The Golden Veneer
Esau A. Strawberry was awarded an Honorable Mention in Drama in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
The Golden Veneer
A Black Screen:
Choices… I was asked what are morally sound choices; what are ethically sound choices; ultimately, what is the difference?
INT. AUDITORIUM – DAY
BOSTON-BILL speaks in a clear, measured tone before a lectern. Eyes move to the corners, then:
Our vices and habits make all the difference.
Boston-Bill, 60s, an aging gangster who’s loyal to a code that follows two basic principles: never fuck over your friends, and never kill on a full stomach.
INT. BOILER ROOM (TRAIN REPAIR PLANT) – DAY
In a dark windowless room, two shadowy FIGURES: a MAN and a WOMAN force THOMAS MALLOY onto a rugged steel chair.
He’s bound to it by duct tape. Then savagely beaten.
INTERCUT – AUDITORIUM/BOILER ROOM
Moral and ethical rules of conduct are scratched into our minds at an early age.
Out of nowhere, a fist lands square on Malloy’s jaw — followed by a solid strike to his eye that makes a THUD.
Blood pours from that eye onto the floor.
The Woman, wearing designer shades, beats the shit out of Malloy with methodical aggression. Her shades dark, clothing black, soul unforgiving.
This is XI-LI CHAN, 25, an icy, terse gun-for-hire; nonetheless, a proud and fascinating Chinese National.
Our vices and habits reinforce certain codes, those codes makeup who we are today; professional types.
Xi-Li grabs a steel pipe from the shadows. Immediately, she smashes Malloy’s leg with it. He screams in agony as his bone snaps.
The Man strolls between dense shadows in a tight circle around Malloy. He observes Xi-Li’s cruelty. Uneasy.
You have your firefighters, race car drivers, Barbie and Ken, princesses, gold-diggers, whores, wise guys, cops, and snitches.
Next, she rams the pipe into Malloy’s gut. He doubles over VOMITING his lunch to the floor.
After Xi-Li tosses the pipe, she slides on brass knuckles.
I’ll close on this. No matter who you become, no matter who you are or profession chosen, how good or bad your ethical code…
Xi-Li punches Malloy’s face as a baker’s fist to dough. His blood squirts on her lips. She licks it.
Malloy’s eyes fix into a desperate plea with the male tormentor. To no use, he circles Malloy again.
…Never take cash over loyalty. Never steal from the boss, and never fuck over your friends.
Bill’s eyes narrow into a hard glare. Delight surges through him at the scattered applause.
The auditorium is packed with teenagers, their parents, and teachers—most are dumbfounded.
Bill’s words have stunned this Junior High Assembly.
INSIDE BOILER ROOM
Xi-Li’s viciousness disgusts the Man. He intervenes.
Give us the intel! This ends.
PANZER, 40s, a veteran Vice Detective who lives from one extreme to another and wouldn’t have it any other way, pleads to Malloy’s pain.
Receiving no answer, he sics the cold blooded killer on him. She resumes her vicious assault, bashing Malloy’s face.
Her violence reaches another level when she pours gasoline over Malloy’s head.
His eyes shut tight, jerks intense with fear, struggles against the restraints.
No! God, no. I can’t, please.
Xi-Li yanks his head up to view Panzer clearly.
Does the weapon have a GPS tracker? Who’s tracking it?
I can’t. I can’t.
A lighter is struck in front of Malloy’s face. The nefarious woman taunts him with the long flame that sways in her shades.
A sickening wave of horror hots Panzer. He kicks the gasoline canister. It ECHOES tumbling to a stop.
Xi-Li! Get the bags first.
(off her confusion)
In case the fire alarm sounds.
With reluctance, she goes fading into the shadows.
A knife flicks from Panzers’s pocket. Malloy jump at its appearance. He relaxes when Panzer cuts him free. Malloy flops to the floor extremely weak.
Hey, asshole! Get up, damn it.
You had to run. I had this under
control. We don’t have much time.
Consider yourself lucky… I’m a cop.
