Chapter Seven; Part One
“Oh, Araki. What am I going to do without you?” I mutter to myself, tears rolling down my face. The years stretch out in front of me, and I don’t have anything to fill them with. My job? Bullshit. Rembrandt? Too soon to say. My cats? Yes, they are the loves of my life, but they are well-provided for in my will. Wait. Damn it. I had listed Julianna as their caretaker. I’m going to have to change that now. Goddamn it. I’m going to have to change my whole will because I’ve left a third of my assets to her and a third to each of my sisters. Now, I’ll have to change it to give each of my sisters half and name Jasmine as caretaker of my cats. I would have chosen Liz before she moved, but it’d be difficult to uproot them and move them to Philly. I email my solicitor to take care of it, then I dismiss it from my mind.
I draw a bath because I need a long soak. I grab a box of truffles and sink into the bubbles. The cats perch on the counter and watch as I eat my truffles and try to ease my emotional pain. I breathe slowly and smoothly, but it doesn’t help. I try to clear my mind, but the thoughts keep racing in. I give up and grab my phone which is on the floor by the bathtub. I make notes as to where Ramona’s bakery is—in St. Paul—and where she lives—also in St. Paul. I will stop by tomorrow, ostensibly to buy some of her baked goods and to see if she knows anything about Julianna’s murder. I don’t know how I’m going to bring it up, but I’m sure I’ll find a way. I stay in the tub for another half an hour before reluctantly getting out. It’s a nice reprieve, and I’m reluctant to go back to the real world.
I head for bed because I can’t think of any reason to stay awake. I lie down, waiting for my cats to join me. They do, and they promptly fall asleep. I envy them their carefree lives, but I can’t do anything to make myself emulate them. The more I try to sleep, the more wide awake I feel. In the past, I’ve tried everything to sleep, and none of them have worked. Melatonin has no effect on me. I’m allergic to lavender, and St. John’s Wort and Valerian just slowed my brain down to the point of dullness. I hate sleeping pills because I cannot wake up after taking them, not even when I cut them in half. Asian people need much less medication than white people, so it’s hard to gauge how much to take. I’ve tried meditation, chamomile tea, and a half dozen other natural remedies. None of them worked. I’ve come to accept that I’ll sleep when I sleep, and I won’t when I can’t. If that means I have to operate on four hours sleep, so be it. I try to nap as much as possible to make up for the deficit, but it never feels like enough.
I get up and go to the window. I push it open so I can smoke because I don’t feel like going outside. I grab a mug from the nightstand to use as an ashtray and blow the smoke outside the window. So. My agenda for tomorrow is to get up when I get up, then go to taiji at noon. After that, I’ll go to Ramona’s bakery and hopefully catch her without her husband. I’ll stop by Minneapolis Slammin’ after that. I’ll swing by Pinky X’s parents’ place to see if I can get her to talk to me, and then I’ll get ready for dinner and perhaps dessert with Rembrandt. Wait a minute. I also need to talk to Mrs. Ephrams, Julianna’s neighbor, the one who said she saw a man running away from the apartment building the night Julianna died. I’ll see if I can squeeze it in before or after visiting Minneapolis Slammin’. I get an email from my sister, Vivian, saying she heard about Julianna’s murder from Jasmine and asks if she can do anything for me. Frankly, I’m surprised to hear from her. She’s an artist who isn’t securely tethered to the real world, and I can go for months without a peep from her. I’m touched that Jasmine went to the trouble of informing her and that she had actually responded. I shoot her an email saying I’m fine, which is a patent lie, but she’s my little sister, and I can’t break out of the habit of protecting her. She writes back suggesting I visit her in Boston to take my mind off of things. I tell her I’ll think about it and let her know when I can make it.
On impulse, I check her website to see her latest works. She’s very focused on the female body, but not in the Georgia O’Keeffe sort of way. No feminine flowers for her, not at all. Instead, her paintings are filled with women in agony, in grief, in despair, and once in a great while, being killed. She uses mostly browns, blacks, and reds, with a splash of yellow here and there. I have one in my living room of a naked woman lying on the ground, her back arched, with flames shooting out of her body. It’s graphic and disturbing, but also vibrant. I could sell it for six figures easily, but I would never do that. I had bequeathed the painting to Julianna because she admires, admired, it so much, but now I suppose I’ll just return it to Vivian when I die. I get one more email from Vivian. It says that she has a show at the Walker this spring and could she stay at my house? I respond in the affirmative and tell her I can’t wait to see her.
