The rich aroma of black coffee fills the California air in a trendy Silicon Valley apartment. I’ve just made my second pot and it’s not quite 7 A.M. Adler and Natasha will be awake soon. I turn to the very last page of my newspaper, clutching the final precious moments of peace and quiet. It’s a shame that nobody reads news the old-fashioned way anymore. There’s something reassuring about being able to feel the stories in your hands. It gives off this impression that yesterday’s events- the conquests, the sufferings, the mysteries- can all be neatly packaged onto pages, stamped in bold black ink, kept under control.
The muffled sound of an alarm clock goes off down the hall. It’s followed by another clock from a different room that’s shut off too immediately. At least one of my roommates has taken advantage of the snooze button. The other one, Natasha, has successfully made it out of dreamland. She emerges from her room, fidgeting with her black hair.
“Ellie, how do you drink that stuff?” Natasha asks as she stumbles towards the fridge. Her nose is scrunched up, twisting her face into a peculiar expression at the visual evidence of my coffee addiction. I know her disgust is exaggerated. Tasha is somewhat of a purist when it comes to beverages. Nothing carbonated or dehydrating is ever allowed to enter her system, less it should endanger the flawless, glowing skin that is Natasha Evans’ complexion.
“It keeps me alive,” I reply flatly without putting down my paper. I pretend that I haven’t already finished reading the entire page. If I admit that I have completed my morning ritual, there is nothing left standing between myself and Tasha’s untamable desire to put makeup on other people.
Tasha is the makeup artist among us although she’s also a decently talented actress. She’s always reminding me that about 70 percent of a convincing act is getting the visual aspect right. I think that Adler, the snoozing roommate, told her that at one point. Adler’s words tend to stick in a person’s mind like something profound to live by. I notice others quoting her a lot. I probably do it too without realizing it.
Natasha has retrieved a tall bottle of some fancy diet breakfast shake from the fridge. She walks to the table and sits across from me. Her annoyingly polite smile bores through my newspaper. It’s time to surrender my alone time. I lay my newspaper down flat and glare at the blinding white flash, hoping it will disappear.
Tasha is oblivious. “You’re in a perfect mood for today,” she says. “Have you been getting into character?” she sips her drink slowly, waiting for a response. I can’t, or at least I shouldn’t, tell her that I’m not acting and I simply don’t want to go to work today.
Work. I call it going to work. It’s not the typical 9 to 5 job but my roommates and I have the same detached view of our occupation as a cashier or a waiter so I call it that. Natasha jokingly calls what we do gold-digging. The term sounds out of place coming from her, like an innocent teenager’s attempt to be edgy. Adler is much more professional. She refers to it as psychology work, which it largely is to her. Whatever you call the task, sweet-talking money away from dirty businessmen has a high starting pay.
Adler Williams is the mastermind behind the curtain. Tasha and I are merely the worker bees, which I’m happy to accept for a generous share in the profits. It would have taken me a long time to make the same kind of money working as an undiscovered actress in Los Angeles as I make with a bat of my eyelashes here.
Before I met Adler, I’d been living in a rundown Los Angeles shack with six roommates. Each and every one of them was convinced that they were the next big thing. “
All it takes is one lucky break!” they repeated over and over. “All you need is one movie or TV episode with your name on it”. I bet they’re all still living in that rat’s nest eating leftovers from waitressing jobs to stay alive. My break came in a different form.
Adler put on an actual casting call. It was very elaborate. She had written an entire script about a girl who discovered her boyfriend was cheating. A hoard of theater school dropouts and hopefuls turned out to read. Actors in Los Angeles will fight for a paying job like dogs fight over table scraps. That’s just what most of the candidates did. They sprayed irritants under their eyes to cry more believably. They choked their lines out. Their characters where dramatic and pathetic.
I had shown up to the casting call with every intention of reading the script off like a heartbroken sob. That was what the lines seemed to call for. Watching other girls throw themselves into their readings, I changed my mind. When it was my turn, I walked in with mascara smeared down my face and read in a steady, calm voice. Adler smiled. “She’s composed. That’s what I need.”
