harry looked at both of their faces, one at a time. His eyes drifted up to a spot somewhere on the wall behind them and his face grew pale.

"No. Oh no." Patting his pockets slowly, softly, he pulled out his pack of cigarettes. Only after he took one out did he seem to distantly realize he already had a cigarette in his mouth. He put both of them back in the pack. "Oh, Lucas, what have you done?"

His unsteady hand came up, crossed over his face, and he slowly removed his fedora. It dropped to his desk.

"He told us to say orchid," Michael said.

Harry glanced over at him, a scowl just behind his face. "Of course he did. Lucas loves all that cloak and dagger garbage. Orchid," he spat out.

Neither of the teenagers spoke.

"Is...is David involved?"

"No," Emily said quickly. "No, of course not."

Harry Sebastian sat down slowly behind his desk. He picked up his fedora for a second, then put it back down. "I don't...I don't know what Lucas promised you two, but you have no idea what you're playing with. No idea."

"Mr. Budd was framed."

Harry nodded. "Maybe he was, Michael. Knowing Jerome, there's a real good chance of that. But maybe he wasn't framed...Lucas was always a mysterious dude. And you know what? That's not even the point. Here's what the point really is: you two have no business getting involved in this. You're just...kids, you're in over your head. Please, for me...you have to just walk away."

"We made a promise," Emily said. "We have to help him."

"No…no. You have to help yourselves. And that means you get as far away from this as you can." Harry Sebastian blew air through his lips. "I hate to play, like, the parent card, but do you know how close I am to calling your folks?"

"Please don't. We trust you."

"I didn't say I was.” Harry looked over at Emily, almost hurt. “Listen: you can't believe Lucas, even if he's telling the truth. He's...he's the best lawyer I’ve ever seen. He'll convince you of anything. I mean, for God's sake, did he even tell you what this was about?"

"He told us he'd been framed by Mr. Johnson," Michael said. "And we needed to pick up a package from you to help him and his allies."

"His allies? Okay, maybe. But did he tell you what's in the package? I mean, do you guys think you're here to pick up, you know, evidence, something that’ll expose the conspiracy to the world? Or do you think it’s proof that he's innocent, at least? I mean, did he even tell you what was in the package?"

They didn't answer.

"No, of course he didn't. But I bet it didn't matter at the time because Lucas made you feel like you were part of a…secret fellowship, right?"

"That's not fair," Emily said.

"I don't mean it as an insult, Emily. I fell for it myself. That's why you're in my office right now." Harry looked at the ceiling for a moment, silently moving his lips. “It's nothing like what you think it is. It's not evidence, it's not proof. It's just a contract for a shady real estate deal, one that involves Lucas and Jerome. Not the only one they were involved in, probably not even the shadiest."

Michael sighed, as though the conversation bored him. "If it's so minor, why does Lucas care?"

"Because if Lucas gets the contract, he'll have a weapon to use against Jerome, even though he'll go down hard, too." Harry leaned forward. "But don't mistake me. The contract isn't why I'm scared for you...the fact that you're going against Jerome is what scares me. Have you guys been following the scandal at the S&WB?"

"A little."

"So this guy, Andrews, is being investigated for massive kickbacks. Which is fine, because he's guilty as hell, and everyone's known it for years. But a few weeks ago at a dinner--at a private dinner--he made a little joke about Jerome being behind the recent shake-up on the School Board. Just a joke...I don't even know if there was any truth to it. Hell, Andrews might not have even known if it was true."

"What did Mr. Johnson do to him?" Emily asked him.

"Nothing at all. Except this: behind the scenes, he let it be known that the Johnson Machine was no longer protecting him. That's it. Without the Machine behind him, the NOPD and the SBI and the Mayor's ethics committee moved in." Harry Sebastian pointed at each of them with his hands. "One joke, that's it. And what you guys are doing...it's not a joke."

Emily swallowed and looked over at Michael. He still had a slightly condescending half-smile on his face, but there was a hollowness to the expression. She looked back over at Harry.

"What's the contract about?"

He shook his head. "Who cares what the contract was about? Haven't you been listening to me?"

"But shouldn't we know what this is about, if it's so minor? I mean, maybe you're right and the contract is so nothing that we shouldn't risk messing with Mr. Johnson over it. But we won't be able to make that decision if you don't tell us what it's about."

