Chapter 14: Living Nightmare
I ran as fast as my feet could carry me to the outside. I needed a calming image after seeing one that was sure to haunt my dreams for a while.
Dear God, what do I do now?
“Oh, Hazel,” Sylvia teasingly called. I could hear feet rushing behind me, but I couldn’t face her. It sounded like she had company, and I just knew it would be the faces of the exhibitionists we viewed in that room. I didn’t want to face them. “You left so abruptly, I didn’t get a chance to introduce …”
“They don’t need an introduction. You know that.”
Only two people in this world called me that, two people that I loved dearly. The same two people I had been trying to conceal this section of my life from: my mother and my father.
No one wants to see their parents having sex. Ever! Especially not at a damn orgy party!
“Mom? Dad? I mean to say this with the utmost respect and love: What the hell are you two doing here? How did you even know about this? And why are y’all having sex in front of people?”
“Iha, you have to keep your voice down or you’ll get us kicked out.”
“Really, mom? That’s your biggest concern right now?”
“Give your mother a little slack, okay, Hazel? Neither of us expected to be in this position. And why would you bring her to our room anyway, Sylvia?”
“Oh, an easy mistake. I was showing her around and walked into the wrong room. My bad.”
“Like hell!” I growled as she shrugged with a smirk. “Why are my parents here at this party?”
“Well I invited them, dear. Once I got wind of your little plan to blend your clientele with their spouses, I made a plan of my own: to beat you at your own game. Would you like to see it come into fruition?”
“What the … what are you talking about?”
“I warned you, didn’t I? I told you to follow along or suffer the consequences. You didn’t listen.”
“Hazel, what is Sylvia talking about?”
“And what exactly are you doing here at this party?”
“Please,” I begged Sylvia. “Please don’t. I promise I’m not doing anything. I swear I’m just here to make sure my crew is okay! Please!”
“You came here with your friends?”
“I didn’t know she had any friends other than Lorenzo, Chloe, and Frank.”
“Oh, there is a lot you don’t know about your daughter.”
“Your daughter is the sole ringleader of an underground prostitution ring. The crew she is referring to … are her personal line of sex escorts, her employees.”
The silence that rested between us all was deafening, and it was all I heard. Gone were the sounds of passionate whimpers and the sensual impact of flesh on flesh. All I heard was silence.
“I think you’re mistaken, Sylvia. Our daughter runs a flower shop. She loves flowers, and she’s made a good living because of her love for them.”
“Well, you’re right on two counts. She does run a flower shop; it’s also a front for a sex escort service. She has made a good living from selling people’s flowers and stems on the count of the fact that the shop is a front for a sex escort service. Now, whether or not she loves the flowers she’s selling, well …”
“All right now, Sylvia. That’s enough!” my mom defended. “I will not stand here and listen to you sully my daughter’s name or reputation.”
“Oh, you don’t believe me? What a surprise. Hazel, would you care to tell them the truth or would you rather I show them proof?” she smirked as a remorseful tear escaped one of my eyes.
“It’s true. I am what she says.”
“Then my work here is done. Oh, Raul?”
“Raul?” I repeated as a burly giant dressed as a monochromatic Killer Clown closed in on me. “Oh dear Jesus!”
“Could you please show this young lady out so she can be driven back to her car?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Your raised voice has disrupted the Garden of Eden’s peaceful nature,” Raul’s Lurch-like voice advised. “You must go.”
There were no words to describe the degree of shame I felt as I cried like a baby during the one hour trip back to my car. Chloe and Andreas rang up my phone like I had gone missing, and I guess they had reason to worry. As much as they called out to me through the piece in my ear, as much as they begged me to say something to let them know that I was okay, I stayed silent.
