A Hard Rain; chapter one, part four

“You have a shift tomorrow afternoon,” Siobhan says after several minutes of silence.  “I think you should do it.”

“No.”  Leslie puts down her fork, feeling suddenly ill.  “I’m not ready for that.”

“Yes, you are.”  Siobhan is using her mom voice, which means she’ll brook no opposition.  “More importantly, you need to be doing something other than moping.”

“I am.  I have three articles to edit by Friday.  That’s five days from now.”

“You need to get out of the house.  Any house.  You know how you brood when you’re alone.”

“OK.”  Leslie sighs and takes a sip of water.  She can always bail if she doesn’t feel up to staying the whole shift.  They both lapse into silence and are startled by the persistent ringing of the doorbell.  Siobhan gets up to answer the door, and since Leslie is done eating, she follows Siobhan to the front hallway.

“Shit.  It’s the cops.  What are they doing here?”  Siobhan runs a hand through her curls before opening the door.  “Hello.  What may I do for you?”

“Oh, it’s you.”  Leslie recognizes the two detectives as the ones who told her John was dead, but she can’t remember their names.

“Mrs. Garelli?  I’m Detective Stevenson.  This is my partner, Detective Ricks.  Ms. Chang.  We weren’t expecting to see you here.”  Detective Stevenson stares at Leslie in surprise.  He doesn’t ask her what she’s doing there so she presumes that they have looked up her background.  He’s wearing a similar outfit to the one he wore the last time Leslie saw him.  “However, you were next on our list, anyway, so it’s good to see you.”  He nods at Leslie who is too nonplused to respond.  Why are the cops bothering her again?  What more do they want?

“I’m Siobhan Collins, Leslie’s best friend.  What can I do for you, detectives?”

“We need to ask you some questions,” Detective Ricks says, smoothly stepping into the house.  Today, she is wearing a nice pair of cream-colored slacks and a burnt-orange sweater.  The latter really complements her cocoa skin.  “Ms. Chang will need to be somewhere else.  We will fetch her when—“  Detective Ricks broke off her remark as two kids and three cats came trooping into the front hallway.

“Mooooom!  Eamon took my Barbies and won’t give them back.  Tell him to stop being so mean to me!”  Aileen’s face is grim as she tattles on her brother.  “He took Ken, too.”

“I am playing pretend ballet performance, and I need them to be the dancers,” Eamon explains, a Barbie in each hand.  “Leenie was on the PS3.  I didn’t think she’d mind.”

“Eamon, you need to ask Leenie before you play with her dolls,” Siobhan says, her voice strained.  Before she can add anything else, P.T. Barnum starts urgently licking Josephine’s butt.  In the meanwhile, Houdini is grooming Josephine’s head.  Leslie stifles the impulse to tell the three of them to get a room.  “Leenie, you need to learn to share more.  Now, I need you to take the cats and go to your rooms.”  Siobhan is pretty relaxed in her dealings with her children, but when she lays down the law, she expects to be obeyed.  Leenie and Eamon nod their heads and march towards the stairs, the three cats in tow.  After they are gone, Siobhan refocuses her attention on the cops.  “I am sorry about the intrusion.  Normally, my kids keep it down to a dull roar.”

“As I was saying,” Detective Ricks says loudly after clearing her throat.  “Ms. Chang needs to make herself scarce while we talk to you.”

“That’s fine.”  Leslie decides to return to the guestroom where she can edit in peace.  She has brought her laptop with her, and she needs something to occupy her mind, but not to tax it too greatly.

Once she reaches the guestroom, however, Leslie’s native curiosity gets the best of her.  She can’t stop speculating as to why the cops feel it’s necessary to talk to Siobhan, so she hops online to check out the news about John’s murder.  She trolls the archives of the Strib, finding little on the story.  She frowns.  Non-gang-related murders are rare in her neighborhood, so she finds it suspicious that there are only three short blurbs about John’s death.  She does a Google search, and she comes up with several hits.  Most of them are pure speculation, but one article goes into depth as to how John’s body was found on Hennepin Avenue by some trashed bar-hoppers.  They were walking past the Gay 90s when they spotted what they thought was a drunk gay guy slumped against the building.  They decided to have some fun with him, so they started taunting him and prodding him with the pointed toes of their boots, calling him faggot and homo and queerboy.  It was only when he rolled onto the ground and exposed his face that they realized he was dead.  Really, it was hard to miss with the bullet hole in his temple.

Leslie doubles over and starts gagging.  She runs to the bathroom just in time to deposit the spaghetti into the toilet.  She stays on her knees for what seems like eternity, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth when she’s done.  After several minutes, she slowly gets to her feet, flushes the toilet, and rinses out her mouth.  She hates the brackish taste that always lingers after a bout of puking.  She staggers back into the guestroom so she can finish reading the articles.  After she sits down, however, she is strangely reluctant to continue.  She is having a hard enough time coming to grips with the fact that she will never see John again—why put herself through this misery?  God, she aches just to hold him in her arms.  Normally, she doesn’t like sleeping with someone, but she had felt safe in his arms.  She feels the urge to vomit overcome her again, and she races to the bathroom.  She arrives just in time to fall to her knees and dry-heave into the toilet bowl.  Exhausted, she clings to the toilet and shuts her eyes.

“Are you OK?”  Siobhan shows up in the bathroom doorway, a glass of water in her hand.  Leslie shakes her head once, making a motion for Siobhan to leave.  Siobhan, of course, ignores Leslie and walks into the bathroom.  “Drink this.”  Siobhan presses the glass into Leslie’s hand, and Leslie automatically gulps at the water.

