Daphne thought she owed Nine a favor. She didn’t, and yet every week or so there’d be a message from her about this supposed debt. Let me clear my ledger with you, k? Or last month’s I hate to owe anyone anything, with the exception of my first agent and last fiancé. Daphne was too up her own ass to use emojis, but she was heavy handed with gifs and memes. Usually a mix of old Hollywood stars and Real Housewives, with a decided preference for NeNe Leakes that Nine had neither time nor energy to unpack.
Debbie was blunt about it. “She’s got a crush on you. Put the woman out of my misery already.”
Nine Ball leaned back in the chair, her hands buried in her boilersuit. It was blue satin, because Debbie had insisted they go to eat somewhere fancy. “Your misery?”
“Mmf,” Debbie waved her hand dismissively, having shoveled a heavily-laden tostada in her mouth. “Mmm-unh, damn these are good. Look, she blows up my phone about you if she knows I’m in New York.”
Sipping a Michelada, Nine regarded Debbie. She was managing not to drop any Mexican food on her Rick Owens blouse, some sort of boxy contraption that engulfed her right shoulder. She’d look like a haute couture alien if wasn’t for the wavy hair looped behind her ears and the sarcastic glint her eyes.
Daphne didn’t owe Nine anything. But Nine owed Debbie, a little, and since the day they’d first met she’d realised that it was the things that Debbie said off-handedly, like jokes, that ended up being the most lucrative.
Setting her drink down, she asked Debbie, “What exactly does she want?”
“Apart from the obvious?” Debbie did that infernal half-smile thing. Every hustler on the planet had a version of that look in their repertoire. Debbie’s just happened to be better that most. “She has a job for you. But she’s afraid you’ll keep ignoring her. You know what actors hate most of all? Not being criticised. Being ignored.”
“If it’s anything like the last job Daphne asked me to do, it’s not gonna be a problem.”
Debbie waved over the waiter, and rattled off a long order in Spanish for more food and booze. She was in a celebratory mood, having finished a three-month stretch posing as some Eurotrash heiress in order to infiltrate an alt-right fundraising group. Last week she’d waltzed out of Vienna with their entire annual budget and a baker’s dozen of cryptocurrency wallets, which Nine had helped her disperse amongst various social justice groups.
As the server left the table, Debbie turned back to her. “Yeah, that shit you and Daphne pulled, it was a good job.”
“It’s not over yet. Lot of lawsuits to go.”
“Well, when a movie producer that powerful and seemingly untouchable gets the #MeToo treatment after a bunch of incriminating videos get anonymously sent to the New Yorker, the Guardian, Le Monde, and Jezebel - all on the same day? That mess isn’t going to be cleared up any time soon. Where is he now?”
Nine shook the last dregs out of her glass. “Before his studio cut their ties with him, he was staying in one of their New Mexico properties. Then the last tape came out and they kicked him out. Right now he’s holed up in Colorado.”
“What’s his internet access like?”
“It keeps going down. Lots of server issues, apparently.”
The restaurant was noisy, but nothing was a match for Debbie’s laugh.
It wasn’t a long walk between the taquería and the pool hall. Nine lit up a blunt and strolled through the back streets, taking a serpentine route that let her count the antenna nodes and microwave radios set up to to distribute non-legit WiFi around. She pulled her phone out and looked at the local network names, recognising some belonging to various Dark Web weirdos and other comrades.
Veronica had designed her a special app to look over radio signal dispersal. It had been her Christmas present two years ago, and an update had been last year’s, along with a bunch of the Korean skincare that Nine’s little sister was crazy about.
As if, Nine told her, they needed to worry. Look at Aunt Camille, who was pulling a Cicely Tyson in her early 80s by looking no more than 50.
Her sister just rolled her eyes and forwarded her directions to some ten-step night time moisturizing routine that Nine was all, hell no, though she did keep using the aloe toner. That shit was tight. If there was a black entrepreneur who wanted to make dupes and sell them in the US, Nine would back her Kickstarter 100%. She told Veronica that, just saying, and Veronica did her usual “Well I’m busy right now but yeah maybe one day? Engineering degrees don’t earn themselves you know.”
Nine knew. And even if she didn’t see the point - they give you a piece of paper for shit you taught yourself? And charge you for the privilege of testing you on it? - she appreciated how Aunt Camille and Aunt Bea lit up when they were talking about Veronica’s progress.
There was a message from Camille, asking her in all caps what she was going to wear to church on Christmas Day. Bea, who would be wearing a tucked-in button down shirt and slacks, always crisply ironed by Camille, would just smile whenever Nine got told off for her outfits, which were always a little too baggy for Camille’s taste.