It was barely twilight, so I had not been at the Serpent & Sirens party for long at all, and all I could think about was how I failed my team, my mission, my parents, and myself. All those warnings of what not to do to avoid getting kicked out, and I was the one who got kicked out. All of the man-hours Chloe, Andreas, and I spent planning to make sure the infiltration went off without a hitch, and I was the one who threw a glitch in the operation. Every ounce of energy I put into keeping my double life a secret, all of the effort I had made to rid myself of it before the truth came out, was all for nothing.
I was mortified …
So when a masked figure dropped me off at my car …
I wanted nothing else but to crawl under a rock …
And bury myself in the ruins of my life.
I didn’t look at anybody. I didn’t talk to anybody. I just drove straight to the shop, left the ear piece and rigged chain belt on a table, and drove back home … by myself.
The sunlight was warm, comforting, and I found myself at home in it. The sight of thousands of forget-me-not flowers providing me with a fragrant and colorful bed of nature to rise from? Completely unexpected.
I searched the area around me for whoever may have brought me to such a bountiful field, but there was no sign of life other than the blossoms and my own. I was barefoot, clothed in the lingerie I remembered falling asleep in, I fell to my knees and stared at the sky. Silently, I wondered what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to go, and how the hell I came to be abandoned in a field of bright foliage.
I heard my name.
I heard it loud and clear, but for the life of me, I couldn’t see the person yelling it out.
Not because they were blurry, or out of my view, but because … they weren’t there!
“Haze! Open up the door right now! Wake up!”
And wake up I did … to the blinding sun beaming in from my window, and the thunderous sounds of my loud ass cousin, hollering from the outside of my house. I hopped up out of bed and darted to the door. “Have you lost your mind? I’ve got neighbors, Lo!”
“Have you lost yours? It’s 10AM, fool.”
“10AM? You’re kidding.”
“No, I’m serious,” she said as she barged her way in. “I’ve been calling you all night, ever since the party ended at five. What the hell have you been doing?”
“You know we’ve all been worried about you, don’t you? Worried sick, and you’re in here sleeping the damn day away!”
“Is there a reason you brought yourself over here other than to chastise me for being tired?”
“Haze, we did it! My boss was in the van with us, listening in on everything, and with all the information we gathered from the party and the baskets we planted at the appointments that were taken to our targets’ homes … girl, we are about to make the bust of a lifetime! You’re all free.”
“I’m not doing it,” I said in the midst of her cheering. She stopped dead in her tracks, covered in confusion.
“Y – you’re not doing what?”
“I’m not taking part in this operation anymore. The game is over. I quit.”
“What the fuck? Okay, Haze, this isn’t some 9-to-5 gig that you can just get up and walk away from at the end of the day. We’ve already collected the evidence.”
“Then you don’t need any of us.”
“That’s not the way this works. When we bring this to a federal court, they are going to want to know how we were able to obtain this information. It’s inadmissible otherwise. This is why we recruited you and Andreas. This is why we needed the baskets wired for your crew. Having them infiltrate the party was your idea, and it was a damn great one! It helped put the icing on the cake. The case is golden now.”
“Is that all you care about, this stupid case?”
“Were you listening to the wire at all? My life is basically ruined! The woman who is leading the secret society …”
“Is Andreas’s mom? Yeah, you kind of forgot to mention that, but it makes sense as to why you felt so conflicted. It also answers how you got an invite for everyone into the party. Andreas told you how to dress and how the whole operation would work too, right? And you didn’t think you could tell me that? Oh, wait, no … because you’ve been too busy messing around with Andreas after hours!”
“Seriously? Is that what you want to talk about right now?”
“Well, considering the fact that I had to console him when he heard that his mother was blackmailing his new girlfriend …,” she uncovered as my eyes grew large with horror.
“Oh my God!”
“I was trying so hard to keep that from him.”
“Yeah, well, everything you’ve been trying to keep from everyone is coming back to bite you in the butt.”
“Oh, like me telling you that you have a mole playing the agency you work for in the Diamond Secret Society? Where did that get me? Where did that get any of us, Lo? Sylvia knew that you were there. She knew the plan. She knew everything! How?”
