Chapter Six; Part One
“I’m fine,” I say sharply, placing my hands on her shoulders and pushing her away. I do not like being touched without my permission, especially by someone I don’t like.
“It must be so awful! Her being murdered like that!” Sara’s eyes are fastened on mine, and I get the uncomfortable feeling that she’s getting a kick out of this. There are people who thrive on misery, and she might be one of them.
“Yes. It’s not great.” I sit at my desk and turn on my computer. I pointedly keep my back to Sara so she might take the hint. Alas, she does not.
“I know you’re grieving right now. If there’s anything you need, I would be more than happy to help you. Anything at all!” Sara materializes in front of me, her hands clasped in front of her breasts. I can’t help but notice she’s wearing a black dress that is very out of character with her love for pastels. Her eyes are moist, and I look askance at her. I hate people who absorb the misery of others, ,and she would appear to be one of those people.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” I drop my eyes as my computer starts chugging. I just want her to go away, but she stubbornly refuses to take the hint.
“Would you like to have dinner tonight?” Sara clasps my arm, and I glare at the offending appendage. I know it’s time to put my foot down, hard. I glance into Sara’s hopeful eyes, and I steel myself for the unpleasant task at hand.
“No, Sara, I do not want to have dinner tonight. I do not want to have dinner with you any night. We are colleagues. Nothing more. I want to keep it at that.” I remove her hand from my arm and let it drop to her side. She immediately bursts into tears.
“Why do you have to be so mean to me? I like you so much, and you hate me!” Sara runs from the room, loudly sobbing. I get the feeling I’m supposed to chase after her, but I don’t move. I’m unhappy that her little scenes are getting more and more frequent, but I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to go to my supervisor because Sara hasn’t done anything egregiously wrong. I don’t want her to be fired; I just want her to leave me alone.
“She’s a soul-sucker, isn’t she?” Lynnette whispers as she passes my desk. She’s a comely redhead in her thirties, and I like the way she livens up the place. “She tried to do the same thing to me a month ago, but I shut her down right fast.”
“I went to lunch with her once,” I say, keeping my voice low as well. “I think that was probably a big mistake.”
“Probably,” Lynette says, nodding her head. “You have to keep that type of woman firmly in her place before it’s too late.” She sashays off, swinging her ass as she walks. I watch the display discreetly, feeling as if it had been done for my benefit. If so, I appreciate it on an otherwise grim day.
I check my blog, and there are still dozens of condolences pouring in. Some simply say they’re sorry while others share their own stories of tragedy. An aunt lost to cancer. A boyfriend lost to drugs. A cousin who committed suicide because he was gay. The last one made me cry again, but this time not because of my own pain. This was from SackofEggs, one of my regular commenters. I send him and a few others commiserating notes, then shut down my blog.
I try to focus on my work, but my mind keeps drifting back to Julianna’s murder. None of it makes sense—none. I am aware of the sympathetic glances my coworkers are shooting my way, but I don’t acknowledge them. If I do, I’ll break down and cry, which is the last thing I want to do at work. The minutes drag by, and it’s not even noon when I’m ready to call it a day. I get an email from my supervisor, Cara, saying she wants to see me in her office. I dutifully make my way there, dully wondering what she wants.
“Megan. Come in and shut the door,” Cara says, smiling a gentle smile in my direction. She’s a tall, thin woman with carroty curls and emerald eyes who has a habit of dressing in severely tailored suits to underscore her authority. I comply, standing just inside the doorway after I’ve shut the door. “Do sit down.” Cara gestures to the seat across from her, and I slide into it without saying a word. I look at her nameplate, “Mrs. O’Donnell” without really seeing it. I wait for her to talk, incurious as to what she has to say. “I would like to extend my condolences.” Cara pauses, and I wait. When I realize that she’s not going to continue, I nod my head once. Satisfied, she says, “You didn’t have to come in today.”
“I know. I appreciate your generosity.” I pick at my fingernails, noticing that I need to cut them. They’re ragged, and the cuticles are bleeding. My hands are a mess. I’m going to have to lotion them when I get home.
