You know that saying “Payback is a bitch”? Well, you can believe it. And in the case of Marshall v. McGruder-Forbes et al., the bitch in question is me, LaShaWanda P. Marshall, and I’m proud of it.
Not that I wasn’t nervous as hell an hour ago when those twelve jurors filed in. When the bailiff instructed the courtroom to rise, my knees felt wobbly and I could feel puddles of sweat form between my breasts and behind my knees, and begin to flow downward, and I’m not a sister who ruffles easily or takes kindly to perspiration. Then C. Virgil Susquehanna, the presiding judge, swept into the court and I couldn’t keep a slight smile from my face. Six foot four, black as a cast-iron skillet, with chiseled cheekbones, a broad forehead, liquid brown eyes, and full lips, C. Virgil strode into the courtroom exuding confidence and power. Did I mention he is gorgeous? In his early sixties, he not only bears out the old adage “Black don’t crack,” he is living proof that it gets better with age. During the three weeks he’d been hearing my suit to recover $2 million in commissions plus interest stolen from me by my former employer, the Wall Street investment bank McGruder-Forbes, I’d tried to read him, with no success. He was at all times courtly and attentive, and kept a serious poker face. Even when he was overruling an objection from the battery of evil attorneys McGruder-Forbes had arrayed against me or sustaining one from my lone attorney, Debi Mountain, it was impossible to get a sense of which way he was leaning. I guess he took seriously those scales of justice and the need for fairness, but damn, sometimes a sister can use a break.
By the time the court officer handed him that paper from the jury, I’d surrendered to the sweat in every crevice of my body, and being a plus-size sister, there were more than a few of them. Big-ass pigeons, not delicate, ladylike butterflies, were wreaking havoc in my stomach, and if my fingers, each nail adorned for luck with red, black, green, and gold four-leaf clovers painted by my wild cousin Sukey, nail artist extraordinaire, hadn’t been firmly planted on the table in front of me, my legs alone wouldn’t have been enough to get me up.
As different as our respective lines of work are, both me and the judge are in businesses where failure to rise is a serious offense. I didn’t want to be cited for contempt of court. My ears were ringing so hard and my stomach churning so loud the only way I knew that Judge Susquehanna asked if the jury had reached a verdict and that the forewoman said yes is because I’ve watched enough episodes of Law & Order to know the drill. I couldn’t hear a thing.
You know how when you fly, your ears clog up and don’t pop until you touch down? Well, that’s what happened to me. Touchdown came when the judge read the words, “In the case of LaShaWanda P. Marshall v. McGruder-Forbes, we find the defendants guilty.” Suddenly the
pigeons in my stomach went home to roost with those chickens Malcolm X talked about in 1963, that sweat dried up in its own tracks, and I could hear again. Not only that, but I was $2-million-plus-interest richer, more than enough money to replace the suit on my back.
I glanced over at the jurors, eight women and four men, and they were all smiling. A couple of the women even gave me a thumbs-up. Beside me, my lawyer squeezed my hand and murmured, “See, Wanda, I told you the American system of jurisprudence works.” I wasn’t about to go tell that to the innocent people in prison or those who are poor, colored, or both and serving disproportionately long sentences. It also wasn’t the moment to remind Debi, a pal of that enemy of the people, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who I’d hired not because I agreed with her politics but because she’d never lost a case, that she was being paid many pretty pennies for representing me. If you want justice your way, it don’t come cheap. Anyway, it was true that in this instance, for this woman, this time, the system had worked. That was definitely something to celebrate. I could hear Lydia Beaucoup, my friend and, technically speaking, employer, who’d moved with me from Reno to San Francisco so she could come to court to support me every day, yelling, “All right, Wanda! You go, girl! Go!” That’s exactly what I wanted to do, go. Out of that damn courthouse, straight to the bank with my check, and on with my life. If living well is the best revenge, I now had the funds to do just that. I’ve never been a woman who wastes time. “The court will come to order.” Judge Susquehanna’s creamy baritone silenced the room. “Many of you know something of my journey to the bench. I was born and raised by a hardworking single mother in Mississippi during the meanest years of segregation and Jim Crow. I worked after school, weekends, and long summers as a golf caddy at a segregated country club from the time I was twelve. I was able to fulfill my mother’s dream of education and betterment when several members, impressed, I believe, with my hard work and nonthreatening demeanor, chose to contribute funds to, as one of them put it, ‘Send the little coon to college.’