“I don’t know, Haze. I – You said this secret society of yours had members that worked in my circle.”
“And you said you were going to look into it. What happened to that?”
“These things take time.”
“Time?” I exclaimed. “She had my parents there, Chloe! She invited my parents to the party. They are just as at risk to get busted as any of the people you guys are trying to catch.”
“No one in my department is looking at Uncle Raph or Aunt …”
“Did you forget that daddy is a police officer? If it gets out that him and mama were at an orgy with the drug dealers and human traffickers and prostitution rings that you’re trying to bust, it doesn’t matter if he did anything wrong. It doesn’t matter if he was only there to have a freaky time with his wife. It … doesn’t … matter! His name is tied to a scandal, they are going to dig into his past, his troubled childhood is going to come out, he’s going to look like a criminal, and it’s going to jeopardize his damn job! I’m not going to risk my parents losing everything they’ve worked so hard to build just so I can keep myself out of jail.”
“I don’t want Uncle Raph and Aunt Sarai caught up in anything either, Haze, but neither one of us expected them to be there. Listen, feds take care of their own. Nothing is going to happen to them. I promise you that.”
“Oh, don’t … you … dare. All you’ve been doing this entire time is making promises that you haven’t been able to keep just so you can make your bust! And for what? So you could put my business at risk? Frankie’s dead because of your promises!.”
“What do you want me to do?” she shouted at me. “I don’t like that Frank’s dead. I don’t like that you’re in this position. I don’t like that Uncle Raph and Aunt Sarai are in this position, but these are the cards I’ve been dealt. I have to play them, Haze. I have to … I have to figure this out, and I’m doing everything I can to keep everyone I love out of jail.”
“By threatening us with jail if we don’t go along with your plan? How does that make you any different than the Diamond Secret Society?”
“Hey! Don’t try to make me out to be the bad guy here.”
“You’re right. You’re not the bad guy here; I am. The real reason Frank is dead is because he got caught up working for me. The real reason my parents were invited to that damn sex party is because of my work. The real reason y’all asked Andreas to be an informant is because he works for me. And the only reason any of my employees are at risk of going to jail or getting killed is because they work for me. So … just take me.”
“Don’t mention my team. Don’t mention my parents. Just say it was all me. Use me however you need to, as long as it keeps everybody else safe.”
“But you’re not a working girl. Judd didn’t try to brand you. You can’t testify to him saying anything about the trafficking or drugs or any of that.”
“No, but you can. He actually did try to brand you, so you can testify to that, and the FBI or the CIA or whoever can protect you. But I can’t let anything about Judd or any of the other Diamond Secret Society spouses or family members be brought to light from my mouth because the feds are not going to go out of their way to protect my team or my parents. So, what I’m saying is … the only way I can get complete amnesty for my people, and play by Sylvia’s rules so no one else gets hurt, is to offer up … myself. The secret leader of a long-running escort service. The person who broke all the rules that put everybody in the positions they’re in. The courts don’t need to know the names of the people I employed or any of the people at that party.”
“But putting all the focus on you compromises your reputation. I thought you said you didn’t want that.”
“The only people I didn’t want to know about my double life, the only ones whose devastation or disappointment would have crushed me to my core, was my parents, and that bitch already blabbed the truth to them. The hurt I saw in their eyes yesterday … I’m never going to be able to come back from that. There’s no way to fix it.”
“Haze, they are your parents. They love you. You know they wouldn’t turn their backs on you.”
“I’ve shamed them, and I’ve shamed myself. I’ve lost so much to this life: my husband, my cousin, my parents’ respect, my dream … and for what? For a man that didn’t appreciate me or the efforts I made to be with him? What else do I have left?”
“You, Haze. You have you.”
“I lost myself the day I agreed to have the simple floral shop I loved so much turned into a front for sex operations because my husband couldn’t keep his penis in his pants. It’s over, and I … am … over it,” I declared as a knock sounded at my door. When I went to open it, I was surprised to see my entire team plus Andreas and my parents, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, waiting for me to let them in. “What is going on here?”