Back when she was of the kind of age for wondering about these things, Nine used to puzzle over how someone as finickity and particular as her mother’s sister ended up with Bea, who came home from the garage covered in engine oil, with big clunky work boots that Nine desperately envied. It was at someone’s wedding that one of their Sunday School teachers had a little too much rum punch and told her the story of Camille working her weekend job as a florist when the delivery truck pulled up behind the shop and out of it came Bea, tipping her hat at the scowling shop girl who snapped at her not to get muddy footprints on the floor.
“And then,” laughed Maisie, clinging on to Nine’s shoulder, “one day Bea came in and admired some bouquet your Aunt was making. Said it was the prettiest thing, and you know Camille - she sniffed and said it was twenty dollars worth of flowers. Then Bea just pulled out her wallet and offered to buy it for her.”
Eventually she told Veronica that story, who furrowed her brows at the end of it and asked why they never had fresh flowers in the house, except for the times Camille was doing them for someone’s funeral or wedding.
“Because flowers cost money, V, you think your shoes pay for themselves?”
Camille and Bea took in the two of them when Nine was a sulky twelve-year old and Veronica a toddler. Her little sister didn’t see how tight things were in those early days, and Nine had never really wanted her to. She was smart, but Nine was smart too, and older, and she always tried to know a little more than her sister did.
There was also a message from her sister. There always was. Veronica switched platforms constantly, from Snapchat to Discord to Pillow Fort. It forced Nine to have too many damn apps. Stopping next to a dry cleaners, she smoked the last of her blunt while reading it in the glow of a neon sign proclaiming WASH’N’FOLD.
You gonna stay over with us for Christmas Eve? I wanna do presents at midnight
Veronica lived in an apartment with some other Columbia students near campus, but she still spent a night or two a week in their old room with Camille and Bea. Come December 22rd, she would move back in with them for the rest of the year.
Nine loved her family, but she also loved being by herself in her own apartment, the tick-tock sound of balls hitting each other on a pool table, partying with friends downtown, whupping Constance at pinball, and the streets of New York in winter.
Pulling out some earbuds, she delayed responding to Veronica. There were still games she had to play, jobs to complete, and fires to put out, before she committed to anything. And there was the little matter of what she would get for Veronica, given that she’d so roundly saved their asses during the Met Gala job.
What did you get the college student who had an unlimited line of credit? A fake ID was too obvious, and Nine Ball did not make her name on a lack of imagination. Also, Veronica was old enough to be making her own.
After all, Nine had been when she was her age.
There were around sixty tabs opened in her browser. Nine had been shopping for her sister all afternoon. This project was going to be a little more complex than she thought.
Turning off the Burning Spear track she’d been listening to, she decided to follow up on the nagging text Debbie had sent her earlier. The phone rang three times before being picked up with a sharp intake of breath and a high-pitched, “Hello? Who is this?”
Nine adjusted the phone mic with a sigh. “It’s me.”
“Miss Lady! It’s so wonderful to talk to you, at last.”
“Kluger, why are you answering an unknown number?”
“Why are you calling my on my burner, anyway? I have a perfectly good amount of business lines.”
Daphne was a walking infosec nightmare. Nine liked to remind her of that, and pretend like it didn’t worry her and that she’d never spent any late nights fixing holes in her firewalls and shutting up her cloud accounts tightly. “Deb says you have a job for me.”
“Mes ami, Madame Ocean has the wrong idea about me, as usual.’Tis I who owes you.”
Rolling her eyes at that, Nine played with the tablet in front of her. It was showing her the layout of Daphne’s LA mansion, and that was only creepy if you didn’t know Daphne had dared Nine that she couldn’t get it. Which was flirty as hell, sure, but Nine didn’t like to back down from a challenge.
Daphne was still going on, extra as always, “...and I said, when you’re next in NY, not only do you have to check out this adorable little boho perfumery that I discovered, you just have to get that girl to hit me back! I cannot live in debt to Nine Ball any longer! Such fatigue kills the spirit and creates worry lines,”
“Kluger. What are you talking about? We did the job, and it’s all going well.”
“You’re telling me. I mean, did you see the Times report this afternoon? His own lawyer quit. Delicious! I wish I could be a fly on the wall of that boardroom - hey, you don’t have security camera access, do you?”
“Be too late to get the footage. That what you wanted?”
“No, my imagination is rich and vivid.”
“Like I said back then, you don’t owe me anything. I only did like five hours of work on it. He’s the one who owes people.”
“Does he ever. And the alimony payments haven’t even kicked in yet. His estranged wife is going after everything.”
“And what are you doing for the holidays? Something with your adorable sister?”