Malloy’s shocked to hear that and accepts the help offered. Panzer props Malloy onto his shoulder and walks him deeper into the maze of shadows. Eyes scanning, gun up.
Using a handheld GPS tracker, Xi-Li locates three duffle bags near a stairwell hidden under a pile of debris.
Retrieving one, she examines the contents within.
A wicked smirk owns her face regarding the stacks of cash inside along with a silver revolver. A glance over her shoulder—all clear—she exits with all three bags.
AT BOILER FURNACE
Panzer pulls Malloy under a water valve.
Water spits from a spigot when lifted.
Coughing, spitting blood, Malloy washes gasoline from his body. Then a drink. He clutches at the pain throbbing in his leg.
She broke my fucking leg!
She was going to do worse.
If you’re a cop, you’re crooked, or a sellout like me; aren’t you?
(Panzer’s jaw tightens)
I miscalculated… all of this to save—
—I’m trying to save my own ass! Whatever you’ve done, they’ll kill you. This… a weak moment. Thank me later. I like gifts.
I’m nobody! Shit! Nothing to no one; a useless programmer trying to cut a better deal with the devil—
—I don’t give a fuck about your life.
You will. That weapon is a trap. Bill and the Russian are merely pawns in Vera’s game. The A-Shield—
A CLANG in the distance steals his words.
Panzer slings Malloy’s arm over his shoulder.
Pain hits Malloy as he hobbles down the dark corridor.
Double doors fly open. Bright sunlight blinds the men briefly.
A GUNSHOT rings out. Blood splatters Panzer’s face.
Malloy drops to the ground. Dead.
Xi-Li lowers the silver revolver.
Boston-Bill arrives with two ARMED GOONS: Winston and K-ALE. They exit a heavy-duty SUV.
Xi-Li flashed an “I-told-you-so” look to Bill approaching.
There’s a man with no value. Shame, probably had a family, a little wife, dog too. “No, they said, cops on the take will never accept a kill order. They have too much decency, too much hero, too much cop in them.”
He touches Xi-Li. She sticks the gun into her waistband.
See her? She’s loyal. I own her. In a lifetime, you’ll get one killer whose thirst for blood rivals Walmart.
Bill takes a moment to light a cigar.
Business deals with cops is risky. They fail to realize no one will have pity for a morally damaged, feckless, bootlicker. No one, but me.
He motions for Panzer to follow, both walk to the heavy-duty SUV. Panzer wipes blood from face.
—Don’t! Don’t give me excuses; do not equate yourself with men who’re rats, thieves, and have no respect for code or loyalty. Malloy’s days got numbered when he stole power that wasn’t his; and then he shot my lady.
The Adversaries stop at the vehicle. Right behind them: Xi-Li and Bill’s two goons.
You and I live by truth. We’re family men, top earners, dare I say respectable. Are those days gone, Panzer? They say there isn’t enough mercy for elite criminals, none for corrupt cops. I had to rewrite the rules and paid the highest price for you.
(he glances at Xi-LI)
Some people have no price. Malloy? He was greedy. What did he tell you about the Aviator. Shield and the Russian?
Enough to know you’re in over your head.
So says the cop to the gangster.
Bill motions to Xi-Li. A sly smirk flares as she steps towards Panzer. He tightens. She drops the bags at his feet.
There’s a balance, it’s cruel, but it must be kept. Two million dollars right there for the Russian. He arrives at midnight with my weapon. I’d think you’d have some ethical choices to make.
(to his goons)
I’m excited to see what this dirty cop will do; will he break ranks, steal my money and run, or follow orders and live to be bought another day?
Morals and ethics. Value and worth. Learn the difference.
Bill and Panzer share mutual animosity. His goons are amused. The gang loads into the vehicle. It zooms away.
Panzer glances at the bags. The dead man. Then at a security camera pointed at the body.
INT. PAIGE’S APARTMENT – EVENING
Fading sunlight streams through open windows, casting long shadows upon wood floors. The bare walls are a dark gray.