“Have you heard any more about your friend’s death?” Cara says, her eyes shining. “Maybe from the police?” Belatedly, I realize that she’s a tragedy junkie, and she wants me to feed her habit. She doesn’t care about me at all; she just wants to pump me for details about the murder. I’m surrounded by ghouls, and it’s making me sick.
“I don’t know anything,” I say, holding back my bile. My stomach is churning, and I need to get out of there.
“I heard her screams filled the air as she died.” Cara’s clicking on her keyboard, and I realize that she’s looking up the murder. Sickened to my stomach, I fight to keep my temper. I hate the avarice for blood she’s displaying, and, besides, Julianna’s tongue was cut out, so I highly doubt she could say anything, let alone scream. I gag at the thought, and I have to get out of there. “I don’t feel good. I’m going to go home now.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Cara says, waving her hand at me. Her eyes are glued to the monitor, and I make a face as I slip away. I go back to the office and grab my purse before heading for the exit. I avoid all the stares aimed my way, including a doleful one from Sara. I’ve had enough of my coworkers for the day.
“Meow!” Onyx stares at me as I enter the room, and I swear I see guilt in her eyes. She scampers off, and Jet is hot on her tail. He flashes a glance at me, and I run after them. They skid to a halt in the kitchen and stare expectantly at their cupboard. I give them a few treats before doing a cursory look around the house. Nothing seems broken or out of place, so I resign myself to not figuring out what mischief they had gotten up to while I was gone.
I take a long shower, only exiting when the hot water has run out. I towel off, a shiver suddenly running through my body. I nearly sink to the floor, but I catch myself in time. Julianna wouldn’t want me to be acting like this, but I can’t seem to help myself. The thought of never talking to her again is breaking me. I can make it for a minute, maybe even an hour, but anything past that is beyond my ken. I know if our situations were reversed, she would be out shaking her thing until the wee hours of the night. She would find someone to take home to fuck away the pain. I laugh at my fancy, but it quickly turns into sobs. It seems as if I can’t think about Julianna without being devastated. I dress in sweats, too exhausted to put on anything else. I should check the news, but it’s more than I can bear at the moment. I crawl toward my bed, making it just in time before I collapse. I pull the blankets up over my head, and a minute later, I feel something plunk down on my face. It’s Onyx, of course, and I don’t have the energy to move her. I merely turn my head to the side and breathe as best I can through the blanket. Onyx grunts as she wiggles around before settling down on my neck. I know I should move her because I don’t want her to think this is acceptable behavior, but I can’t make myself do it. Then, I feel a heavier lump plop down on my chest. It’s Jet, and he’s making it difficult to breathe. I try to wriggle out from under them, but they refuse to be budged. I push Onyx off my neck, and she moves with a little squeak. Once I’m done with that, I push at Jet, but he refuses to budge. I roll myself up slowly, and Jet slides down my chest, landing on my lap with a thud. I scoop him aside and place him next to his sister. They both grumble, but then settle down. I lie back down, on my side this time, and pull the blanket up once again.
I fall into an uneasy sleep. It’s filled with demons and dragons who are fighting each other. I am in the dream as well with only a rusty sword in my hand. I battle at the side of the dragons, and we manage to slay the demons, but just. There are many dead on both sides, but more on theirs. The dragons place a crown of bleeding thorns on my head, a great honor for their kind. I am now the leader of the dragons, which isn’t entirely displeasing to me. The bodies start to disintegrate, and I look around to make a hasty retreat. I’m startled awake by my phone ringing. It’s Jasmine. I debate whether to let it go to voicemail, but I decide to answer. I know my sister; she won’t stop until she gets ahold of me. I smother a yawn before picking up my phone.
“What?” OK, not my most gracious greeting, but I’m not feeling very gracious. Or entirely awake.
“You’re coming for dinner,” Jasmine says without any preliminary greeting. “I’m making beef stroganoff, just like Ma used to make.” I grin wanly at her joke because Mom didn’t make anything other than Taiwanese food, which she did quite well when she wasn’t deep in her cups.