I go back to bed. My cats barely stir as I slip under the covers. I close my eyes, but sleep continues to elude me. I sigh and turn on my side, plumping my pillow as I do so. I close my eyes and think about Rembrandt’s ass and how I’d like to see it bouncing on top of me. I spend several minutes fantasizing about all the things I’d like to do to Rembrandt’s body, which ranges from tying it up to spreading whipped cream all over it. I’m not normally into food and sex at the same time, but I’d like to make an exception for him. Whipped cream and chocolate syrup would make an inviting dessert of him, one I’m eager to sample. With that, I finally drift to sleep, albeit a troubled one. I don’t feel much refreshed when I wake up three hours later. I groan as I get out of bed, my bones creaking. I feel as if I’m a hundred, and there’s nothing I’d rather do than sleep forever. It’s seven in the morning, which is when I normally leave for work. I check to see when Ramona’s bakery opens, and see that it’s open in an hour. Would it be best to go right when they open? Or should I stick to my plan of going after class? It’s probably best to get it out of the way early so I don’t have to worry about being late for my date with Rembrandt. Plus, I wouldn’t mind having a pastry for breakfast when I finally get around to eating it. I don’t like to eat when I first get up in the morning, which makes it tricky when I have to go to work. I usually wait until I’ve been at work for an hour to eat, which isn’t ideal, but it’s the best I can do.
I take a long, luxurious shower, massaging the knots in my lower back, thighs, and calves as I do. I exit and rub myself down, making faces at my cats because it amuses me. I brush my teeth before going to my bedroom to change. I decide I want to wear something tailored and respectable, which means office clothes. I put on a white blouse with ruffles, a slim, black skirt, woolen nylons, and then put a pair of plain silver hoops in my lobes. I nod at my reflection before heading downstairs. I feed the cats their wet food (Solid Gold, some kind of turkey) and start the coffee. I don’t drink it every day, but today, I need it. I inhale the aroma of chocolate, toasted pecans, and stardust. The smell of coffee is oftentimes better than the taste. Today, though, the taste is damn near ambrosial. Afterwards, I tidy up, give each cat a kiss, and head out. I’m somber as I drive to Thomas’s Tasty Treats (yes, that’s the actual name) near Macalester College in St. Paul. I pat my hair as I look at myself in the mirror before leaving my car. I peer in the window of the bakery. I only see Ramona, which means her husband is either in the back or not there. I walk in and study what they have in the display cases. There are scones and pastries, donuts and cakes. Muffins and tarts, pies and cream puffs. My mouth is watering as I look at the display cases.
“May I help you?” Ramona’s voice is low and sultry. She’s wearing a bright red dress that clings to her curves and shows off ample leg. Her hair is in a tight weave, and her nails are three inches long. I marvel at how she can get anything done with them as I feel like I’m handicapped if my nails are further than the edge of my fingers.
“Yes. I would like a blueberry scone, a chocolate cream puff—”
“You were with Jules that night at the club,” Ramona says, cutting into my recitation. She is staring in my eyes, and I see the pain in hers. I have to make a quick decision whether I want to tell her the truth or to try subterfuge. I decide on truth.
“Yes, I was. I’m Megan. Julianna’s best friend.” I hold out my hand, and she shakes it firmly without hesitation.
“You’re here to ask about her and me.” A statement, not a question, but I nod my head, anyway. She glances at the door behind her, and I understand that her husband is back there. “I can’t talk to you now. How about we meet at Dunn Bros. in an hour?”
“Can do. May I finish my list now?” She nods, and I add a sweet potato pie and a raspberry cheese custard Danish. I order a cup of regular coffee, and I go to my car to eat the Danish, which is moist and tender and flaky, and everything I could ever want in a Danish. Since I still have time, I eat half the chocolate cream puff as well. It’s fantastic, too, and I make a vow to come back soon. I drive aimlessly around for half an hour before heading to Dunn Bros. I grab another cup of plain coffee and sit at a door near the window. I watch people walk by, but I don’t see Ramona anywhere. I’m early, however, so I pull out my phone to check out the comments on my website. I need to write a new post, but I just don’t have it in me. There are fewer new comments, naturally, but they’re all heartfelt and sincere. I appreciate my readership. They’re small, but fiercely loyal, and I can rely on a dozen of them to comment on every post, no matter the subject.
“Hey. Thank you for meeting with me here.” Ramona slides into the chair across from me, a cup of foamy coffee in her hand. “I’m sorry for the subterfuge, but, well, my husband….” Her voice trails off, and she looks down at her coffee so she doesn’t have to look at me.
“He’s abusive, isn’t he?” I ask softly. “I saw a picture.” I notice Ramona’s flinch, and I feel bad that I caused her pain.