Nine looked over at her sixty tabs. Taking Veronica on holiday had occurred to her, and although California hadn’t been on her shortlist, it wasn't a terrible idea. Plenty of Korean skincare places to go visit in Los Angeles.
“Probably. Gotta keep an eye on her.”
“She’s as smart as you, and younger? You certainly do. Ah, youth.”
“When are you going to ask me?”
“Ask you what, Nine Ball?”
“Whatever it is you want me to do. Tap into another exec’s emails? Dig up some more video? I’m not putting a trace on your ex, everyone knows you stalk his Insta already.”
“That fucking app - one accidental like on an old picture, and the whole world jumps to conclusions. I wasn’t stalking him, I was trying to find a picture of me in a particular outfit. Google Image search sucks now.”
“I’m ignoring your diversion. Hanging up in ten, nine, eight…”
“Aargh!” It was an annoyed huff Daphne pulled out during most of their conversations. Nine had heard her use it in movies, but never as effectively as she did IRL. “It’s not even for me, it’s for the widow of my old drama teacher.”
“Don’t sound so suspicious. She’s a nice lady, not very computer savvy, and after Mr. Anderson passed away, she’s never got around to dealing with his PC. There’s a bunch of photos and files on there that need tidying, and they have no kids to help them out,”
“And you need me, why?”
“Because I want to help her, but I want to do it discreetly. It’s embarrassing when you come from a small town, everything you do when you go back there gets analysed and blown all out of proportion. Like, last summer I was there and I went to one of the two coffee shops on the main street twice, and the other one only once, and people claimed I was trying to put the other one out of business.”
“And I was going to visit her, under the radar, and she mentioned that the ‘computer stuff’ was still frustrating, because there’s some document she needs to print out but she has no idea where her husband saved it - honestly, I don’t think she even knows how to turn it on - and I said, I have a friend who knows all about that stuff!”
“Look, she’s expecting me next weekend, along with some geek stereotype. Like, bad skin and thick glasses. You don’t see many dreadlocks in Conifer, Connecticut.”
“So, in order to be less visible on your trip to your hometown, you want to take me along? Are black people really that rare?”
“That’s not it! I’ve planned the whole thing, we can be in and out in a day, and I’ll take you to a little restaurant I love near Hartford, and we can eat good food and stay in my cottage there, no one will know and I’ll really owe you! And I’m a good person to have indebted to you! I’m 67 on Vanity Fair’s Power Rankings, which doesn’t mean anything of course but I could get you in the front row at any fashion week show you wanted or Oscar tickets or whatever. Does Veronica like Drake? I know Drake.”
“Keep Drake all the hell away from my sister.”
“I will! I promise!”
Nine put her tablet aside, and ran her fingers along the edges of her laptop. She had plenty to keep her occupied in New York. Leaving the city was a pain in the ass, particularly in winter. Daphne was… Daphne.
“When you going to pick me up?”
“Eeee!” Daphne was clapping her hands over the phone, like a trained seal or something. “Oh, this is going to be excellent. So much more fun that the trip I did to Aspen with Chloë Moretz. Did you see that? It was for a Vogue thing. Or Elle.”
It was for Vogue, and Nine didn’t feel great about the fact that she immediately knew that.
Veronica’s birthday was on January the 2nd, and that was a tough time to have a birthday. As her big sister, Nine had always considered it her sacred duty to make it special for her. It was Nine who shook down frat boys at pool halls for extra cash to buy all the makings for a QRP transceiver from Radio Shack, or a soldering kit, or her first set of turntables. Veronica, who had vivisected every radio in their apartment by the time she was twelve, had always been obsessed with music.
The two of them had even had a little business together back in their schooldays, selling ripped CDs of Veronica’s mixes.
Remembering that was what made her think of it. A gift that Veronica wouldn’t get from anyone else. That no one else could get.
A small thing. Tiny. Barely weighed anything. Out of its box, that is. The box it came in was silver-plated, and also contained a leather-bound book. But it wasn’t the book or the box that Nine was interested in.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was the only Wu-Tang album in existence that Nine had never heard. Because only one copy existed, and Wu-Tang had sold it to the highest bidder back in 2015.
Nine didn’t hold it against RZA that it had sold to Martin Shkreli. He had no idea that the buyer they rinsed of $2 million would turn out to be the most toxic of bros, the kind of guy who made his money hiking up the price of HIV drugs. He was too stupid to even keep quiet about it, and got caught by the feds.
Which was when the last Wu album had been seized by the federal government. Unheard by anyone but some civil servants bouncing to it in a FBI warehouse somewhere.
But what were the odds of an insufferable blowhard like Martin Shkreli not making a copy or three to share with people he wanted to impress?