"Young lady, let me know if you decide to apply to law school. I'll write you one hell of a recommendation letter." Harry Sebastian did something they weren't expecting: he laughed out loud, one quick barking Ha!

He cleared his throat. "Okay. There was some land. It was way over on the Westbank, almost out of the city, in the part of town where all the Vietnamese immigrants live."

"Like where Litta'Bit lives?"

"Sure, yeah. Right near there. It wasn't much, just a few empty acres of scrub land. But to some people...well, back before the Vietnamese moved in--like just after the Civil War--this land, it was given to former slaves. And the children and grandchildren of these slaves, they went into the city and invented jazz, they moved out to the country and invented the blues, and they went deeper into the bayou and invented zydeco. They invented New Orleans."

Harry paused for emphasis. His inner showman was overcoming the reluctance he'd felt to tell them about this.

“So one Vietnamese lady basically owns that entire part of town, and she decided she wanted to build some McMansions on the land, so she got City Council to support her. There were two exceptions: Councilman Lucas Budd and Councilman Jerome Johnson. They fought the development for weeks, even tried to get a memorial or a museum put on the land. But they lost...which was crazy, right? Because they never lose. So now there's this Vietnamese lady that nobody even knows anything about, and she just beat The Johnson Machine in head-to-head combat. Well, let's just say her stock rose quite a bit."

Emily started to say something, but then she seemed to think better of it.

“So one evening Lucas Budd and Jerome Johnson come over, and they’ve got someone with them: the Vietnamese lady. And they want me to look over a contract. Not a legal contract, just a little document they made to cover a partnership." Harry opened his hands, as though showing them the final reveal of a magic trick. "That's right: they were all in on it together. Lucas and Jerome fought the development while at the same time pulling strings on the Council to make sure it happened. That way they maintained their integrity, got their way on the Council, and helped make the Vietnamese lady a player in New Orleans politics. That's how deep Jerome thinks about stuff like this."

"But why?" Michael asked, glancing out the window. "A bribe?"

"Yeah, that's what I assumed at first, but when I read the contract over, I realized it was more than that: they weren't just helping the developer: they were the developers. They were investors, equal partners with the Vietnamese lady. This contract was a private agreement to keep them all honest. And they needed me to be a witness, since they obviously couldn't get it notarized. I mean, this was a document that tied Lucas and Jerome into some pretty serious ethical violations. Like prison serious."

He paused and raised his eyebrows. Outside, there was a slow rumble of thunder in the distance, and all three of them chuckled a little at the effect. Rain began hitting the windows again, one drop at a time.

"So. There were three copies of the contract: one for them, one for her, and one for me. And it wasn’t even a contract really…it was mutual blackmail. Both sides know that the other has the evidence to destroy them."

Emily raised her hand a little, then looked embarrassed. “Three? Why not four? One for Lucas and one for Jerome.”

“You don’t understand how closely tied the two of them were…they considered their alliance as a single unit. It’s possible that Jerome was pulling strings even then to cut Lucas out, but it’s just as likely that it never occurred to them to get two copies. Whichever it was, I verified that all three copies were identical and watched them sign it. You see, Emily, like you I wanted to feel like I was important enough to be a part of something bigger than myself. Like I was one of the secret conspirators, you know?"

"That's not how we feel," Emily said, but Michael interrupted her.

“How much did they offer you?”

Harry Sebastian looked over at Michael for a long time. "Three percent. It doesn't sound like a lot, but trust me, it was."

An arched eyebrow. "You turned them down?"

"I turned them down. I have enough clean money to last me for a good long time, I don't need dirty money on top of it. So I made a joke about them owing me one and watched them sign the contracts. The Vietnamese lady has one, and--since Lucas needs my copy--I'm guessing Jerome has the third one. I have the backup."

"Why doesn't Mr. Johnson try to get your copy, too?" Emily asked.

"I'm not entirely sure, but I have a few theories. Maybe he really did have nothing to do with Lucas Budd's arrest, and he knows that even if Lucas tries to sell him out to save his own butt, Lucas has no proof. Or maybe Jerome just has more important documents to worry about. I'm not naive enough to think that this was their only backdoor deal, just the only one I was asked to be a part of. And finally, maybe he just doesn't think Lucas is a threat and he’s let his guard down. Because frankly: is he a threat? I mean, no offense, but he has two teenagers out running errands for him.