“I doubt they thought this ‘little coon’ would finish college. I am positive they did not think I would continue, on full scholarship, to law school. Surely they did not suspect I would become an attorney for the Baptist Brotherhood and Boule and Racial Solidarity Now! During their heyday in the 1960s. Or that I would go from there to the NAACP and eventually head the Inner City Conclave, struggling for political and economic equality and justice for not only my people but all Americans. Over the years I learned that the battle was not only in the streets but in the suites. After all, what good does it do to integrate an establishment if my people cannot afford . . .”
C. Virgil kept on talking, but my mind started wandering, trying to remember what the Libor index had been the day before in order to compute exactly how much the interest on my recently recovered $2 million would be. I’ve always got some sort of music playing in my
head, kind of a self-induced Muzak, selected by my subconscious to fit my mood and circumstances. It was no surprise that the current sound track in my head was the exuberant voices of the chorus in the musical 42nd Street warbling, “We’re in the money, we’re in the money, / We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!”—their voices rising to such a crescendo that they drowned out the judge. That was okay with me; since I’d already heard the words I most needed to hear, “guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guil-tee!” everything else was extra. I just sat there, listening to the chorus jamming in my brain, trying not to nod my head to the beat, and watching C. Virgil’s lips move as he talked.
What pretty lips they were, full, dark, perfectly shaped. Since even in a court of law, honesty is the best policy, and though I’m no longer on the witness stand, I remain sworn to tell the truth, I confess that even if he’s old enough to be my father and, at least up until now, I’ve been partial to younger men, I couldn’t keep from fantasizing about those lips of C. Virgil’s. Kissing that warm place behind my ear, slowly traveling down my neck, gently licking, then drifting lazily south to fasten onto that small place between my neck and collarbone where, when kissed, sucked, and nibbled just right, it felt so good it made me simultaneously giggle and cringe in ecstasy. Power is an aphrodisiac, and C. Virgil had my whole world in his hands: it’s no wonder I was turned on.
Hey, standing in court daydreaming about being made transcendent love to by a handsome judge—or, truth be told, anyone else—may sound strange, but sex is my business. I’m the chief financial officer of A Sister’s Spa, located just outside Reno, Nevada. In business just
over two years, we’re wildly successful, and not just because we offer massage, aerobics, herbal wraps, and a relaxing place for stressed-out women to spend a few days. In addition to great food, wonderful atmosphere, and every spa treatment imaginable, A Sister’s Spa also sells fabulous, safe sex delivered by gorgeous young men trained in the art of pleasuring women. Come for either the In and Out, our shortest package—a massage and sex expertly delivered in four hours—or the Total Healing Deluxe, two nights, three days, unlimited spa services, and sex with as many sex workers as you can handle in the combination of your choice. And we guarantee you’ll leave relaxed, loose, and planning your next visit. Not to mention with a Cheshire cat smirk on your face.
But before I go any further, let me be perfectly clear: my career plan after I graduated from Yale wasn’t to work in a spa-brothel. Like thousands of smart, aggressive, and debt-ridden college graduates in the 1990s, my American dream was simple: to work on Wall Street
and get rich. I was well on my way there until I was framed by at least one of the directors of McGruder-Forbes, the New York investment bank where I worked, to cover their own unscrupulous dealings. That’s when I’d packed up my shit, fled west on my own buppie trail of tears, and settled for a job as executive assistant to the vice president of Old Western Bank while I schemed on how to get my money back. Sounds grim, but as my granny used to say, “If life deals you lemons, make lemonade,” to which I’d add, then bottle it, slap on a fancy label, and get paid. Granny’s point, and mine, is that bad things can sometimes lead to good things. If I hadn’t been set up and driven out of town, I never would have moved to San Francisco, taken a crappy job at the bank, and met Lydia Beaucoup and Acey Allen when they came in to apply for a business loan, for which they were turned down.