Most of Nine’s skill was in understanding other people’s motivation. Across a pool table, behind a screen, wherever, human beings were remarkably predictable. Only a few ever surprised her.
One of the only ones who had was driving them both along a Connecticut highway in a rented Lexus. Connecticut so far had plenty of trees and rain. When they’d got in the car at the airport Daphne had promised to point out all the landmarks on the drive, but so far that had consisted of the McDonalds where her cousin had almost been arrested and the road that turned off to the summer camp Daphne had attended for four years. “Two as a camper, two as a counsellor. I loved it, which will come as no surprise.”
Daphne snorted. She was wearing all black, as if they were undercover, but with a load of silver jewellery. After the Met Gala, she’d been staying away from gemstones, not wanting to encourage the gossip bloggers willing to bring up “that necklace thing” all over again.
Nine pulled her FUBU sweater around her. It was warm in the car, but looking at the grey drizzle outside gave her a second-hand chill. She still didn’t know exactly what she was doing here, but figured Daphne would talk eventually. It was just a matter of time. But not yet, not while Daphne was slipping back into her memories and whatever persona she was going to wear for this trip.
Which made this a good time to get Daphne on board with Nine’s plan.
“Ever heard of Becky Fontana?”
Daphne’s mouth screwed up as she thought. “Was she in the 90210 reboot? Or the Melrose Place reboot? Or the Dynasty reboot?”
“Not an actress. Sometimes she models. Mostly she spends her trust fund, which her dad made from junk bonds in the 80s. As well as the modelling she also thinks she’s a DJ.”
“DJ Becky with the good heir? As in, H-E-I-”
“I get it, Kluger.”
Daphne didn’t sound daunted. “Well, I may have met her at something somewhere, but I don’t remember. There’s about three thousand model-slash-DJs out there, when I got to one of Leo’s parties I’m neck deep in them.”
“She used to party with Martin Shkreli.”
“Wait, the pharma bro guy? Ugh. Imagine, you’d need a Silkwood shower after just being in the same room as him.”
Nine nodded, looking out the window at another row of identical trees. She supposed they had to have some differences, but it was hard to tell at the speed Daphne liked to drive. “I think she might have something interesting in her record collection.”
“Really? Becky does?”
“Really. And she’s giving a party next week.”
Daphne sighed. “Oh.”
Raising her eyebrows, Nine rolled her head over to look at Daphne, who had caught herself mid-huff. “It’s just one party.”
“Of all the things I can do for you, you want an invite to some basic’s party?”
Nine kept her eyebrows raised. Eventually, Daphne clicked. “Oh. Oh! You want me to go along and - what? Rifle through her vinyl? That sounds kind of fun. How would I smuggle it out of there? One of those huge Prada carry-alls?”
“I just need intel.”
“More boring, but still a challenge. Fun. Operation Becky is on.”
Reaching into her bag, Nine got out her phone. She’d created a few playlists for this trip, and right now she felt like some Fela Kuti was called for. “We’re going to stop for coffee soon, right?”
“‘Course we are. I know just the place, all artisanal and organic, and they do the best oat milk latte I’ve ever had - don’t roll your eyes, I’m kidding. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts coming up in about ten minutes.”
They both got large coffees, with plenty of cream and sugar, and a couple of donuts each. Nine was making progress on a chocolate frosted when Daphne asked her, “What’s your real name?”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Eight ball.”
“Ha freakin’ ha. You know my first agent wanted to call me Darling King? Darling! He came up with it himself, said it was very Jennifer Love Hewitt. Can you imagine? 'And the Academy Award goes to… Darling.'”
Nine laughed around a mouthful of donut. “That why you left him?”
“The agent? I wish. I almost went along with it, I was that stupid. But then he heard about a porn star called Darlin’ Dees and I got to keep my name.”
“Were you named after someone?”
“My great-grandmother. My mother dumped me with her parents when I was born, she wanted to call me Starchild or something hippy. You can bet my Grandma wasn’t having that. She was the one to register my birth, so she got to pick the name.”
Looking sharply at her, Nine swallowed. “I didn’t know that.”
Daphne laughed without spite. “It’s not on my Wikipedia page! I figure it’ll come out sometime, but right now the official story is that my poor, tragic mother died shortly after having me and I was raised by my kindly - and very wealthy - grandparents. My father, a banker, was a distant but fond presence in my upbringing. We leave out that he was once a wannabe rock star who knocked up a high school drop-out in some field somewhere after a music festival. And that aforementioned high school drop-out left the baby with her estranged parents before hitch-hiking her way to Columbus, Ohio, and od’ing on heroin there.”
The donut felt stuck in Nine’s throat. “Damn.”