"But the real reason? He doesn't have to get it. He thinks I won't do anything with it, because he knows I'm scared to death of him. After this thing with Lucas—assuming he did it, of course—the whole city is jumping at shadows. I mean, he straight-up destroyed Lucas.…took away his career, his reputation, his family. You have to understand, this was a message to everyone in New Orleans, especially anyone thinking about running against him for mayor. And the message wasn't just 'Look at what I can do'…it was 'Look at what I'm willing do.'”

Outside, it was raining again, the soft drops hitting the office window and streaking down the glass. “Just now you said that Mr. Johnson doesn’t think that you’ll do anything with the contract,” Emily said softly. “Does that mean you will or you won’t?”

Harry Sebastian looked up at her, his lips tight and thin. He made a fist, like he was going to hit his desk, but he put it back down slowly. “That’s what you just got out of all this? Listen to me: if Jerome was capable of doing this to Lucas, a guy he’s been friends with since grade school, think what he’d do to you, no matter who your daddy is. This isn't a game, Emily, this isn't putting on suits and mixing cocktails and acting all constipated. This is real.”

Harry took a deep breath and relaxed his fist. “Please, honey: walk away. I don’t care how deep into this you guys are, you can still get out. I can protect you…I’ll keep the contract, let Jerome know that if anything happens to either of you I’ll send it to every reporter in this area code…”

“You’re scared,” Michael said.

“You’re goddamn right I am. Haven’t you been listening? Jerome can-”

“No, not of Jerome. Of Lucas...you're afraid of letting him down. And you're afraid of letting go of the contract. It's the only power you have in this.”

“Please. Lucas doesn’t want this to come out any more than Jerome does.” Harry stared down at his desk and breathed loudly through his nose. Finally, he looked back up at them. “You know that this won’t just affect Lucas and Jerome, right? If it comes out, it’ll take out both of them, sure, but what about your friends? I mean, what about Robert?”

“And Litta’Bit,” Emily said. “Her mom is the other partner, right? The development, it's where they live?”

“She…yes. She is. So why are you doing this? None of us even know if Lucas was framed or not…you could be ruining the life of your friends to help a…a drug-addicted closeted pedophile.”

Emily’s voice was low, barely audible over the rain, but she didn't break eye contact with him. “Because if we help clear this mess up, the twins will come home.”

Harry closed his eyes and started to speak, but he didn’t say anything. He turned away from her and stared out the window across the room.

“And if you can’t help us," Emily said, "we’ll go to Ms. Hunyh. We thought we could trust you, we thought you’d be someone we could count on. But you’re not. This doesn’t even concern you, and you’re still not going to help us.”

Michael glanced quickly over at Emily, his eyebrows raised, but she shook her head at him, just a little.

“That’s fine, though. It’s okay. We were expecting it, really. Mr. Budd said this was a long shot anyway, that you probably wouldn’t come through when push came to shove.”

“Enough.” Harry turned back to her. “I see what you’re doing…just stop it. I never said I wasn’t going to help. I just wanted both of you to understand what you were getting involved in, and give you…give you the chance to get out. I’ll turn over the envelope. I won’t get in the way of your little adventure. But--fuck me, I sound just like a Dad--but I want you to know that I’m just so...disappointed in both of you.”

Neither of them spoke. Michael looked away, and eventually Emily did, too. With a sigh, Harry Sebastian pushed himself up from behind his desk.

“Stay here. The envelope isn’t in this room, it’ll take me a second to get it.” He walked around the desk. When his back was to them, Michael moved his hand over and quickly squeezed Emily’s for just a second.

Harry Sebastian opened the door, but he didn’t leave the office just yet. He paused in the doorway, then turned back to Emily and Michael with a desperate look.

“I’ll give it to you…I don’t care what you two do. But you promise me this: don’t you dare get David involved. Do you hear me? You leave my boy out of this.”

The rain continued to fall. “We promise,” Emily whispered.

Harry Sebastian looked into each of their faces once more, then turned and left the room.

Next Week: Litta'Bit counts to ten...