“What do you mean?” Chenoa challenged with a smile. “We’re here for the good news!”
“What good news?”
“We did the work, got the bad guys on tape, and now we’re free, right?”
I sighed and looked back at Chloe who shrugged. “I told them that we should all get together to celebrate. That’s what I originally came over here for. I didn’t know you were going to change your mind.”
“Change your mind? What’s she talking about?”
My heart froze in place as they stared at me for an answer, an answer I was perfectly equip to give, but really didn’t want to. So, amidst my sadness in the lack of another option, I opened my door wider, and told the truth. “Come on in, y’all. We need to talk.” And then, I watched. I watched as each person that entered my home stared at me with shaken looks of concern, including my parents and Andreas. I didn’t know how I was going to break the news to them. I didn’t know where I was going to start. I just knew … that I had to tell them what I knew they could expect from me. “I want to apologize to all of you. I’m sorry that a choice I made in a weak attempt to save my marriage has gotten all of you caught up in something you didn’t ask to be a part of. I’m so sorry.”
“No, Andreas, listen. I told Chloe to just take me in. That way, you guys will be fine.”
“But you won’t be fine! What kind of sense does that make?”
“Look, Ms. Donato,” Jasper jumped in, “I appreciate you wanting to take the fall for all of us but the truth is, we came to you looking for a job, not the other way around. We knew what we were getting into. Whether or not we want to testify to get some of these twisted characters off the street isn’t your choice to make; it’s ours.”
“Seriously,” Chenoa co-signed. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep easy knowing that I had the ability to put a creep like Judd Payton behind bars, but didn’t because I didn’t want to go to jail. Yeah, okay, we are working girls and guys, but we chose this life and we’re in charge of what we do; the girls that they’ve been selling have come over here with the idea of making a better life for themselves just to get sold off like cattle and treated like worse.”
“Don’t forget the branding.”
“Exactly, Chloe! I can’t live with that on my heart, and this means we don’t have to. That idiot confessed to so much dirt, I thought we were going to be buried alive in it, but instead we get to bury him with it. We can’t back down now.”
“Y’all don’t understand. If Judd goes down, the secret society is coming after all of us, and I mean all of us.”
“Except for me, right?” Andreas asked sadly. A distressed sigh was all I could muster in response. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“How could I? I couldn’t stand to see you with the look you have on your face right now, and even more, why would you believe me if I told you? I tried to stop her from saying anything, Andreas. I really did.”
“Wait, what’s going on?” Reed wondered out loud to match the question on everyone else’s minds. Chloe didn’t hesitate to answer.
“The head of the secret society that’s trying to blackmail Hazel and threatened to kill all of us … is Andreas’s mom.”
“What the …?”
“His dad approves of them though.”
“Of them? Them what?”
“That’s another thing. How did your dad know about me?”
“I told him.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I tell him everything. I told you that.”
“Yeah, but you also told me that you didn’t tell him about us!”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Talia yelled out. “Boss, you and Andreas are, like … a thing? When did that happen? And Andreas, why didn’t you tell us about your mom?”
“Uh, because I didn’t know. I still haven’t talked to her about it. I don’t know what to say. But I do know this: I can’t stand by and watch you go down, babe. I can’t. We all made this decision to go into that party together. We all made the decision to take down the bad guys. We’re not going to let you go at this alone, right?”
“You’ve done so much for us, Mrs. Donato. We can’t not stand with you.”
As I heard all of the cheers of support, and saw the look of pride of Chloe’s face, tears filled my eyes. And when Andreas walked up to me to plant the most endearing and encouraging kiss on my lips as they watched and cooed, I felt one lonely teardrop of happiness trickle down my cheek while he hugged me snuggly. After our one-on-one hug turned into a massive group hug with us in the middle of the whole Donato’s Budding Deliveries crew, laughter filled the somber mood that previously occupied my living room. One look to the right showed that my parents were standing at attention, paying very close attention, and the contented expressions on their faces caused me to give them my full attention.