“It’s a Man’s World” plays in the background.
The apartment, simple, neat, and solitary.
An attractive WOMAN with eyes of fire-and-brimstone applies smokey eye shadow to a flawless face. Radiant.
At dresser mirror, puts hair into a tight chignon. Perfect.
The woman acknowledges a photo of a YOUNG MAN in army fatigues. After lighting candles, she prays:
Before thee, against good have I done evil? Make me a judge in the wages of life and death. Salah.
Two fingers go from her lips, to the face in the photo.
PAIGE IO, an African-American of no small complexity, an outcast that cradles fear and as a newborn babe, hostage to a mind of constant indecision.
She lets her robe fall to the floor. There’s a jagged scar on her right shoulder blade.
Next, dark tailored slacks go on. A corset of light fabric follows. Designer boots are zipped.
Her taste in clothes? Enviable.
A leather belt rounds hips—joined to it: a hip holster, gun, and golden police badge.
She adjusts her breasts. Behind those eyes, there’s a terrible trauma.
A black blazer goes on concealing her weapon and badge.
The flames of the candles are blown out. Darkness, then…
EXT. BROOKLYN NEW YORK – NIGHT
…a lighter is thumbed on, the flame illuminating Paige. She’s alone in an unmarked police cruiser. Smoking.
She takes a long drag from the cigarette.
The cigarette gets smashed out.
Paige opens a prescription pill bottle—brightens eager—pops pills into mouth, a swig of whiskey drowns them.
Slamming the door, Paige turns to give the Freedom Tower a dishonorable gesture.
Paige owns the pedestrian free sidewalk.
Her strut seductive, off balance, and a bit inebriated.
She tosses the whiskey bottle. It shatters.
The shadowy alley ahead, a non obstacle, she sashays in.
Shortly after, out of the shadows, a MUGGER grabs her rough. His forearms tightening around her neck, choking her.
Gimmie yo’ money bitch!
The shimmering knife full of intimidation sobers her up.
Her impulse to fight is followed. Paige stomps on his toe. A sharp elbow fired into his gut sends him reeling back.
Paige swings violent; a haymaker knocks him senseless.
Mouth bleeding and stunned, he falls to a knee, feebly waving the knife. A challenge?
At lightning speed, she whips out the gun from the holster.
No more bright ideas, he lets the knife fall. It CLANGS against the concrete. Looking terrified, his hands go up.
Shit. Sorry, lady. Don’t shoot.
Shut up! On your feet.
He stares at the compact .45 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. It’s a man killer.
Move against the wall, shit brains.
After a quick pat down, she finds a bill.
Ten bucks! You’re kidding.
I’m sorry. Please.
You’re a real sick motherfucker. Gettin’ off on mugging good people.
She holsters gun, and then shover her badge into his face.
See this, it’s law. Who just got mugged for lint and a peppermint! You’re a real shit brains. Now I’m late.
Please… let me—
—Shut the fuck up.
She yanks a fistful of hair. He yelps.
Stop, you’re a cop!
Her weight immobilized him against the brick wall.
She catches her reflection with a puddle. The indecision upon her face comes into focus within its light.
That’s what they say.
Shush. I’m thinking.
She whips him around to her. Eye to eye.
Chose to do right. I catch you here again; I’m gonna fuck you up. Okay?
He turns to leave—
Wait! Don’t forget your knife.
After retrieving it. He bolts.
Run Forrest, run!
The posh room has broad lighting, exposed brick, and polished floors. A group of men and women sit in a circle.
A scruffy man, WILLIE (60s) speaks:
Every day’s a struggle being an elder man… well they have these, these pills, ya know, v-egg-rah. They’re for penis erections…
A vivacious Brazilian with a megawatt smile giggles. This is BRIZA, the local Sex Addicts Anonymous facilitator.
Her eyes move from Willie to Paige, who heads into
acknowledging no one.
At the sink, she thoroughly washes her hands. Next, she pours a hot cup of coffee. Last, she places the ten bucks into the charity jar, and then she joins the group.