I later learned the casting call was a fake front for a different kind of business. It does pay (as well as providing an apartment in Silicon Valley and a beautiful car that’s mine to borrow) and acting is involved so I can’t say that Adler lied. Adler never technically lies.
Adler developed the little system we use at work in her undergraduate days. It was originally an experiment on the psychology of cheating. Adler’s college boyfriend, Connor, became the first unknowing participant on the day that Adler sat down next to Natasha in a lecture class. The two girls soon discovered that their loving, loyal boyfriends where actually the same cheating guy. Poor, unfortunate, clueless Connor. He had no idea that Adler and Natasha had even met until he’d spent half his trust fund keeping them satisfied.
Adler finally strides into the kitchen. Her perfect auburn waves are pinned back into a sophisticated bun at the base of her neck. Looking at it, I realize that I was wrong about the snooze button. She must have woken up long before her alarm went off. She carries a cobalt blue folder that matches her striking eyes.
“Who’s ready for breakup day, ladies?” Adler asks in her rhythmic voice. Everything that Adler says sounds like free verse being recited. She does have two of her bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts but I can’t help believing that Adler was born with silver speech. She could rattle off a grocery list and make it sound poetic.
“That’s not today already… is it?” I say with mock sorrow. “I was getting oh so attached to my beloved Benny boy.”
Adler doesn’t play along with my sarcasm. “He’s boring and he snores,” she reminds me. As though I need reminding. I’ve been sleeping next to the divorced executive every few nights for the last six months. His apartment was clearly decorated by ex-wife number two. It’s easy to judge from the taste of the decorations that she was getting older; too old for his liking. I’m surprised that the apartment didn’t get updated when Ben decided to update his significant other.
Even with a 26 year old, he’s been unsatisfied. Adler sent Natasha in to see if Ben was the cheating kind. One week later he was cancelling our dinner plans to sneak off with Natasha. It is a little bit of a sting to my ego every time my fake boyfriends commit their first infidelity. I can’t blame Tasha for that. Ben is the one who decided he’d rather pay for two girlfriends than stay loyal to one, which makes me smile even more convincingly when I order the seafood at a 5 star restaurant.
Adler lays the blue folder’s contents out on the table. “This is going to be a piece of cake,” she assures us. “He’ll take you to breakfast today, Ellie. Pull these out of your purse only after he gives you the tennis bracelet.” She hands me a pair of luxurious silk undies with a small N embroidered on the front. They’re Natasha’s. I’ll pretend that I found them at his house. I’ll cry for dramatic affect and tell him how betrayed I feel. Then I’ll tell him it’s over and storm away wearing the nice diamond bracelet I’m getting for our anniversary. Just the usual breakup day.
Natasha’s hands in my hair draw me back to the present. She undoes the messy braid I slept in, tugging the knots out mercilessly. “This again?” I mutter.
“She does need to get started. Your breakfast date is at 9,” Adler says.
Natasha chimes in. “I don’t understand why he always takes you out to breakfast.”
“It’s because you told him that you’re never out of bed before ten,” I tell Tasha. “It’s a safe time. He can take woman number one out without having to cross his slimy fingers that woman two won’t stumble upon anything suspicious. He also likes flaunting the fact that he’s important enough to take a break to go out for breakfast.”
Adler laughs. “I have a new prospective beau for you,” she says. “I’m off to the bank to investigate him this morning.” Adler works three days a week at the largest bank in Silicon Valley. She peruses the account balances of the area’s wealthiest men to find out who’s worth going after. “Best of luck today, ladies.”
Two hours later, I pay my taxi fare and walk towards Coupa café. Venezuelan music drifts out of the establishment. I catch my reflection in a window just long enough to note that Tasha hasn’t just done my makeup. I look so little like myself that she’s essentially painted a mask on me.
A man in an unflattering tan suit holds the café’ door open for me. He avoids eye contact.