“Her death certificate reads ‘heart problems’. My family is good at getting official documents to say what they want them to say.”
She didn’t sound bitter, just resigned. Glancing over at Nine, she took a swig of her coffee. “Look, I didn’t know my mother, and I’ve mourned her in my own way. It’s not that I don’t sympathise with her. My grandparents were good people, but that doesn’t always make for good parenting. Not the first time around, anyway. Clearly, I did much better. They had me seeing a shrink from when I was six. No wonder I’m a performer.”
Nine crumpled up her donut bag. “My name is Leslie.”
Originally she was going to be called after her famous grandmother. Lucille was a famous carnival queen known as “Madame Bombshell”, and she had been the first person to dance the Limbo internationally. But the midwife advised her parents that with the last name of Ball, they should reconsider the choice. So she was officially christened Leslie Lucille, which was quickly shortened to LL and then, as soon as she began ditching church for pool halls, to Nine Ball. The only people who could call her Leslie were her Aunties and Veronica.
She didn’t know why she wanted to tell Daphne all of this, but Daphne listened carefully, leaning slightly towards her.
When she went quiet, Daphne asked, “So who was Grandma Leslie?”
“From my father’s side. She was less respectable than Madame Bombshell. She had come to the US to work as a maid, but quit after getting in some kind of trouble. Allegedly, she stabbed her employer with a cheese knife and ran off with the cook. They were going to open a restaurant in New Jersey but the cook ditched her, so she stuck a turban on her head and read palms on the broadwalk for fifteen years.”
Daphne cackled. “How appropriate! Though I kind of wish you were Lucille Ball.”
“Well. I am a natural redhead.”
They drove together through several more miles of trees and rain, before the WELCOME TO CONIFER - HOME OF THE CONIFER COUGARS made them both laugh like teenagers.
Carol Anderson’s house was in a quiet cul-de-sac on the east side. On the short drive through the town Daphne had explained the layout to Nine - the richer houses were in the west, the private school she had gone to was on the north end of the main street (named Main Street), and the public school was all the way on the south side. “That area used to be pretty wild. It’s where my mother used to hang out, at the dive bars down there. Now it’s been filled with subdivisions and a Target.”
They were expected. Carol opened the door with a smile, a tiny grey-haired woman in pastels who gave Daphne a tentative hug and Nine a soft handshake. Inside, they ate limp sandwiches and drank tea while Daphne carried the conversation about life since Mr. Anderson’s passing.
Sitting on the edge of a floral settee, Carol told them, “I still get condolence letters from his students. He touched so many lives. Though he retired back in 2004, he still directed local theatre projects.”
She didn’t sound very sure about any of this, or perhaps the tedium of repeating the same biographical details was beginning to wear on her. Either way, Daphne chose this moment to ask if she still wanted help “sorting out his office.”
“Yes, dear, that would be so kind of you. And if your friend can work the computer - I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
Mr. Anderson’s office was a cramped space, clearly meant to have been a child’s room but filled with an IKEA office set and stuffed cabinets. Piles of cardboard folders were stacked helter-skelter, and it had the musty smell of neglect. The framed posters of local arts festivals were covered in a film of dust. Nine moved aside a CD tower filled with giveaway CD-ROMS and Broadway cast albums to sit down on the ratty office chair with a ‘School Property - Do Not Remove’ sticker taped to the back.
The PC was a grey brick from the early 00s, and it gave Nine a warm burst of nostalgia. She’d learned to code on something similar, after devoting hours to the Neopets forums and deciding to start her own fansite. The sound of it whirring to life was so familiar, she was tempted to record it on her phone.
As it booted up, she turned over the fraying Windows XP mousepad, and found the password on a post-it stuck underneath.
Typing NATHANLANE123 into the login prompt, she watched the desktop picture of Rosalind Russell in Mame come into view. Mr. Anderson wasn’t much different from Nine when she had got her first internet connection, he used it to indulge in his love for things far away from the suburbs of Connecticut. Nine had a hunch that Carol wasn’t a big Broadway fan. She got it, certainly no one in her school or church had been interested in anime or downloading Buzzcocks songs, which was all Nine wanted to think about when she was sixteen.
For a while she worked quietly as Daphne stayed in the sterile living room with Carol. After around twenty minutes she heard the patter of Clergerie shoes coming down the hallway towards the office.
“How’s it going, Matthew Broderick?”
Daphne didn’t bother looking up at that. “A War Games reference? That all you got?”
“That computer reminds me of the one I used to play Carmen Sandiego on for hours.” She closed the door behind her. “You find the document she needs for the insurance?”