“Mom? Dad? I …”
“Iha, shh. When we couldn’t get a hold of you last night, we called Chloe. We kind of figured that she might have more insight on what was going on, and she told us everything. I’m sorry we haven’t been there for you.”
“You didn’t know, mom. I didn’t want to burden you or have you think less of me.”
My dad chuckled. “Sounds like the same reason why we didn’t tell you about our pasts. I didn’t think either of us expected it to come back against you, and to be honest, I still think it’s an empty threat. Our pasts have anything to do with our present or our future.”
“Well, that’s not necessarily true, Raphael. I wouldn’t know how to throw a great party if I wasn’t the life of all of them when I was younger.”
“Sarai, come on, now. I’m trying to make a point.”
“An invalid point, though. But none of that matters, because this lady Sylvia isn’t the only one with connections … or blackmail in her pocket.”
“I’m sorry, what? What do you mean?”
“We brought you a guest,” he introduced as my mom opened my door. The person I saw walk through it made my blood boil to the tip of my hair follicles.
“Cordelia! You … have some nerve!”
“Now, Iha, be nice. We did invite her.”
“May I ask what for?”
“Uh, I want to know too,” Andreas said with a raised hand. “You’re my mom’s best friend, so I’m just curious as to why you’re thinking about turning on her. Especially when you were making Hazel’s life a living hell about a week ago. You and your no good son.”
“I’m not here to turn on anyone. I’m here to give a warning.”
“Oh goody! Another Diamond threat. Let me guess how it starts. It is in your best interest to do what we say or else?”
“Not this time, Hazel. There is no or else. Sylvia has scheduled an emergency council meeting tonight to discuss your disposal.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Disposal? She’s not a piece of garbage,” Andreas stood.
“To your mother, she is.”
My mom hopped to her feet in an uproar. “Okay. I’ve heard enough. I’m about to knock this woman into next week. Nobody messes with my baby!”
“Okay, mom, wait a minute. Maybe I can … talk to the council. I mean, I am still a Diamond, right? Cordelia, who’s on the council?”
“Sylvie, me, Daisy …”
“Daisy? Payton? Seriously? She’s hated me since the day I walked in thinking it was a divorce support group!”
“She’s newly indicted. A few months old. She took Jewel’s old chair when Sylvie was bumped up to the head Chairwoman.”
“What the …? Jewel, my divorce attorney?”
“We like to keep a lawyer of sorts within the council to better aid on legalities when necessary.”
“And what’s Daisy’s purpose on the council? What does she bring to the table?”
“She’s old money like myself. Very well connected. A fact that helped her husband sore through the sports world which is why they can’t let him get caught up in a scandal like murdering your cousin; it doesn’t just mess with his name, it messes with her family name too. Blair is also a council member.”
“I believe you refer to her as Betty White.”
“How did Sylvie get Head Councilwoman over a woman who is way older than her?”
“Have I taught you nothing, Hazel dear? The Diamonds don’t care about age. To be honest, they don’t even care about how much money you make. It’s about how well connected you are. It’s about what you can do for them. And, in most cases if you have seniority as a Generation Diamond, it’s about how high up the hierarchy your lineage goes. That’s how Sylvie ended up being at the head. After Tallulah died …”
“The less you know, the better. After Tallulah died, Sylvie’s grandmother was Head Chairwoman. When she passed on, Sylvie’s aunt took over. After that, Sylvie was a shoe in. She is the oldest Generation Diamond out of all of us. Three generations of her Diamond lineage have been on the council. She was destined to be in that chair since the day she was born.”
“Wait, why did you go from her grandmother to her aunt? Why wasn’t her mother a council member?”
“She turned us down. Sylvie’s mother didn’t join us as a Diamond. Much like you, she preferred the simple life. She wanted to focus on herself, her husband, and her only daughter … Sylvie.”