I spot Ben at a corner table. His eyes are so transfixed on his phone that he doesn’t notice me until I sit down. He hands me a colorful coffee cup with steam rising out of it.
“You ordered?” I ask
“Elephant white chai lattes.”
“You’ll like it.” Now I have to act like I love whatever is in the cup. The great Ben has spoken. To my relief, it actually is delicious. Ben is usually awful at ordering for me because he gets my tastes mixed up with Natasha’s.
We don’t speak for a full minute. It seems wrong to interrupt the festiveness of the Venezuelan music. Ben taps his fingers on the edge of the table.
“This place reminds me of my own rise to the top,” Ben says. “Just look around at all the young genius one building can hold. I would bet money that at least one of the kids bent over at their laptop in here will make Forbe’s list before they hit thirty.”
I nod my head and smile in agreement. Ben likes to be the one running the conversation so I’ve learned not to interject too much.
“It’s amazing how quickly you find yourself going from working in a coffee shop to having a corner office,” he continues. “It doesn’t seem fast at the time but looking back it happened in seconds. One stroke of brilliance can catapult you to the top. I keep hoping that the saying easy come easy go has no truth behind it. I’m afraid it does though. That’s why I like to hold on to the things I do have very tightly.”
I reach for Ben’s hand, pretending that he’s just said the sweetest thing. Ben leans down and unzips a briefcase he’s stowed under the table. I wait for the tennis bracelet that is about to materialize. I’d seen the filled out order form for it when I was glancing through that briefcase one day. I’d also found tax paperwork showing that Ben made a very handsome salary last year. He would easily be able to afford one gorgeous piece of jewelry.
Instead of a jewelry box, Ben slaps a thick manila envelope down on the table. I cock my head to one side and stare at him in confusion. I reach for the envelope but Ben keeps it firmly pinned under his fist. Before I can ask any questions, he gestures to the man in the tan suit who appears to be waiting for his cue. Ben pulls an unused third chair around to our table for the lurking stranger to sit in.
“I’d like you to meet Paul Dekker,” Ben says. “He’s a private investigator.”
My thoughts spin. A P.I. is obviously the last person I wanted to be introduced to. I can feel my hands beginning to tremble; and not from the overload of caffeine. I will myself to stay in character.
“Hello. It’s a pleasure, Mr. Dekker,” I manage.
“Oh quit acting innocent, Ellie,” Ben snaps. “The joke’s over.” There’s a triumphant sneer on his face. He opens the envelope, dumping a pile of documents out.
Ben hands me a photo from the top of the heap. My own oblivious face stares up at me. Natasha is standing next to me in the picture. We both have our phones in our hands. We must have been comparing notes on Ben when this was taken.
“We know about both of you,” Dekker says. “I’ve tracked you for the last two months, gathering evidence of your involvement with Natasha Evans. I’m sure both of you are aware that stealing is a crime and you have collectively stolen a lot from my client.”
“You two think you can just play me for a fool and get away with it,” Ben says. His temper is boiling up in his eyes. “I will get my money back out of you two bitches if I have to squeeze it out myself but I’m not stopping there. Did you think I wouldn’t notice anything missing? What’s a few dollars missing from an empire, right? Well, I noticed. I know where every single dime is. At first I thought it was a bank error. Maybe some teller had gotten greedy. Now I know it was you and your friend.”
As Ben’s face twists into strange, unhuman scowls, I realize that he’s been using the word, “two,” a lot. His P.I. must not know about Adler’s involvement.
“I’ll see you in court.” Ben zips the briefcase shut and storms out. Dekker follows dutifully at his heels.
For a long moment, I’m unable to move. I sit at the table stunned. Eventually, I regain my senses enough to dial Natasha’s number. There’s no answer. I try her four more times. Only the last call goes straight to voicemail, which means she’s rejected it. I scan the screen, trying to process everything that’s just happened. Only then do I realize that it’s 10 on a Friday morning. Tasha must still be in her yoga class.
I race outside and grab the first taxi I see. My hands are gripped so tightly around my phone that my knuckles are losing color. Tying Tasha’s number again won’t do any good but I can’t force myself to sit there doing nothing. I settle on calling Adler.
