“So, what was the joke?” Jacque wanted to know.
Curtis was sitting there in Jacque’s little house on the outskirts of New Orleans, surrounded by reclaimed clocks, vintage electronics, and the sweet aroma of weed mixed with lemon zest from the iced tea they were drinking. “It’s funny,” Curt said, “but you’re the very first dude to ask me that.”
“No way!” Jacque was moving around the kitchen, Curt there at the little formica table, watching condensation drip from the jar he was drinking out of. “You telling me nobody asked you what the joke was?” He was incredulous.
Curt shook his head. “Not a single person.”
“Your boys in the like, the cubicles and shit didn’t ask you?”
“They were afraid to.”
“What about the security people that escorted you out? None of them pulled you aside, asked what you did?”
“Those guys were totally stoic. All business.”
Jacque paused. He was digging into a mason jar with homemade jerky he made for MaMutt, his little mixed terrier at his feet. “Stoic, huh? I take it you don’t mean like your philosopher?”
“Nah. I didn’t get the feeling anybody I dealt with that last day was into Marcus Arelius, or Seneca or Spinoza or any of those old dead guys.”
Jacque went back to what he was doing, smiling, having fun with all this. “Shit bruh! You shoulda taken the time to educate some of these fools on your way out the door! Lay that heavy on shit on ‘em. Like the four virtues . . . what are they again?”
Curt rattled them off. “Courage, Moderation, Wisdom . . . Justice.”
“Justice!” Jacque said. “I love that shit!” He reached down and held out a piece of jerky for MaMatt. “And that’s where your new business comes in, right?”
Curtis had just arrived in New Orleans that afternoon, after spending the last seventeen hours on an Amtrak train. You could buy a ticket for you and your car, and for a lot less than a plane ticket you could get your ride down to Louisiana without the headache of driving.
Jacque had agreed to keep his little Volkswagen Golf for a few weeks to give it some upgrades. Curt had sprung for the turbo model a few years back, flush with bonus money from his last deployment, and it was a sweet ride. But the upgrades Jacque would do weren’t really about performance in the traditional sense. They were about intelligence. Surveillance.
The ride down had given Curt a chance to make some notes about his new venture. He pulled his notebook from his pocket, preparing to give his pitch. “So, it’s basically like a private detective service. I’ll get a license and–”
“Hold up!” Jacque said. “Stop right there my man. Private detective? You? This is the idea?”
Curtis waited a few seconds, trying to show he wasn’t defensive about it. “Well, I did manage the Eunice thing,” he said, and waited.
Jacque interrupted again, right on que. “I wouldn’t call that a slam dunk my man. That Puerto Rican kid, the one fucking the real estate chick . . . he got shot. Right?”
“Well, yeah. But we solved the case. Got JD out of trouble. Saved the tattoo shop. Got the intel for the cops on the steroids ring. Prichard went to jail.”
“I’ll give you that,” Jacque said. “And I do notice that you switched to we, which is good. Recognizing my contribution and all.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. We make a good team. We solved the case in Eunice. And we can succeed with this private detective business.”
“Oh I see where you going with it,” Jacque said, giving Curtis that look that, if they weren’t friends, would unnerve anyone. “You thinking I’m gonna jump in this boat with you. Be your . . . what’s the word?”
“Partner?” Curt offered.
“Nah man. You want me to be your magical negro,” Jacque said. He laid one of his cold stares on Curtis, and the two of them lasted a whole five seconds before they busted out laughing.
It was a long time before Curtis could speak again. Eventually he got his shit together enough to say to his old friend “well, you are kind of a magician.”
“See, that’s what I’m saying?” Jacque said. “But my magic aint the reason you want me.”
Curt had a feeling where this was going, but he played along anyway. “Why do I want you?”
“Because of the negro part bro! If you’re talking about jumping into the culture wars, you need a black man on your six!”
“I care a lot more about the magic part than the . . . can I say ‘negro’? . . . than the negro part,” Curt said.
Jacque walked over and sat back down at the table. “No, you can’t say negro,” he said. “That shit would sound even more racist than nigga coming from a white dude.”