Nine held up the print-out and Daphne took it. “Cool, thanks. You get rid of any gay porn?”
“Deleted from the hard drive.”
Nine shrugged. She had put all of the necessary documents in a file and saved them to a USB for Carol to pass on to the family lawyer, and she’d done some low-key security updates. “Anderson kept it tight. No financial data here, everything well organised. He scanned all his theatre programs and uploaded them to Flickr. It's an impressive collection.”
She looked over at Daphne. “What is it you wanted me to look at?”
Daphne had already moved away from her, and she was tugging at pile of folders. Nine tilted her head, “Hey?”
“He kept everything! Yes, this is what I was hoping for. Nearly twenty years worth of notes. I need to find… 1997,”
She was rifling busily now. Nine wasn’t about to help her, but she turned around to the door, as if Carol was about to burst through with a TMZ crew. “The fuck is this about, Kluger?”
“Just keep typing, or whatever. Defrag something.”
Wrestling one notebook out of a precarious pile, Daphne sat cross-legged on the floor between two filing cabinets and a plastic crate full of tax returns. She leafed through it rapidly, eyes methodically scanning each page.
There was a creak in the floorboards outside. Nine, to her shame, flinched, but the only other sounds were of running water. Daphne muttered, “She’s in the kitchen. Needs to make a pound cake for Sunday School.”
Nine watched her. Daphne’s eyes moved rapidly, and she licked her fingers to leaf through the stuff pages, covered in spidery handwriting with sketches of staging layouts, with loose pages of musical notation intercepted throughout.
Daphne was studying it like it was Holy Writ. At one page, her whole body stiffened, then she tilted forward, nose so close to the page it was as if she was trying to tip herself into the notebook. Pulling out her phone she took several careful photos of it, then closed it firmly.
For a moment she looked forward into space, her lips a thin line. Then she stood up in one fluid motion and turned to put the notes back and rearrange the stack of files.
Spinning around to face Nine, she crossed her arms. “You done here?”
“Oh, I’m done.” Nine held her hands up in resignation. “Let me close this down.”
Daphne picked up the print out and left to give it to Carol, her voice coming down the hallway full of sunshine and cheer. Nine closed down the computer, giving it a fond pat as she half-listened to Daphne’s reasons for leaving early, and how sad she’d be to miss out on Carol’s choir's Christmas performance. By the time she walked out of the office to join them, Daphne was promising to sponsor a scholarship fund in Mr Anderson's name and hugging Carol, who looked overwhelmed.
Back in the car, Nine asked if Daphne wanted her to drive.
“No, I’m good.”
“Your hands are shaking.”
Daphne looked down at her pale palms, as if they were something alien. “Huh.”
They got out and swapped places, and Nine drove them out of town in silence.
They drove like that for a while, then Daphne inhaled sharply, and seemed to come out of her daze. Nine glanced in her direction.
“I was a straight A student.”
Nine huffed at that. Of course she was. The woman had overachiever written all over her.
She continued, “And I loved English and Theatre best of all. I mean, I did all the classes my grandparents wanted me to, and could kill it in algebra, which has proved to be very useful for contract negotiations. But I loved words, and I loved performing.
“Mr Anderson couldn’t stand me. I get it, I got it then - it was the same reason I never had many friends, outside of camp. I was so eager to be good - to be better than everyone else. To get all the rules right. As if they’d like me for it. Ha! Well, we were doing Once Upon a Mattress for the school play, and I was sure I’d get the role of Winifred. I could sing, I could act, I had the whole play memorised. And Mr. Anderson passed me over and gave the role to Kimberley Van Diem, who was - trust me on this, Nine Ball - tone deaf and banal. She spoke and sang in monotone. I couldn’t believe it. I was in the chorus, but only because everyone who auditioned had to get a role doing something.”
She stopped the flow of words for a moment, gripping her arms around her, staring straight ahead.
“Then our end of year report cards came out. Believe me, I had done everything he asked us to. Wrote essays on the use of empty space in Six Characters in Search of an Author, sonnets in iambic pentameter, I even learned how to use the sound board so I could be the special effects understudy - understudy! - in our productions. Every issue of our school magazine included one of my Classic Theatre Recommendations, where I’d tell people in 250 words why I loved Death of a Salesman, which I didn’t, by the way, I never liked Miller. I just thought it would impress people.”
The next pause took longer. Nine kept her eyes on the road. She wasn’t sure if Daphne was restraining herself from crying or laughing, the hitch in her breathing could mean either.
“Mr. Anderson gave me a B-. I couldn’t stop crying. My Grandfather took one look at that card and he called the school. Arranged a private meeting with Mr. Anderson. Soon enough, that B- became an A. My grandmother told me about it over breakfast, patting me on the shoulder for all my hard work.”