…forty years of marriage having prudish sex with that woman. She’s dead; now I get to have anal sex–
A chair SCREECHES interrupting the group.
Paige drags the chair while balancing coffee in the other hand. She inserts the chair between Willie and CHELSEA, a sullen college girl.
Chelsea frets at the lack of personal space.
Really? I can’t even.
She scoots away.
Don’t you have a frat party to be raped at or something?
And don’t get me started on you, old man.
She scowls — recovery devotees anticipates Paiges’s next insult. Briza defuses the tension—
For sharing, thank you, Willie.
Welcome to recovery, Paige.
Her accent is nothing short of sexy.
Hola, my name, Briza, and I am recovering from sex addiction. It has been for me 120 days for last relapse behaviors.
The group: “Welcome, Briza.”
The room goes quiet—all stare—it’s Paige’s turn. First, a SIP of coffee, then:
Yup, I’m Paige. That is me…
Loyalty is Paige’s strength, Achilles heel: sex. Which doesn’t bode well. Her addiction requires constant rehab.
…oh, let’s see… it’s been ten minutes since my last relapse.
Off their appalled looks:
What? A girl’s gotta eat.
Briza’s head falls into hands.
EXT. RAIL YARD – NIGHT (FLASHBACK)
Super: “Hours Ago”
Scores of trains pull boxcars RUMBLING along steel rails. Their headlights are a beacon piercing through the darkness.
At the red signal switch, Malloy nervously tugs on his collar, puffs on a cigarette.
Xi-Li and Panzer slide from the shadows.
Malloy tosses his cigarette.
Panzer carries two duffle bags. Xi-Li carries one. Her shades reflect moonlight on an emotionless face.
You Thomas Malloy?
Course he sends her. You have guns?
Toss them on the rails. Easy.
(eyes shift to Xi-Li)
We’re here to give you money and collect some info.
Throw the bags over to me, and then we’ll share info.
You know it never works like that.
Malloy whips out a silver revolver.
Now it does. Toss the money!
You’re gonna get your ass killed.
Tell Bill, leverage trumps loyalty.
After tossing his bags. Panzer motions for Xi-Li to do the same. She refuses.
Malloy points the gun at her.
Xi-Li stiffens, ready for anything.
The revolver wobbles. His finger feather the trigger. Suddenly a GUNSHOT—an intentional miss to her left.
Xi-Li never flinches.
I won’t ask again.
She flings her back next to the others.
This isn’t stealing; it’s the price of business. Bill’s in over his head; the weapon is a world ender. He’s merely a pawn in their game. You should run away… like me.
You just signed your kill order, asshole.
Malloy gathers all bags. One he bears as a backpack.
No one notices my power… my ability. No one wipes computer code better than I do. And this is what I get, what she gives me!
A train’s headlights FLASH—blinding Malloy.
Xi-Li seizes her chance…
Pazer tries to stop her.
…She leaps with a front-kick. THWACK.
Malloy’s knocked on his ass. He fires off a SHOT before she can get to him again.
Xi-Li drops to the ground on her back. Writhing in pain, she clutches her stomach.
Designer sunglasses on the ground reflect Pazner moving towards her.
Stop! She isn’t worth it! Save your own ass or die, too.
Malloy takes the bags. Then quickly escapes up a hill, vanishing into the shadows.
Panzer allows the distance before checking on Xi-Li.
She groans in pain when he touches the injury.
Keep pressure on—
He stops. A closer look. There’s no blood.
Panzer lifts her shirt. A Kevlar bulletproof vest protects her torso.
Bill must be in love with you.
She indicates sternly toward the fleeing man.
I got him; relax.
He flashes a knowing grin, and then runs after Malloy.
Xi-Li sucks in air to blow it out slow. In tremendous pain, wills herself into motion by rolling onto her side.
On knees, her eyes search for something. A few feet away she spots her shades.
After placing them on, she joins the chase.