I wouldn’t have been at Sapphire’s, my favorite restaurant in San Francisco, during happy hour having a much-needed after-work drink and waiting on my always late girlfriend Muffin Dixmoor, and I wouldn’t have run into Acey and Lydia a few days after their unsuccessful visit to the bank. Not that I was looking for them. When they’d come for the meeting about the loan, Lydia stepped to me like I was something unattractive standing between her and jackpot door number three, and even though her best friend, Acey, had tried to clean it up, I was not impressed. I read them as two bourgie black women wearing expensive clothes and nonthreatening hair coming to beg the man for money, with no clue how the system worked, and about to get their asses kicked. I didn’t like Lydia’s assumption, even though the only thing standing between her and the banker who could make her a loan was me, that I was powerless, someone to be stepped over, and if necessary, on, before the main event.
But hey, I’ve been black, female, and several sizes above a fourteen most of my life. I’ve learned to ignore negative assumptions or make them work for me. If someone thought my race, gender, weight, weave, or red, black, and green fingernails made me stupid, that was their mistake. I sent those bitches in to see my boss, Gardiner Roberts III, flipped my waist-length extensions, and promptly forgot about them.
It wasn’t until several days later when I ran into them at Sapphire’s that we got to talking seriously about their unique business idea. The truth is, I’m not a spa person. With apologies to Jane Fonda, Billy Blanks, and Joe Pilates, sweat is not my friend. I spend way too much money on hair and nails to willingly engage in any activity that might chip my polish, sweat out my roots, or cause these shoulder-length kinky twists I’m wearing now to unravel. With the exception of great sex, that is. Let me get with a man who’s got the equipment and knows how to work it, and I don’t give a damn if my nails break off down to the pads of my fingers while I’m clinging to the headboard or his back. As for the hair, I’ve had sex so good that not only did my roots nap up, beads and shells flew off my braids so fast and hit the walls so hard you’d think you were under sniper attack. And more than one man has found himself with a handful of some poor Asian woman’s hair in his fist when he held on a little too tight. The next morning I had to crawl out of bed, put a baseball cap on my head, and hobble to the beauty shop for an emergency touch-up, but I’m not complaining. Now, let the
church say amen.
Short story long, I’d hooked them up with Muffin, she’d delivered the capital they needed to open the spa via her elderly, right-wing, rich-as–King Midas hubby, Dick Dixmoor, although I’m sure he didn’t intend for his grants to be used to open a brothel for black women. Anyway, realizing my financial savvy, they’d offered me a gig as CFO. We’ve been successful from day one, having tapped into what I intended to gamble was a national, even global, women’s fantasy: fab safe sex on demand, no strings attached.
It hadn’t been easy. Along with Lydia, Acey, and me, our gang of four included Odell Overton, a fine-as-hell chocolate-brown brother who Lydia met when he was the UPS delivery man at the ad agency she’d worked for. Both Lydia and Acey swore Odell was a fantastic
lover, but not having had a taste, I had to take their word for it. What I did know was that he was smart, cool as a cucumber, and not looking to put in another twenty years and then retire from UPS. It was also clear to me that it’d help to have a man in his thirties working with us in a business in which most of our employees were young and male. Sexual glutton that she is, even Lydia had to admit that it was physically impossible for her to identify and screen the forty sex workers we needed to open the spa. That’s how Odell became the director of human resources, responsible for finding, hiring, and managing the rainbow coalition of sex workers responsible for pleasuring our clients.
Did I say that A Sister’s Spa was a success from day one? We were offering women multiorgasmic sex without the complications of mating, dating, or a relationship, and they were hungry for it. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, especially when it benefits women. We had to beat back attacks from the Reverend T. Terry Tiger, a minister and former leader of the Negro people who’d been rendered virtually obsolete, fallen on hard financial times, and tried to use attacks on A Sister’s Spa to rejuvenate his shrinking ministry and fatten his coffers. Muffin’s husband, Dick Dixmoor, a right-wing manufacturer of munitions and pharmaceuticals, had funded the spa, ostensibly as a way to employ said predators, but it turned out that his involvement with the spa was really his own secret Tuskegee Experiment. That’s the study where, from 1932 to 1972, the United States government withheld penicillin and let four hundred poor black men suffer, and some die, of syphilis so that doctors could study the disease. In the end we won and prospered. The business of boning is booming, and in addition to delivering that bitch of a payback, my plan is to use the money I just recovered to open up the first franchise of A Sister’s Spa.