Curtis grinned. “So, you’re saying I can say nigga, then, right?”
Jacque gave him that cold stare of his again, his street stare, and even though Curtis knew he was just fucking around, it was still unnerving. He and Jacque had deployed together in the Air Force, and Curtis knew most of Jacque’s secrets, including the scary stuff that had shown up on the psych eval that eventually earned him a medical discharge. But still there were layers of chaos and pain to Jacque that appeared in flashes sometimes. “Maaan, you can say anything you want,” Jacque said. “You just have to be willing to take the consequences.”
“Did you hear about the guy at Netflix who got fired for saying it?”
“For saying nigga?” Jacque asked.
“Yeah. But not for using it in real life. For citing the word, like listing it as one of the words that’ve become taboo.”
“That’s fucked up,” Jacque said.
“Anyway, that’s an old example,” Curt went on. “People literally get fired from their jobs for a whole lot less than that these days. How ‘bout the sportscaster from Greece who got fired during the Japan Olympics for saying he couldn’t understand how the South-Korean table tennis guy that just beat the Greek dude could see the ball so well with those squinty eyes he had.”
“Now that shit’s funny!”
“Well, his network didn’t think so,” Curt said. “They canned his ass the next day.”
“Shit bruh, your thing is worse than that! I guess, anyway. You still haven’t said the joke. But it was in the bathroom, right? Behind closed doors?”
“Right! But the difference between me and those other guys is, nobody knows who I am.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Jacque said. “People in your line of work don’t usually like publicity.”
“And the NDA means I can’t go to the press,” Curt said.
“Not that you would,” Jacque said. “Disclosure is against your code. You’re an intel man through and through.”
“I’m not sure I can still be an intel man without an agency?” Curt said. “But I’m gonna give it a try.”
Jacque gave him a curious look, trying to parse exactly what he meant by that. They heard the sound of MaMutt’s nails on the linoleum and the magnetic click of the locking doggy door to the backyard as he went out. “Being a private dick ain’t exactly like intel,” Jacque said. “At least from what I’ve seen in the movies.” He started listing Curt’s weaknesses, ticking them off on his fingers. “You can’t fight. You talk too much. And . . . what else? Oh, and you’re just a regular white dude. So what exactly you gonna do for people?”
Curt gave his old friend a mischievous smile. “I won’t argue with you about talking too much. You’re not the first person to make that observation.”
“Please don’t try to tell me you think you can fight,” Jacque cut in.
“Well, I did subdue Lenny Prichard till the cops got there in Eunice.”
“Don’t give me that shit Laroux!” Jacque exploded. “I saw the tape. That foxy white chick had just maced him! That don’t count for shit!”
“And I been watching a bunch of YouTube videos,” Curt said.
Jacque spit out the tea he was drinking and they both had another good laugh.
“Nah. Seriously,” Curt went on. “I am thinking I’ll maybe take some classes at the Y or something. But I’m not planning to do any street fighting.” He paused to let Jacque know he was serious. “I’m gonna use my skills and my, what to call it?, creativity to help people.”
“What, like the Netflix guy? Or the Greek dude?”
Curt shook his head. “Nah man. Not high profile people like that. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. That’s the ones you see. I’m talking about everyday people. Regular people that get their lives destroyed because somebody decided they weren’t brown enough for their burrito truck or they complimented a woman at work.”
“That kind of shit happens?”
“It happens all the time brother. The world has gone fucking crazy! It’s like you said. You can say anything you want, as long as you’re prepared to suffer the consequences. Well, the punishments don’t fit the crime in a lot of cases . . . so I’m gonna turn the tables.”
“What’s that mean?” Jacque said. But he started to get the idea when Curt smiled at him.
“I won’t argue with you about all that shit I’m not good at,” Curt said. “Though I am gonna be a good fighter some day.”
“Okay Conner McGregor,” Jacque said.
“But what’s the one thing I am good at?”
“I think I see where you going,” Jacque said. “You thinking of doing some devious shit. Getting even . . . some revenge type stuff.”