“Yes. No. It’s complicated.” Ramona gulps down half her coffee, seemingly unaware that it’s steaming hot. “He hit me that one time, right before we opened the shop. We were stressing because we put all our money into it, and he was afraid we’d fail.” She slams down the rest of her coffee, then sets her cup on the table. “He’s more a shouter than a hitter. We’re always getting into it because I don’t know when to back down, either. Excuse me a minute.” Ramona rises and goes to the counter for a refill. I sip at my coffee, pondering what she’s told me so far. It’s not much, but I’m already starting to form a picture. I check my phone, but there’s little going on that I care about.
“I’m back.” Ramona slides into her seat, looking haggard. She sips at this cup of coffee for several seconds before speaking again. “I love Ricardo something fierce. We’ve been together since I was seventeen, and we’re simpatico more often than not.” She falls silent, clasping her cup in her hands.
“But?” I prod after several seconds. I know there has to be a ‘but’, and I have a hunch I know what it is.
“I started digging chicks a few months ago.” Ramona’s face flushes, heightening her attractiveness. “Like their…breasts.” She blushes again, and I’m charmed by her awkwardness. “I was watching Empire and started lusting after Cookie.”
“Did you mention it to your husband?”
“Hell, no! I love my boo, but he has plenty of machismo, if you know what I’m saying.”
“I do.” I nod in sympathy. Taiwanese culture is still patriarchal, though it’s slowly changing.
“We had a huge fight last weekend. He was all up in my grill about my lazy black ass, to quote his exact words.” Ramona’s lips press tightly together, and I can tell that she has plenty more to say. “Talking that ish when it’s my black ass working fifteen hours a day. He puts in ten, maybe twelve, on a good day.”
“Sounds like he might feel guilty about not working as hard as you do,” I note, finishing off my coffee. I contemplate buying another cup, but I’ve already had my share for the morning.
“Damn right. I’m the blood, sweat, and tears of this outfit. He better recognize.” Ramona’s eyes flash, and I like seeing her with a bit of spunk. “Anyway, I hit the clubs that night to take my mind off of shit. Then, I saw Jules, and that was it. I wanted her so bad. She had that thing, you know?”
“Yes, I do.” Julianna is, was, a people’s magnet. Everybody wanted her, no matter the sexual orientation.
“I fell for her hard. I wanted…well, I’m not sure what I wanted.” Ramona tears up, and I reach over and squeeze her hand. She grabs mine tightly and squeezes back. “Do you believe you can love two people at once?”
“Yes, I do. I don’t know if it’s wise or feasible, but it’s definitely possible.” I slip my hand out of Ramona’s because the last thing I want is to get involved with her, even though she’s very attractive.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Ramona says softly. “Ricardo was getting suspicious, I think. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was checking my phone.”
“Julianna didn’t know, did she?”
“No. I didn’t want to tell her.”
“She wouldn’t have cared,” I say, pushing my cup away from me. “She didn’t hold to things like wedding contracts.”
“I know she’s had many lovers. She told me that.”
“Yes, she did. She wasn’t one to stay single for too long.”
“They never lasted long, did they?” Ramona looks wistful, and I want to make her feel better.
“You were different. I could tell by the way she talked about you. She wanted something more long-lasting than she’s had in the past.” I am gratified to see her smile; it’s brilliant against her dark skin.
“You were lovers once, weren’t you?”
“Um,” I say, caught off-guard. I’m surprised Julianna had told her that as it’s water very much under the bridge.
“She told me the first time we had sex. Afterwards. Not during.” Ramona smiles, her eyes mischievous. I’m too bemused to respond in kind because why would Julianna do that? We never talk about the time we were lovers, except if she’s really drunk, which happened once a year or so. The first few times, it was her wondering why we had stopped being lovers and if we were chickenshits for not trying to make our relationship work. She would get me wound up each time, hoping that she’d come to her senses, and we’d be lovers again. The next few years, it was just her reminiscing about the sex. I didn’t like that because it just made me want to fuck her again, and I knew we’d never do that. By the fifth time this happened, I put my foot down and forbade her from mentioning it again. I told her she was being selfish and self-indulgent without caring about my feelings.
“That was a long time again,” I say, my smile tight.
“She said I was the best she’d had since you.” Ramona continues, unaware of my roiled emotions.
“She said that?” I’m touched and angered at the revelation. Touched that she felt that way about me as a lover; angry because she ended things before they really began.
“Yes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be compared to another woman like that, but I got what she was saying.” Ramona finishes her second coffee and eyes her cup thoughtfully. “I really shouldn’t. I drink my weight in coffee at the shop.” She looks at her phone, notices the time, and hurries on. “I didn’t kill Jules. I was shocked when I heard the news.”