Yep, the four of us had accomplished a lot in the last two years, and had much fun and even more sex doing so, but I’m ready for something, though I’m not exactly sure what. It’s not that I’m unhappy or anything, I just miss something or something’s missing. Maybe it’s the same feeling people who complain about winter and cold weather have when they finally move to an island where it’s in the eighties and sunny 360 days a year, and then move back to the cold within a few years. “I missed the change of seasons,” they often say when you ask them why they came back. Sounds simple, but the truth is I always thought change of seasons was a euphemism for missing things far more complex, although right through here I can’t be any more specific. I’m staring dreamily as C. Virgil’s lips open wide, wider, widest, half listening to what he’s saying as I mentally retrace the route that got me here and ponder where I’m going next, when his lips part and he snarls, “Abomination!” That’s when my interior sound track screeches to an unceremonious halt, and I’m back in that courthouse listening to the final comments of Judge C. Virgil Susquehanna in the matter ofMarshall v. McGruder-Forbes et al.
“To her great credit, LaShaWanda P. Marshall did not become bitter, she did not get mad. She believed in the system and came to this court to get justice. This jury’s decision should stand as a warning to all those who would seek to deny the dream of America to anyone, whatever their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or class. Beware attempting to rob the people of their dreams!” C. Virgil Susquehanna roars. The courtroom is absolutely still except for the muted sound of whimpering. Is there an infant in the courtroom or could it be one of McGruder-Forbes’s lawyers?
“For the first time in my ten years on the bench, I am going to use my judicial prerogative and assign McGruder-Forbes, in addition to the two-million-plus-interest the jury has awarded, punitive damages of one million dollars for Ms. Marshall’s pain and suffering. Beware tampering with the American dream. You do so at your own peril, whether you are a street punk stealing a worker’s wallet and week’s pay, or a Wall Street mogul exploiting a junior executive. I thank the members of the jury for their service. Good afternoon.” With that, C. Virgil Susquehanna, for the first time in the six weeks of my trial, grins. Those pretty lips pull so far back I can see every one of the thirty-two enormous, sparkling white teeth in his mouth. He looks toward the jury and gives a slight, courtly bow, tosses the defendant’s attorneys a final glare, and turns toward his chambers, robes swinging. That’s when he looks at me, winks, pivots, and sweeps out of the courtroom. The absolute silence he’s commanded erupts into a cacophony of voices and applause punctuated by the groans and agitated mutterings of the McGruder-Forbes lawyers as they shove papers into their briefcases and likely desperately calculate by how many tens of thousands their annual bonuses will be diminished by the loss of this case. Beside me, my lawyer, Debi Mountain, slides papers into her briefcase, a smug, vaguely canine grin on her face. Debi is superbly trained, cutthroat, and profoundly amoral, one of those people who doesn’t concern herself with right or wrong but is simply determined to win. Maybe that makes her the perfect lawyer, but you sure wouldn’t want to have her over for dinner and a heart-to-heart. “Thank you so much, Debi.” I step forward to give her a hug. I’m not surprised or disappointed when she backs away and extends her hand.
“A pleasure, LaShaWanda, a pleasure. Justice has been done,” she purrs, pumping my arm and squeezing my hand so hard the bones shift and a sharp pain shoots up to my elbow. “I’m sure we both hope there won’t be the need, but please feel free to call me for future legal assistance,” she adds, turning back to her briefcase. Before I can take offense, a hand grabs me and spins me around, and my girl Lydia’s arms are on both my shoulders and we’re doing a strange little jig in the federal courthouse to the tune of Lydia’s could-never-be-in-thechurch- choir singing, with apologies to the godfather of soul, James Brown, “That’s where I laughed, for the big payback, the big payback!” “Oh my God, Wanda, you kicked some serious ass here today. You know those lawyers will never get over it,” Lydia crows, laughing. As she has been every day of the trial, she’s dressed in red, this time a brilliant Versace suit with a short jacket and skirt the color of an overripe pomegranate. Shortly before the trial began, she’d announced that during a vision—an extremely rare occurrence for the devout, but almost unheard of for a cynical agnostic like Lydia—it had been revealed to her that red was the color women warriors wore during the hunt. She’d explained to me that since my case was in pursuit of my stolen cash—i.e., a twenty-first-century hunt—she planned to attend the trial daily in red to ensure success. Hey, at the time I’d just given her one of those “whatever” nods and laughed. But given the outcome of events, maybe Lydia had a point. I’m glad I let her convince me the night before to wear my red suit for luck.