“Hold up. How come Sylvia’s mom was able to walk away but I wasn’t?”
“Didn’t you hear anything I said? Sylvia’s family has Diamond seniority. You were just recently initiated. Now, if you have a child and your child is asked to joined …”
“You mean pressured, right?” I chastised as she rolled her eyes.
“If she refuses, then she is well within her right because she would be a Blood Diamond. Your blood runs through her so your blood saves her, and no one would be able to touch her because you have already served for us … and her … and your lineage for generations to come.”
“And when you say that Sylvia, the head Generation Diamond herself, wants to have me disposed of, you mean what exactly? What does her seniority status grant her?”
“Sylvia sees you as a thorn in her side, and your reluctance to comply has made her very edgy and paranoid. She figures that if she can’t control you, and you know enough secrets to bury everybody in the Diamonds, there’s no other way to keep you quiet except to … silence you permanently.”
“This can’t be happening,” Andreas said collapsing onto the couch. “This … this isn’t my mom. This is not her.”
“But I don’t know secrets on everybody though! I don’t know anything on Sylvia! I don’t know anything on you, or Jewel …”
“Dear, do you not remember your first meeting, when we asked for a show of hands on the people who had been using or knew somebody that had used your service and the entire room raised their hands in the air? You have something on everyone in this town, and it’s high time for you to use that to your benefit.”
“Oh no, we tried that. We tried that by going to that Godforsaken party …”
“I know. I was there.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I saw how you handled your staff. I saw how my son approach you, and taunted you. I saw you talk to Duke …”
“Andreas’s father, and I saw your interaction with Sylvia as well. I even saw what she did after she kicked you out.”
I shot a look of question to my parents, who answered me back with a shrug, before looking back at Cordelia. “What do you mean? What’d she do?”
“Listen, I don’t know what’s going on with Sylvie, but she’s taking things to far. The main reason I’m here is because I can’t continue to sit by and watch it happen.”
“Uh, excuse me,” Chloe waved sarcastically. “I’m confused. Why do you have a guilty conscience all of the sudden? You were standing right next to her making the idle threats, and now you can’t stand to see it happen? How come?”
“Like I said … she’s gone too far this time. Now, the place and time has been set, and I can give you that information along with what you’ll need to defend yourself. You will be properly armed. All you have to do is remember how to fight like a Diamond.”
“What the f –? Haze, what are y’all smoking in your so-called meetings? What the hell does fight like a Diamond even mean?”
“Diamonds are created best under pressure. Some may be pure, some may be rough, we may get scratched and we may get cut, but we are unbreakable.”
“Oh my God, she joined a cult.”
“Yeah, Auntie, she joined the Bullshit Cult because I didn’t hear nothing but air.”
“And what’s this talk about being armed, Miss Cordelia? I don’t want to see my mom hurt or embarrassed!”
“Okay. Andreas? Would you rather see your new girlfriend dead on your watch? Because that’s what your mama wants!” Chloe yelled as Cordelia’s eyes bounced between us in shock.
“Oh, yeah, you’re late. You missed that fun fact of the day.”
“Does Sylvie know about this? Is that where all that extra animosity is coming from?”
“Oh no, she’s just naturally a bitch.”
“Miss. Cordelia, she definitely didn’t hear it from me. I did not tell her. I just told my dad.”
“Once again, you are late. Now can we please get back to coming up with a plan to keep my cousin from getting killed by the crazy lady? I’ve already lost my brother; I’m not losing her too!”
“The plan is very simple, oh feisty one. All Hazel has to do … is remember the gift I’ve granted her.”
“The gift you granted her?” Chloe snapped as the wheels began to turn in my mind, thanks to the sight of Cordelia’s sly look. “What damn gift? You ruined her life. You put her in a corner. You and your damn son! The gift you granted her. What … Haze, do you have the slightest idea what this woman is talking about?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”