VICTOR IN THE SKY . . . WITH DIAMONDS
lackmail is a despicable act, and I only stooped that low because my alternative was to spend twenty-five years in prison for a murder that I didn't commit. My name is Jacqueline Blue, and I'm really a decent woman. I obey the laws of New York State even when they don't make sense. I support my mother, who, because she didn't finish high school and has no skills, can't find a job. I contribute to the NAACP even though they hold more banquets than protests during these last years of the twentieth century. I also respect the privacy of my fellow human beings. So, if someone had told me a year ago that I would dig into the background of a
New York Comet
reporter and uncover secrets to force her cooperation in my affairs, I would have laughed uncontrollably.
My biggest problems at the beginning of this year were my unrequited love for a traveling salesman named Victor Bell and editing an offensive biography written by Craig Murray, an untalented scribe who was married to my boss. It was a lonely existence, but I figured that once Craig's book was completed and Victor had come to his senses, my life would become paradise. God had other plans.
It was the middle of January and so cold outside that my ears, fingers, and toes grew numb during the ten minutes it took to walk from the office building where I worked in Times Square to B. Smith's restaurant for the weekly Black Pack get-together.
We called ourselves the Black Pack because the eight of us were the only African-American professionals working in the rarefied world of Manhattan book publishing. Each of us worked for a different company. We had nothing in common except a shared cultural heritage and a need to vent about the frustration, alienation, and invalidation that we experienced from some members of the Dominant Culture. At the end of each dangerously soul-sapping, energy-draining week, it was nice to take off our Corporate Negro masks and relax.
I can still see myself, pulling off a heavy red wool cape and matching gloves as I followed the hostess to a round table where five members of the group were already seated. My hair was freshly braided, curled, and hanging loose around my shoulders. I was wearing a square-necked, long-sleeved red dress, belted at the waist, which had cost way too much money but looked so good on my buxom, five-foot, five-inch frame that it was guaranteed to show off my coffee-colored skin and make Victor sweat.
Victor wasn't there and my heart sank, even as the others greeted me cheerfully. Paul Dodson caught my eye and knew my instant misery. Paul was the only one in the group that knew about my crush on our colleague.
Alyssa was missing also. Our workloads made it impossible for all eight of us to show up every single Friday night. I sat down, hoping that Victor would stop by later.
Rachel was there, dressed to the nines and batting her eyelashes at each male who passed by the table. Everyone in the group knew that the only reason Rachel Edwards never missed a gathering was that she was desperate to find a rich husband and B. Smith's attracted its share of professional Black men. Rachel was one of the few black publicists in the business, but she didn't care about us, Black book buyers, or anyone except herself. She longed for a luxurious house, set on a few acres of land in Westchester County, where she could hobnob with the wives of other rich men and spend the rest of her time serving on committees. She was a pathetic gold digger who had recently dyed her hair blond to match.
Sitting across the table from Rachel, I tried not to notice her flashing smiles in the direction of several brothers in business suits who were having drinks at the bar to the left of our table. A pretty and petite woman just past her thirtieth birthday, Rachel was wearing a black knit dress that clung to her curves. I know this because she got up several times during the evening to go to the bathroom so that the men could watch her glide.
“Why Jackie, don't you look sensational in that red dress,” she said with a smile.
“It is definitely working,” Joe Long agreed.
“I'll bet it's a Nicole Miller,” said Elaine “I went to Harvard” Garner.
Elaine was one of the most irritating people I had ever met. She had a habit of bringing up her Ivy League education at every possible opportunity. It was my boss, Annabelle Murray, who had nicknamed her Elaine “I went to Harvard” Garner, and I shared that information with Paul, who laughed himself silly. People in the industry made a game of getting off the phone before she could mention Harvard and avoided as much social interaction with her as possible. The Black Pack couldn't do that because she was . . . well . . . Black.
“Probably a Nicole Miller knockoff,” observed Dallas Mowrey as she poked at a slice of lime in her drink.
For a split second I felt like scratching Dallas's eyes out, but suppose Victor was simply running late? It just wouldn't do for him to find me in an ugly catfight with that fat, pockmark-faced, cross-eyed, just-bought-a-brownstone-but-don't-have-enough-money to-put-a-decent-roof-on-it little bitch.
He was a very quiet, sophisticated, intelligent gentleman who would never date me after witnessing a scene like that.
I glanced over my shoulder just to make sure Victor wasn't approaching the table before I said, “Go to hell, Dallas.”
A waiter took my drink order as Rachel giggled nervously and Paul tapped the side of his water glass with a knife. “Ladies, ladies, we've come together for good food, strong drink, and Black unity. I'm not feeling any sisterly love here.”
Paul was trying hard not to chuckleâthe sight of his cheeks all puffed up with the effort made us laugh.
Joe Long peered at me over the top of his glasses. “Congratulations on signing Jamal Hunt.” Joe was a slim, bespectacled, nervous-looking editor who specialized in books on slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement because the editorial board at the company he worked for wouldn't let him buy anything else. He was smart, reclusive, and good-looking in a tweedy, college professor kind of way.
“We didn't bid in that auction,” Joe continued, “but I knew that the major houses were going to battle hard to win his next two books.”
Acquiring Jamal Hunt's next two books was a definite feather in my cap. He was the crown prince of hip-hop-flavored fiction.
“Thanks, Joe,” I replied. “That damned auction dragged on for two days.”
“Who was the agent?” asked Rachel.