Tipping her head back, Daphne choked out a laugh. “I never got cast in any of the plays from then on. I mean, I was always in them - second half of a donkey, spearholder number two - but never a speaking role. It was only at camp that I got to act, because everyone at camp was like me, they understood. There, I was allowed to get attention for being good, not for having a rich family or a dead mother. I knew I could be good if anyone let me try. I didn’t understand what Mr. Anderson’s problem was.”
“Was that what you found today? What his problem was?”
“Oh, I knew what it was already. When I started auditioning in New York, desperate to prove him wrong, I heard the same old things over and over - that I was too much, that no one liked precociousness, that I came across too affected. I got stacks of notes. And I learned. From all of them. When you start off in the business, people can afford to be honest with you.”
“What are they like now?”
“You gotta work to hear the truth. It’s still there, but there’s so much bullshit…”
She trailed off, as if she was exhausted. Then after a few seconds, she sat up straight in her seat and pulled out her phone. The screen lit up as she scrolled through to the notes she’d taken pictures of at the Anderson house.
“Here it is. ‘D. Kluger, senior class. Needs focus; thinks technical work beneath her. Mistakes snobbery for depth. Doesn’t commit to her character’s truth. Enunciation fair. Strong singer. Too much attitude - whines. Not a collaborator.’”
Nine looked over at her. “Why did you need to know?”
Daphne’s face was composed. “I don’t hate negative reviews, you know. I hate systems that reward the wrong kind of performance.”
She put her phone back and twisted in the seat so her body was facing Nine’s. “I told you my family was good at getting documents changed to suit them. I never got an honest review from Mr. Anderson. All those years, I was working to hear his voice again, but to hear him tell me something true. Now I have it.”
“He was wrong. You did commit to your character’s truth. And from a legal standpoint, you are definitely a collaborator.”
Daphne laughed. “And it only took twenty-one years and a major robbery for me to get here.”
Back at her crib in Brooklyn, Nine was struggling with a Python script while listening to old episodes of 2 Dope Queens. The code should have been simple, but she kept finding bugs. It was a few days to go before Christmas, and she’d rather be shooting pool, or wrapping gifts with Veronica, or eating Aunt Camille’s gingerbread at a kitchen table in the Bronx. Camille would ask her how work was going, and Nine would tell her that freelance life had it’s ups and downs, but she liked the flexibility.
The road trip with Daphne had been just over a week ago, but it felt like it had been a dream. All those trees, the endless rain, the dusty office and neglected computer, Carol Anderson’s quiet and boneless words of gratitude, the glimpse of what little life remained after an unsatisfactory marriage.
She wanted to get this script right. It was for Tammy’s inventory management, and Nine always delivered clean work. Promising herself a cold beer when it was done, she went back to her text editor.
The code came together, first slowly, then all in a rush. She was still enmeshed in it when a Skype call came through from Daphne.
“Hey Kluger. You going out?”
Daphne was in full makeup, a towelling robe wrapped around her shoulders. “I’m doing a skit on The Late Late Show. They were meant to put us in eight foot inflatable dinosaur costumes, but there’s been more leaks than the White House, so I thought I’d deliver my report.”
Becky Fontana’s party had been last night. Daphne had been the guest of honour. The ‘gram had shown the two of them posing for a selfie against a millennial pink backdrop saying CREATE YOUR BEST LIFE. Nine had read that and thought, check, I already have.
Daphne ticked off points on her fingers. “It only took me twenty minutes and a lot of vape smoke to get her to spill. She did get a copy of the album off Shkreli, but only listened to it a couple of times. Says she’s more into acoustic sounds these days - I know, I know, you should have heard the emo Soundcloud tripe she had on in the background - but she never told anyone about it, because of how incredibly uncool it was to be associated with him.”
Nine was too tired to even roll her eyes. “So where is it now?”
The album was saved to a hard drive Becky used for making mixes. This hard drive had been left behind at a party in the Hamptons in 2016, and she’d sent her then-boyfriend to pick it up.
“But guess what? Becky and Basil had a fight, so she never got it back.”
Nine held Daphne’s gaze over Skype. “Basil?”
“Basil. Middle name, Thaddeus. Want to know his last name? It’s on the back of at least three cleaning products in your bathroom. He’s not in the family business, though, he’s working on becoming a wildlife photographer after his MMA fighting career didn’t take off.”
“You’re gonna tell me Basil is on safari in Kenya or some shit? Maybe someone will Cecil the lion him.”
“He’s in Myanmar, at that douchey silent retreat Jack Dorsey went to.”
“But his stuff?”
“At his loft in Brooklyn.”