Adler answers on the third ring. “How was brunch?” she asks.
“Adler, it was horrible” I whisper. “Ben knows about me. He knows about Tasha too. He thinks that we’ve been stealing from him so the old scrooge is going to sue us.”
“What?” Adler asks. “Ben can’t possibly know everything. He’s a book-smart idiot.”
“He hired a private investigator,” I say. “They have all of these pictures of Tasha and me going over plans together.”
I realize that I’m deseeding into paranoia but I don’t want the cab driver to overhear any details so I ask Adler to continue the conversation over text. “No.” She says. “The P.I. probably has your phone hacked. Stop using it. We’ll talk soon.”
Adler hangs up just as the cab arrives at a manicured park. I can see a group of women sprawled out on yoga mats, their limbs stretched in unusual directions. Natasha’s hot pink spandex stands out in the lines of black yoga pants. I tiptoe between the mats and crouch down next to her.
“We need to talk in private,” I whisper. Natasha hasn’t noticed me up until this point and she jumps, falling out of her contorted yoga pose.
“Oh, Ellie, it’s just you,” she says. “I’m done with this in ten minutes.”
“Tasha, we need to talk now,” I say. The instructor, who is trying to give an inspirational pep talk, glares at us. My whispers seem to be ruining her concentration. Not wanting to make a scene, I crawl away from the yoga participants and take a seat on a nearby bench.
Ten minutes tick by in agonizing slow motion. I pass the time by watching a woman in a navy blue business suit read the San Francisco Chronicle. She adjusts her glasses regularly as she skims the pages. I imagine what the coverage of my own court case will look like in the papers. ‘Gold diggers brought to justice,’ the headlines will say. A printing press will spit out thousands of copies of my demise. The woman in the blue suit will probably skim the Chronicle from the freedom of her park bench while I lose every penny I have. To her, it will still be just a page in the paper.
Natasha finally rolls up her yoga mat. I leap up from the bench and dart over to her. She meets my eyes with a timid look.
“What’s going on?” she asks
I glance around to double check that no one is listening. “Ben didn’t give me a tennis bracelet at brunch,” I say. “He gave me a war decree. He’s had a private investigator trailing us. They know that we were playing him.”
Tasha’s eyes widen with worry. “We have to tell Adler.”
“I already did. I called her. She actually answered her phone.” I hail a taxi while we continue talking.
“What did Adler want us to do?” Natasha whispers.
“She didn’t want to say a word over the phone after I told her Dekker has been tracking you and me.”
“Does Dekker know who Adler is?”
“If he does, he didn’t say anything about her.”
“That must mean Dekker didn’t track us far enough to find out Adler even exists.”
“It means that we’re the ones in trouble. This really isn’t Adler’s problem.”
Natasha and I glance at each other nervously every few seconds until we’re back at our apartment. We find Adler sitting at the kitchen table with a vodka martini and a man I’ve never seen. His short cropped brown hair has the slightest auburn tint.
“Ladies, this is my brother, Dean,” Adler says. “Dean is by far the most capable lawyer in Palo Alto.”
Dean puts on a cordial smile and reaches out to shake our hands. His eyes remain cool and stoic. They are identical to Adler’s. “I understand you’re in a bit of a sticky situation,” he says. He glances between Tasha and me, waiting for one of us to speak.
Tiny tears slip out of Natasha’s brown eyes, carrying eyeliner with them down her cheeks. “I noticed that Ben’s laptop was open one day when I stayed at his house,” she admits. “He left it logged in to his online banking account so I transferred some money into mine.”
“How much?” Dean asks.
“It was just a few thousand the first time,” Natasha says.
“The first time?”
“He never noticed. Two weeks went by and he never said anything so I transferred some more. After that I transferred money quite a few times. It was so much faster than waiting for him to give us things.”