We all shared a collective groan. Penelope was the nastiest, most abrasive literary agent in the business. All the editors, black and white, hated her guts but she was particularly galling to members of the Black Pack. She was a white woman who had an all-Black stable of writers only because authors of her own race absolutely refused to deal with her. They thought she was stupid, incompetent, and low class.
I didn't think Penelope was stupid. Duplicitous and conniving, yes. But not stupid.
What pissed me off was the sassy, singsong, pseudo-southern voice and bits of Black vernacular she threw into her conversations in an effort to bond with me. It was insulting; I wasn't having it and once told her so in no uncertain terms. Since her writers found her misguided attempts at Blackness amusing and the other Black editors never told her how they really felt, she could not understand my position.
Dallas said, “Girl, you have got your hands full! Jamal Hunt thinks he is God's gift to the literary community and, as quiet as it's kept, I had to rewrite most of that shit when I was his editor.”
I wanted to know more about those rewrites, but how would it look if I talked against my own client? Defending Jamal was the only professional thing to do. I took a long swig of my Bacardi 'n' Coke. “Actually, I've spoken to him once and he seems kind of sweet, and besides, his last book sold eighty thousand copies in hardcover.”
Dallas ran a chubby, bejeweled hand through her hair. “Jamal is a pain in the ass.”
The waiter reappeared for our food orders. B. Smith's specializes in what Paul calls “nouveau soul food.” I ordered the macaroni and cheese with Thai chicken wings.
“I'm going to wash my hands,” Rachel said. Dallas and Elaine had to get up because Rachel was squished between them.
Dallas waited until Rachel was out of earshot. “Why the hell doesn't she just go over there, ask one of those guys out, and be done with it? This is ridiculous.”
“She really needs to stop that shit,” Elaine grumbled. “When she gets back, I'm going to tell her to sit somewhere else. Jackie, why don't you trade places with Rachel?”
“And have me getting up and down like a jack-in-the-box?” asked Paul. “No way.”
I ignored their childish little squabble.
The restaurant was large and airy with about two dozen tables carefully arranged so that diners could speak without being overheard. The place was owned by a former fashion model named Barbara Smith who was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of
magazine. That cover and many others had been blown up and now graced the walls of her restaurant. I had also seen her in TV commercials for Revlon, Clairol, and Noxzema and as a guest on
The Today Show
Good Morning America.
She was one of the few Black women who wrote entertainment and lifestyle books for a major publishing house. As I gazed at the magazine covers featuring this talented and gorgeous creature, a little sigh escaped me.
“You will never look like that,” Paul said, teasing me.
“And you'll never look like Denzel Washington either,” I retorted.
We both laughed.
“Actually, I think Jackie is a very handsome woman,” Dallas said.
It was an insult disguised as a compliment. I flashed a smile in her direction. “Thank you, Dallas. I admire the way you find such fashionable clothes on the plus-size rack.”
“Cease fire!” commanded Paul.
Elaine casually asked Paul if Victor had called to say he wasn't coming.
“Nah, I didn't hear from him. I guess he is out on the road.”
“I think our Victor has made himself a love connection,” Dallas said, laughing.
My heart sank. “What makes you say that?”
“I saw him coming out of Victoria's Secret over on Madison Avenue last week. He was alone and carrying two shopping bags of stuff. We talked for a minute but he wouldn't tell me who the lucky girl is.”
Dallas thrived on gossip and it didn't take much to get her started on the personal dramas of other people. Paying attention to her stories provided more entertainment than a Hollywood melodrama.
Victor was funny, single, intelligent, well read, handsome, and polished. I wasn't interested in hearing any sordid tales about my dream man, but Joe stopped her before I could.
Joe slammed his glass down on the table. “I swear, you are such a vicious gossip! I'm surprised you didn't just assume that Victor is a cross-dresser and start spreading that dirt around!”
I had never seen Joe get angry before and his reaction was so extreme that no one knew what to say. It was clear from the expression of murderous rage on his face that Dallas had unwittingly stumbled into dangerous territory, but that didn't make sense unless Joe had a crush on the same “lucky girl.”
I downed my rum and Coke in one gulpâand half of Paul's Scotch. The combination made me wince.
In due course the whole world would know Victor's secret and it would rock us to our very foundations, but that night I was still determined to become his woman and this information caused a new heaviness to curl up around my heart.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” Elaine asked finally.
“Nothing,” Joe replied shortly. “Excuse me.” He headed toward the men's room.
“I'm confused,” said Rachel. “What just happened here?”
There was a lot of murmuring around the table about Joe's astonishing behavior, but I wasn't listening to any of it. Dallas was indeed a gossip, but once in a while her information was accurate and this made Victor's consistent rejection of my overtures during the past year even harder to swallow. I ordered myself two drinks from a passing waiter.
Paul whispered in my ear, “What's the matter, Jackie?”
“I wonder who Victor was buying underwear for and whether it's just a fling or if the woman really means something to him,” I whispered back.
Paul made a tsk-tsk sound and then said, “It's time you and I had a talk.”
Whatever he wanted to say to me would have to wait. Elaine was starting the “let's bitch about white folks” hour.
“Did you hear what happened to Alyssa Kraft?”
Alyssa was one of us. A tall, slender, copper-skinned sister from St. Louis, she was a genius at fixing even the purplest of prose. She was also kind, charitable, and sweet.
Joe slid back into his seat. “What about Alyssa?”