Nine leaned back in her chair. “You think he even knows what’s on the hard drive?”
Daphne snorted. “I would doubt that he could pick out Myanmar on a map, even when he’s in it.”
There was a knock on the door of her dressing room. A tentative voice called out, “Ms. Kluger?”
“I gotta go. That enough for you?”
Nine made a finger gun and shot it at her. Daphne lifted her hand to catch the bullet, and blew it a kiss.
Basil might not know his geography, but Nine Ball knew hers. She hit up Constance that afternoon.
“Yeah, that place is two blocks away from me. Full of assholes. Yo, you coming to my next house party? I’m getting a bubble machine, and I am so close to beating your pinball record.”
“Your ass is never beating my record. Can you go around to pick something up for me? The asshole who lives there is on a silent retreat. His place is being house sat by some beauty vlogger. According to her social channels, she’s doing an appearance at the launch of a new cuticle cream tonight from 7 to 9 tonight.”
“On it, fam.”
Nine made one more call before leaving to go check in at the - her - bar.
“Girl, I’m busy.”
“You are playing Nintendo in your jammies waiting for Aunt Bea to come around.”
Over the line, Nine could hear Veronica put the player control aside. “You can’t prove that.”
“You staying over with them for the next few days?”
“Of course I am. Unless you need help with something?” Veronica gave a melodramatic sigh. “I suppose I could help. If you made it worth my while.”
“Keep it up, more sass, you’ll end up paying for your degree by yourself.”
“Everyday you are sounding more like Camille.”
Nine snorted. She twirled the mic cord around one finger. “I was thinking, tomorrow we could go see Mom and Poppa. All together.”
“Yeah?” Veronica sounded surprised. She was usually the one dragging Nine out to the cemetery. “I hear that. I’ll talk to the Aunties, but I’m sure they’ll come. Camille will make us go worship after, you know.”
“I know. Church is lit at Christmas, though.”
“You just want those Sunday school cookies.”
“That’s the one. I’ll pick you all up about two thirty?”
Veronica hummed acknowledgement. “Mmm-hmm. You going to play now? Hustle some poor old men out of their drinking money?”
Nine thought about the sound of pool balls hitting each other, the controlled chaos of the first break. Most relaxing way to end a work day. Along with a cold beer. “Better go get that bread. I got birthday presents to pay for.”
They kept Christmas quiet. Just family. Aunt Camille didn’t ask why her oldest niece got her a Hermès scarf, just said thank you and put it in a fussy knot around her neck. Bea, who had a clearer idea of what Nine did, and had long since given up trying to convince her to go back to finish her accounting qualification, just winked at Veronica and told Camille she looked beautiful.
On New Year’s Eve she took Veronica to Constance’s party. Nine regained her pinball high score and did a little DJing. At the bar she had to deflect Jonah Hill, who kept trying to get her phone number, until he got distracted by a member of Migos who had dropped in. Nine figured that was the best time to get Veronica out of there, a resolution her sister wholeheartedly disagreed with, leading to a sulk lasting half the Lyft ride home.
The first of January was when Debbie called. “Nine Ball, hello. You remember the storage locker job I mentioned last time we talked?”
“You didn’t mention a storage locker job.”
“I didn’t?” Every hustler had a version of absent-minded denial in their repertoire. Debbie’s wasn’t that convincing.
“Why you calling me on International Hangover Day?”
“‘Cause I’ve got a headache, and I missed the sound of your voice. Mainly because you don’t talk to anyone.”
“You talk to machines.”
“Machines are more logical than people.”
“Now that’s where you’re wrong. I found a very illogical machine, in Georgia, that monitors storage lockers, and it’s got quite a big security hole.”
Nine sipped her beer and waited. Debbie couldn’t help herself when she was really excited. Apparently, it was an Ocean family weakness. “A hole big enough for a lot of gold bullion to fall through.”
"Who is keeping their gold bullion in a security locker?"
"Doomsday preppers who don't trust banks because they think they're all run by globalist cabals. You know, idiots."
“What are you gonna need?”
She could hear Debbie smiling through the phone. “The same crew. Plus one. I think we need nine. I don’t suppose your sister is free?”
“I guess I can find out what her school schedule is. Might work out. Nine is my lucky number.”
“And we’re lucky to have you.”
Veronica’s birthday present was one line long. Nine wrote it inside a card with a sparkly kitten design: www.once-upon-a-time-in-shaolin-mp3.online.
Her sister was smart, and a huge music nerd. It only took her a couple of seconds to get it. Nine just leaned back, and enjoyed the look on her face. That was part of the job of being a good big sister. Always knowing a little bit more, but always being willing to share it.