BACK TO PRESENT DAY
INT. BROWNSTONE APARTMENTS – NIGHT
Several men and women gather and chitchat post meeting.
The golden varnish on the floors offers a cozy sense to the main area.
Paige sips coffee and nibbles on a doughnut.
Mr. Playboy, TEX, jeans and leather jacket gallops toPaige, who’s enraptured by Briza’s beauty. Briza, across the room, chats with Chelsea and Willie.
You’re the talk of the meeting.
(eyes on Briza)
You must be new.
He notices her noticing Briza.
She turns her head to him, sizing him up:
I ain’t got one. Just livin’ at life.
Some livin’. Well, Mr. Jeans and Leather Jacket who like to creep up on unsuspecting women.
Text? Your name or verb?
He’s intrigued by her evasive interplay, smiles with eyes.
Eyes on her, Tex lights a cigarette.
Paige’s eyes reflect both longing and envy. Her grip tightens on the coffee cup.
Her eyes shift to Briza, then:
You can’t smoke in here.
Geez, I pegged you for a rule breaker. Drinking the hot sauce before a sex meeting is a faux pas somewhere.
He sniffs the air, circling her, using the cigarette as a magic wand:
I’m sensing J.D. smooth-nine with a touch of honey to make it all the sweeter.
Briza spies Paige talking with Tex.
Paige catches her glare.
I’m sensing you’re a weirdo. Get the fuck away from me.
She saunters away. His bewilderment warms into a delightful smirk.
A long pull, the smoke ascends, he exits through it. Near an open window, Paige peruses through the SAA pamphlets.
Only a few recovery devotees remain: Tex, Chelsea, Briza, and Paige.
Briza tiptoes behind Paige.
How much longer?
You know it is me? How?
Bone-dry or dripping-wet, I can smell that pussy at every step.
Paige gently touches Briza’s fingers. Immediately Briza retracts them, looking over her shoulder, wary.
Tex clears his throat. Surprised at his appearance, Briza flashes a warm smile, and then strides off.
So, talk of the town, the creepy weirdo wants to know your vice.
You can call me, Paige.
Paige, what’s your vice, perhaps I can provide the cure.
Her face warms into an enticing smile.
Two things, Tex: if you’re here to pay bitches to fuck you…
She slides open her blazer revealing her badge.
…well, that’ll cost you a night in jail, or worse.
He opens his mouth to respond, then quickly closes it. Having met his match, he trots off.
INT. PAIGE’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
Orgasmic wails reverberate through the apartment.
Briza and Paige lie nude atop satin sheets GIGGLING in sexual bliss.
Fingers lightly stroke Paige’s damp skin, tracing her scar.
Much pleasure to give; no love in the heart for me.
Paige jerks away from her.
Paige turns to her nightstand. She lights a cigarette and takes a long drag. Then she notices her cell phone flashing.
You no care for recovery. You want the sex from the man.
Briza moves to her knees and folds her arms tight.
I don’t fuck losers; my second rule…
The first; my recovery, my business.
See, no love for me…
Paige’s cell phone VIBRATES. She reads the text:
“Harlem. 30mins. Team V.”
…I want to get marri—
Paige springs up. Briza grabs her by the hips, halting her for a moment.
Stay more minutes, por favor.
Nope, gotta work… kill bad guys.
Briza frets when Paige breaks the embrace to throw on clothes.
Babe, I don’t own you. I don’t police you, so stop annoying me.
A kiss for you?
Paige kisses her lover passionately; Briza falls back in a heap of arms and legs upon the bed.
Stop. The love in my soul, you drain.
BEGIN FLASHBACK SEQUENCE
EXT./INT. 6th PRECINCT – DAY
Super: “One Month Ago… Paige’s First Day”
Detectives and officers busy themselves with the pertinent activities of the morning. (Answering phones, typing, CHATTING, doughnut chomping, etc.)
A mousey-looking Paige eddies her way in. Bangs and eyebrows, hair frizzy, khakis faded, loafers worn.