A flash of anger appears on Adler’s face. “Accepting gifts is perfectly legal,” she says. “Out-right stealing is not. This is exactly why we wait for the targets to give things to us. It would be incredibly easy for me to just embezzle from the bank but I don’t because then there’s something to sue over. ”
“Ben is claiming you stole over a hundred thousand dollars from him,” Dean says. “He hired me to represent his case.”
“You’re his lawyer?” Tasha asks.
“Adler, why would you bring him in here?” I hiss. “Did you know he’s working for them?”
“I’m aware of that, Ellie,” Adler replies. “I asked Dean to take Mr. Dekker’s case.” Natasha and I both stare at her, stunned. For the most gut-wrenching moments of my life, I think Adler has betrayed us. Then she continues. “Dean will insure that Ben and Mr. Dekker do not win their case. He can do that more effectively acting as their lawyer than he could acting as ours.”
“You do have a fairly solid case stacked against you,” Dean says. “At this point your best two options are to strike a plea bargain or convince the jury that the money was a gift. Ben seemed a little too focused on the righteous judgement of the law to settle for money as a plea bargain. He doesn’t simply want his hard earned cash back in the bank. He wants both of you punished for taking it.”
“I never stole anything,” I tell Dean.
“But where your fingerprints on the keyboard?”
“Maye,” I stammer. “I do check reservations on his laptop.”
“Then you can see how Mr. Dekker came across your fingerprints on the keys when he started investigating the disappearing money.”
“There has to be another way out of this,” I say, looking to Dean and Adler.
“I can erase the records at the bank,” Adler says. “I hate to do that but it’s necessary just this once. That won’t take care of the copies that this P.I. has though. His evidence will need to be dealt with separately.”
“I can’t condone any of this,” Dean says. “But off the record, Adler’s plan does give you the best chances of spending your days outside of a prison. That is as long as no one gets caught.”
“Caught doing what?” Natasha asks
Dean ignores her question “If you ladies will excuse me, I need to get back to my practice,” he says. The door slamming behind him reminds me of a jail cell door closing.
“Get caught doing what?” Tasha repeats
Adler finishes the last sip of her martini and stirs the olives around her empty glass. “Ellie, Natasha. You are going to pay Mr. Dekker’s office a visit afterhours. Don’t raise suspicion but make sure all of the evidence he has against you is gone.”
That night, Natasha and I locate Dekker’s office on the east side of Palo Alto. Taking Adler’s advice, we’ve dressed in dark toned regular street clothes. There is nothing more suspicious than wearing all black at night. Natasha carries a massive designer bag over her shoulder. Ironically, it was a gift from Ben.
All glass double doors lead into Dekker’s office. Tasha hands me a sledgehammer from her bag. A large spider web crack spreads across the door when the hammer hits it. I cross my fingers, hoping that Dekker is too cheap to have an alarm. Silence. I take several more rapid swings. Soon there is a gaping hole where the door used to be.
We step inside. My ballet flats slip silently across the hardwood floor. Tasha sets about shredding every document she can find while I unplug all of the computers. My hands are shaking so violently that I can barely grip the computer chords. Finally, the last computer has no electricity running to it.
Tasha pulls two large vials of a chemical solution out of her bag and hands one to me. A foul smell jumps out when I unscrew the lid. We glance at each other in silence. I step up to a computer tentatively and pour the liquid across it. After a moment, it begins to sizzle. Holes appear on surface of the computer as the chemicals melt into it. Ben and Dekker’s chance of putting Natasha and I in prison melts with the computers.
The first shards of daylight are just seeping through the sky scrapers as Natasha and I walk home. We pass the rows of bakeries and coffee shops that are just opening up, hoping to draw in early bird customers. It’s easy to sell me on coffee at any time of day but an entire night of criminal activity has made me especially susceptible.
I’m finally unable to resist when I see a sign offering free refills before 7 a.m. I grab Tasha’s arm, dragging her inside. Today’s newspaper already sits on the counter. I give the barista my order, smiling with the knowledge that none of the headlines are about me.
Author’s note: I got to write about a central character who is unlike me in every way in this story. It was a stretch for me but exploring the girls’ characters has been an adventure.