“I want to believe you, Ramona. I really do.” I take a deep breath and add, “But I don’t know you. I can’t just take your word for it. You were the last person to see her alive.”
“I think about that all day long,” Ramona says, her eyes filling with tears again. “I keep going over in my mind the last time I saw her.” She props her chin on her fist before telling me about it.
“You’re beautiful, Ramona,” Julianna gasped after a two-hour sex session. She had lost count of how many time she had come, and she was ready for more. She bit Ramona’s nipple, hard, just as Ramona liked it.
“Oh, god,” Ramona groaned, clutching Julianna’s head to her chest. “Fuck me, Jules. Fuck me hard.”
“My pleasure.” Julianna thrust her strap-on into Ramona with one smooth motion, bracing herself so she could fuck Ramona properly. Ramona wrapped her legs around Julianna’s back, pulling the dildo deeper into her. “You like it hard, don’t you?”
“I do. So fucking much.” Ramona tilted her head back, and Julianna fastened her lips on Ramona’s neck.
Afterwards, they lay curled in each other’s arms, too exhausted to sleep. Each of them had come multiple times, and they were worn out. Ramona stroked Julianna’s damp hair away from her forehead, periodically dropping kisses on said forehead. Julianna purred in contentment as she snuggled her face against Ramona’s breasts. Neither of them spoke for several minutes, but they were too amped up to sleep.
“I should go,” Ramona said reluctantly, disentangling herself from Julianna. “I have to get to work in the morning.”
“Stay,” Julianna said, pulling Ramona back on the bed. “You can go to work from here.”
“I’m not prepared. Next time. I’ll bring a bag.” Ramona got out of the bed and quickly pulled on her clothes.
“You could stay several nights,” Julianna suggested, her voice elaborately casual.
“I’d like that.” Ramona gave Julianna a long kiss before leaving.
“What time was that?” I remember the text I received from Julianna right before she died, and I want to see if Ramona’s statement measures up.
“3:30? A quarter to four? Something like that. I made it home by four-fifteen. That much I know.” Ramona hesitates and adds, “I felt like I was being watched as I left her crib.”
“Watched?” The hairs on the back of my neck stand up at her words. “What do you mean watched?”
“I’m not sure. Just, eyes. I felt them on me. I thought I was imagining it.” Ramona shudders, and it doesn’t seem faked to me. I want to push her on it, but I don’t know what to ask.
“Was Ricardo there when you got home?” I ask instead. I notice that she hesitates a split second before answering.
“Yes. He was there. Sleeping. I promise.” She cuts her eyes away from mine, and I don’t believe what she said, not one bit. I think she was being honest up until that point, and then her instinct to protect her husband kicked in, and she told that lie to protect him. Which means he probably wasn’t home when she got home. That’s not damning in and of itself. If they’d had a huge fight, he might have gone out to let off steam the same way Ramona had. She looks at her phone again and abruptly stands up. “I gotta go. I left Ricardo alone at the shop.”
“One last thing! Did the cops talk to you?” I see the flash of anger, then fear in Ramona’s eyes before she makes them deliberately blank.
“Yup. I ain’t tell them shit. I gotta roll.”
“I might need to talk to you again. How shall I get ahold of you if I need to?”
“Call my cell. Or, come by the shop after seven at night. Ricardo jets before then.”
“Thanks for talking to me. I appreciate it.” I shake Ramona’s hand and watch her shapely ass as she walks away. I can see why Julianna was so smitten with her, but I also feel as if she’s trouble. She was definitely playing with fire in two-timing her husband. Her machismo husband with an explosive temper. I don’t completely buy that he only hit her one time, but I don’t see how it’s relevant to Julianna’s murder. Unless. Maybe he was suspicious of her cheating on him and browbeat it out of her. If that’s the case, he probably would have been outraged at her dipping her toes in the lake of Sapphic love. I could easily see him killing Julianna in that case, but why the tongue? I don’t see why anyone would do that to Julianna, and I think if I figure that out, I’ll have everything I need to know to solve the murder.
I glance at my phone and note that it’s nine-thirty. It’s too early to drop by Pinky X’s parents’ place, and too early for the Minneapolis Slammin’, too. They don’t open until noon, which is typical for creative types. I decide to go talk to Mrs. Ephrams about the man she said she saw leaving their apartment building around the time of Julianna’s murder. I would prefer to go home and chill, but I have a job to do. I make it to Loring Park in record time, and I press Mrs. Ephrams’ buzzer. I wait several seconds, but there’s no response. I’m about to give up when, I hear a faded voice faintly over the intercom.