Paige’s clothing: honest in color, of cheap material.
Her eyes move from index cards in hand to numbers above the doors on the far wall.
A sharp turn, Paige bumps right into a FEMALE OFFICER. The index cards scatter across the floor.
Hey, watch it, shit brains!
Officers LAUGH at that dig.
Paige quickly gathers the cards, and then slinks across room. Panzer looks up from writing; pen pauses on paper. He recognizes her immediately.
A weak pussy.
INT. LIEUTENANT REID’S OFFICE – SAME
A soft KNOCK on an open door draws Lt. Reid’s attention. Drinking from a red coffee mug, he waves her in.
Morning, sir. I’m Paige Io from—
—I know, what exceptional you’re on time. Coffee?
Do you have water?
The break room has bottles. Sit.
She rummages inside her worn handbag, nervously pulling out forms. Handing them to him, she sits.
Next, she takes out a bottle of water from her handbag.
Reid stares at her, confused.
My range scores are first-rate. I can handle carbines, bolt-action and—
—If you have your own water, why ask?
I… it’s polite?
He crosses the front of desk to sit on its corner.
Being polite won’t work, not here. You need to fit in; they’ll measure you by your work, your integrity. That counts.
I have a clean jacket, sir.
Reid sips his coffee and moves behind his desk. His eyes fall on the 0.09mm service pistol and silver police badge before him.
There’re two types of officers that walk through that door; officers who have incredible courage, blinding honesty, and personal integrity; the second type entrap themselves by doing things they wouldn’t have done under different circumstances.
Unsure, Paige nods in agreement anyhow.
Don’t envy them… they had clean jackets too.
Conduct code states I must follow precinct rules and protocol. However, any female problems, keep personal. I don’t want to deal with that shit.
Without knocking, DETECTIVE DAVID RIOS slides in. He’s a bully, a by-the-book know-it-all.
You called for a babysitter?
Nickel and Dime tour, then take her to the Video Training Room; review basic procedures, and go over range proto—
Phone RINGS. Reid gestures for them to halt.
David shoots Paige the once-over. Not impressed. Intimated, her eyes shift away. She gulps water.
Erase that, Rios; Panzer’s going to debrief her on patrol.
You sure, boss?
Lt. Reid nods knowingly. David slithers out. Paige’s curious eyes track him crossing past
In return, Panzer’s mischievous eyes find hers.
Paige swallows hard. She recognizes him.
EXT./INT. UNMARKED POLICE CRUISER- DAY
The unmarked cruiser speeds with windows down.
Panzer’s blazer: a dirty gray of costly material.
You’re my Auxiliary; know what that is?
(she shakes head)
It means I got that ass from watching pointless training videos, filing mindless paperwork riding a desk, thank me later, I like gifts. I’m your Field Training Officer; tonight, we’ll run a simple “Honeypot” sting. You’re a smart woman, but you ain’t catching no bees in that shit.
She glances at her clothes and worn loafers. Puzzled.
Panzer drives while checking his cell phone.
She admires how neat and clean the interior is.
I called in a few faves to get you off on the right foot. Know this; we’re not partners, not buddies, not friends. I’m here to train you because you need it. You’ll make your own mistakes, and create your own problems, which you will fix promptly.
He’s like a teacher explaining the obvious to a pupil.
I close cases; that’s how you go career—results. They look at what you can do, how often. It’s that simple, do as you’re told. I don’t need you. You don’t need me.
She nods slowly, concerned with his distracted driving.
See these people? They’re miscreants; ruthless, itchy killers put your life before theirs… I got rules, life and death shit. First rule—write this shit down, this is some lifesaving shit, years of experience. C’mon, keep up.
A quick dip into her handbag, whips out a pen and notepad.
First rule; don’t disrespect me. Second rule; never disrespect me. The last but most important, if you doubt yourself in the field… refer to the second rule.
She blinks, dubious.
What unit is this?
Team V, baby. Vice Squad.
She mouths, “Vice?”
END ACT 1