“He was shot in the head, Siobhan.  I saw a picture online,” Leslie croaks when she can finally speak again.  Just saying the words causes the bile to rise in her throat again.  She gags over the toilet, but nothing comes out—she has nothing left in her stomach.

“Why the hell were you looking at that?”  Siobhan struggles to keep her voice even, but she’s really upset.  She cannot stand how Leslie does things to deliberately hurt herself, and Siobhan considers this to be one of those actions.

“The cops aren’t telling me anything, Siobhan.  I need to know.”  Leslie raises her head and stares at Siobhan, a haunted look in her eyes.  “I can’t stop thinking about what happened to John.  It’s killing me.”

“That’s what we pay the cops to do,” Siobhan says firmly.  “You let them do their job, and you focus on doing yours.”

“He was shot in the temple,” Leslie repeats.  “He was killed at 11:37 p.m.  He’s dead.  He’s never coming home.  I have to know why!”  Suddenly, Leslie is shouting and crying and half-laughing all at once.  She is hugging the toilet bowl as if it’s a long-lost friend.  She begins dry-heaving again, and she has snot running down her chin.

“Call your shrink tomorrow,” Siobhan says, her forehead creasing in worry.  “He needs to know about this.”  Leslie is too busy crying to answer.  “Les, you need to pull yourself together.  The cops want to talk to you now.”

“Maybe they’ll tell me something!”  Leslie springs up from the floor, suddenly invigorated.  She dashes over to the mirror so she can wash her face.

“Les—“  Siobhan tries to slow Leslie down, but Leslie ignores her as she races downstairs to talk with the detectives.  They are in the living room, looking suitably grave.

“Tell me what happened to John,” Leslie says breathlessly, her body vibrating.

“Ms. Chang, please sit down.”  Detective Ricks gestures to the suede couch, and Leslie hurriedly sits down.  She is impatient to hear what they have to say.

“OK.  I’m sitting.  Tell me about John!”  Leslie fastens her eyes on Detective Ricks, which causes the latter to twitch her right shoulder.  Leslie doesn’t notice, however, as she waits for one of the detectives to tell her what the fuck is going on.

“Ms. Chang, in researching Mr. Smith’s background, we’ve run into some obstacles.”  Detective Ricks’ voice is gentle, which inexplicably bothers Leslie.  Detective Ricks is treating her as if she is made of glass—which means the news is not good.  John is dead.  How can the news be any worse than that?

“What obstacles?”  Leslie’s voice is thin as she struggles not to panic.  The detectives are scaring her with their oblique approach.

“Do you know Mr. Smith’s middle name?”  Detective Stevenson asks.  Leslie starts because she has almost forgotten that he is even in the room.

“He doesn’t have one.  He said his mother thought one name was enough.”  Leslie had thought it was funny at the time; she is not laughing now.

“Do you know his parents’ names?  Where he’s from?  Anything about his past?”  Though the questions are asked mildly, Leslie reacts strongly.

“No, I don’t know his parents’ names.  I told you they were dead.  He was born in Tennessee, went to college in Boston, and he lived in Chicago for several years before moving here!”  Leslie’s breath is coming in spurts, and she has to force herself to calm her breathing.

“Did Mr. Smith tell you why he moved to Minneapolis?”  Detective Stevenson is inexorable in his questioning.  Leslie is suddenly in tears once again.

“He wanted a change of scene.  People move.  Why are you doing this to me?  Why can’t you just tell me what happened to John?”  Leslie starts sobbing, fat tears running down her cheek.  Detective Ricks pushes the box of Kleenex across the coffee table so that Leslie can reach it.  Leslie doesn’t even notice as she’s completely absorbed in her pain.  The detectives are silent for a minute, but then Detective Ricks breaks the news to Leslie.

“Ms. Chang.  We have gone through the usual channels to unearth information on Mr. Smith, but to no avail.”

“Usual channels?  No avail?  What?”  Leslie stops crying as she stares at Detective Ricks.  Detective Ricks’ right shoulder involuntarily twitches again as she and Detective Stevenson exchange glances.  They seem to be having a conversation with their eyes.  Finally, Detective Stevenson speaks.

“We could find no history of Mr. Smith.  To put it simply, Ms. Chang, he does not exist.”  Detective Stevenson says the words softly, as if he knows what effect they will have on Leslie.

“What the fuck do you mean he doesn’t exist?  I lived with him, damn it.  He damn well did exist!”  Leslie’s head is spinning as she tries to digest the bombshell hurled her way.

“Of course the person you lived with existed,” Detective Stevenson says, his tone still gentle.  “It’s just that his name wasn’t John Smith.”

“You lie.”  Leslie half-smiles as she utters the immortal words of Joe Wilson, but her face quickly crumples again because it reminds her of how she and John would say it to each other just to make the other person laugh.  “Why are you lying to me?”

“Ms. Chang, it’s the truth.  We’re going to need to go through Mr. Smith’s computer and other personal effects.  Why don’t we—“  Detective Stevenson’s order couched as a request is cut off by the ringing of his cell phone.  He flips it on and listens.  Once he’s done, he shuts it off and turns to his partner.  “Ricks.  We have to go.”  He turns back to Leslie and adds, “We’ll be by your house sometime between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. tomorrow morning to see to Mr. Smith’s things.”  Leslie opens her mouth to ask them to give her a precise time, but she quickly shuts it again.  She has a hunch that the detectives would not be pleased by such a request, and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to alienate them.

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