“Nor should they get over this day, ever,” Lydia says loudly enough for the last humiliated lawyer scurrying out of the courtroom to hear and slapping me a high five. “Shit, court’s barely adjourned and those sniveling creep lawyers are probably already in a dank, dark bar somewhere looking at the want ads in the National Law Journal. In this lousy economy, good luck. And how about C. Virgil? Who knew? I always thought he was one of those uptight, born-again Republican, it’s-all-a-meritocracy Negroes, but there’s a brother buried up in there someplace, and he sure came out of the closet today. I could not believe
it when he started telling that ‘little coon’ story. Damn. And an extra million in punitive damages? Where are you taking me to lunch? I’ve always wanted to try some Cristal.”
“Where else but Sapphire’s?” I ask, slipping my arm through Lydia’s.
“As it was in the beginning, so shall it be in the end.”
“Great. We need to celebrate. And, Wanda, you’ve been refusing for weeks to talk about what you’d do with the money if you won, claiming it’d be bad luck. But now that a check for three-million-plusinterest’s in the mail, it’s time to give up the goods.” I laugh, but Lydia’s
serious. “Listen, Wanda, whatever you decide to do is your business, and I’ll support you unconditionally, blah, blah, blah, but I hope you’re not going to leave A Sister’s Spa. Not only do me, Acey, and Odell love you, we need you. Where else are we going to find a CFO who’s as smart and cool as you?”
“Nowhere.” I laugh. “And since I know you well enough to know you’re incapable of waiting until we get to lunch to talk and you’ll be bugging me like a no-see-’em on a beach in the Caribbean unless I toss you a bone, I’ll say this and no more. I have no intention of leaving A Sister’s Spa. I love the work, the money, and not to get sentimental, the three of y’all. Yes, there’re some things I’ve been thinking about doing, but I think we can work all that out to
our mutual benefit.” Lydia starts to say something, and I put up my hand.
“Well, you know we’ve always agreed that women all over the world deserve magnificent, affordable, safe sex. How if we had the money, it’d be wonderful to have A Sister’s Spa become a franchise—”
“Cut to the chase, Wanda, it’s me, the former copywriter, I wrote the spiel, remember? You interested in opening a franchise in a different county in Nevada?”
“Actually, I’ve been thinking about opening one back east.”
“But the only state where prostitution’s legal is Nevada.”
“I know that. I’ve been doing some research. I’m thinking we could pull it off as long as we didn’t put it exactly in a state . . .”
“Outside a state? Like on the space shuttle? That’d give a whole new meaning to the word liftoff.” Lydia snickers.
“No, like on the ocean,” I say. “As in a big, luxurious yacht moored three miles offshore, which puts the spa in international waters and outside of state jurisdiction everywhere but Florida and Texas. We could drop anchor, do some business, and if necessary simply pull up
anchor and, like that old song by the Floaters goes, ‘Float, float on.’ Poof, now you see us, now you don’t.”
“Isn’t that illegal? Last thing we need is the feds after us.”
“The feds are responsible for everything two hundred miles out, but I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Let’s be real: they’re so busy talking tough on terrorism, wiretapping American citizens, and looting the planet, I’m gambling we could slip in under the radar. We’d
simply be one of hundreds of wealthy yacht people enjoying the fruits of our labors. People
like that validate the American dream C. Virgil was talking about, so why mess with us?”
“Wanda, you have been doing your research. I guess you’ve also decided exactly where this boat of ill repute will be moored?”
That’s when I let a smug smile slide onto my face, because I certainly have.
“Yep. I’ve found the perfect location to try out my floating-spa idea. A place where for three months a year there are lots of women without men, scads of yachts, tons of disposable income, and a constantly changing population intent on having fun. From my research into lifestyles of the rich, famous, and infamous, this place also has a substantial population of women who are well-heeled, discreet, and alone. The men are either in the city working and unavailable, not interested, or so old that even Viagra or Levitra won’t help. Did I mention our pool of clients live on an island? Honey, we’ll have a captive audience ready, willing, and able to appreciate all of the services A Sister’s Spa offers.”
“Where is this paradise? It sounds perfect. I might have to go with you and help put it together.” Lydia laughs.
“In Massachusetts, just over three miles as the eagle—and I do mean the ones on U.S. Treasury notes—flies. A short and scenic watershuttle ride from the island of Martha’s Vineyard.”