Curtis just smiled. “I will use my anonymity. And my skills. And I will help people get some justice.”
“There’s that word again. So how do your Stoics feel about revenge? Does your Marcus–what’s his name again?
“What’s he got to say about revenge?”
“Not revenge . . . okay, maybe a little revenge. But mostly I’m talking about helping people put things right. Start fresh. Help ‘em get back on a righteous path. One that doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with social media and people’s candy-ass ears.”
“Shit bruh, you still didn’t tell me what the joke was!” Curtis was about to tell him when Jacque interrupted. “Wait though. How’s all this gonna work? You can’t exactly advertise your cancel culture revenge firm or whatever you’re calling this.”
“I already built a website,” Curt said. “It’s not live yet, but you go there, fill out a form. We run any potential clients through a series of protocols to verify identity, secure a small down payment, and we go from there.”
“There you go again with that pronoun,” Jacque said. He scratched at his chin for a while, then said “you know what this reminds me of?”
Curtis couldn’t help but smile. He could tell Jacque was already in. “That show was a bit before our time,” he said.
“Yeah, but Denzel did a movie version. Two actually. Fucking cool bruh.”
“I saw ‘em,” Curt said.
“Which one you liked best?” Jacque wanted to know.
“One, I think,” Curtis said. “The way he fucked up those Russian dudes in the restaurant?”
“There you go again,” Jacque said, laughing. “Thinking about fighting. That shit’s gonna get us in trouble!”
“So, are you in?”
Jacque rubbed the side of his face for a while. “You know a lot of these clients are gonna be orange menace, redneck type dudes. Racist muthafuckas in some cases.”
“Maybe,” Curt said. He had spent a lot of time wrestling with this question. “But number one, it’s supposed to be a free country. And two, not everybody that votes red or drops the occasional n-word is a racist.”
“This shit really got under your skin, huh?”
“Yeah, I guess it did,” Curt said, his voice gaining volume. “This whole ‘virtue signaling’ thing is fucking disgusting and weak. Since when is virtue something you wear like a neon sign anyway? If you’re really virtuous, you don’t go around trying to shame people. Whatever happened to humility, forgiveness, treating people like individuals?”
“Preach it brother.”
“I just . . . I don’t know man. I’m just sick of the way the world is and . . .”
“And you’re out of a job.”
“And I’m out of a job.”
“And you’re bored.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that . . . okay, I’m a little bored.”
“And that whole Eunice thing gave you a taste of what it’s like to fuck with people. Especially people that you decide deserve it.”
“All right,” Curtis said, smiling again. “You made your point. And you’re cutting a little close to the bone.” He flipped to a page in his notebook, to a simple wireframe diagram of the website he’d put together with notes on the security and encryption he needed. He slid it across the table to Jacque.
“Okay. I’m in, Marcus the Righteous.” Jacque started scanning the sheet. “But don’t make me ask you again about the joke again muthafucka!”
“It’s not even that funny,” Curt said. “But anyway. Since you asked . . . what do you call a chick with a dick these days?”
Jacque turned Curt’s notebook page back towards him. “Vicesign dot com. That’s the site? You already bought it?”
“Yeah. Vice. The opposite of virtue . . .”
“Yeah, I get it. Very clever,” Jacque said.
“And I got this idea for a logo.” Curt held up a hand sign, his little finger and ring finger forming a V. “The vice sign.”
“Oh shit!” Jacque said. “You going all gansta on me now! I like it. You know what you should do? You should have your tattoo man, JD, draw you up a logo.”
“Shit, that’s a brilliant idea,” Curt said. “Maybe I should go visit him and Sadie while I’m here.”
Jacque’s face went skeptical all of a sudden. “But you’re going back to DC, right? You’re not thinking about moving down here?”
“Nah,” Curt said. “I figure there’s more work for the woke revenge business on the east coast. I might have to get a cheaper place though.”
“Yeah, we can do all this,” Jacque said, tossing the notebook on the table. “So, tell me . . . what do you call a chick with a dick these days.”
“Boss,” Curt said.