“No. I can’t—”
“You will. No arguments. Six-thirty. The grandkids will be there.” She hangs up without saying goodbye, and I groan in frustration. My sister is bullheaded, and I know better than to argue with her. Besides, her daughter, Coral, has twin daughters, aged two, who are the fattest, happiest, cutest toddlers you’ve ever seen. They’re half-Taiwanese and half-black, so they have cocoa-colored skin, coarse, bouncy black curls, and enormous dark brown eyes that tilt up ever so slightly at the corners. Michelle (after our First Lady) and Ing-Wen, known as Ingrid to Americans, for the first Taiwanese female president. We’ve been a big fan of hers for years.
I get up and decide to take another shower, and my world comes crashing down around me. All my emotions overtake me, and I sob as if my heart is breaking—which it is. My beautiful Julianna, degraded and defaced in such a way, how can I bear it? I howl as the water streams down my face. I hear two howls in the distance in return—one high, and one low. I try to muffle my screams because I hate upsetting my babies, but the sounds keep escaping from my mouth.
“Damn you for leaving me, Araki. How could you do this to me?” I sink to the floor, unaware of the water pouring down my body. I wrap my arms around myself, rocking back and forth. I sit there until I’m out of tears and the water has gone cold. I come to myself with a start and turn off the faucet. I stand up, my legs shaky. I grab the soap thing to pull myself up, taking a moment to compose myself. When I feel OK, I step out of the shower and sit on the toilet. Onyx and Jet burst into the room, chattering as they race toward me. Onyx hops up on my lap and kneads my legs, careful to keep her claws sheathed. She nuzzles her head against my stomach, licking a stray drop here and there. Jet plumps himself down on my left foot, and I nudge him aside. Undaunted, he sits on my right foot. I nudge him aside again. He can be the most stubborn cat sometimes, and I have to smile at his determination. He sits on my left foot again and refuses to budge this time. I burst out laughing and ruffle his fur most energetically. Onyx meeps in protest at all the fuss, and again as I set her on the floor. I slide my foot out from under Jet who grumbles in protest, and I go into my bedroom so I can get dressed for dinner.
Jasmine doesn’t care about proper dress, but her husband is a bit of a stick in a mud. One time, I went to dinner in jeans and a snug shirt, and he glowered at me all night. He doesn’t insist on formal dress, but he’s definitely not a casual Friday kind of guy. I stand in front of my closet, nude, rejecting one outfit after another. I finally settle on a bright blue dress that falls to my knees and covers all my tats, more or less. It has a modest neckline, and I feel as if I’m June fucking Cleaver. I roll my hair up in a high bun, letting a few wisps fall softly around my cheeks. I put on some lip gloss, make kissy faces at myself in the mirror, gild myself with earrings and a necklace, and go to the kitchen to feed my babies some treats. As I’m doing so, the doorbell rings several staccato beats. I’m startled because I’m not expecting anyone, but I go to the door, anyway. I look through the peephole, and my heart leaps in my mouth when I see that it’s the cops. Two detectives in plainclothes, a man and a woman, but it’s very clear that they’re cops. I take a deep breath to calm myself before opening the door.
“Hello. I bet you’re here about Julianna’s murder,” I say without preamble.
“Yes.” The male cop, white dude in his fifties, slim and haggard-looking, with bags under his watery blue eyes. He’s nattily dressed in a sapphire blue pinstripe suit. “I’m Detective Quentin, and this is Detective Lorrimore.” Detective Lorrimore is a short, squat woman with red curls, small green eyes, and blotchy skin. She’s dressed in a pale pink suit that doesn’t flatter her plump figure at all.
“Come in.” I step back and allow the cops to enter my house. They don’t remove their shoes, and I don’t ask them to. Normally, I would, but they’re cops, so I don’t want to make a fuss. My cats are nowhere to be seen as they do not like strangers. This will probably make the upcoming interrogation easier. “This way. May I get you something to drink?” You can’t take the Taiwanese out of the girl, it seems.
“No. Thank you.” Detective Quentin’s tone is brusque, but not rude. They follow me into the living room and wait until I sit on the recliner before they sit on the couch, both of their backs ramrod straight. “We’re here about your friend, Ms. Araki. When was the last time you saw her?”
“That night. The night she was…she died. It was her birthday, and I took her out to dinner.” Suddenly, I realize that Julianna died on her birthday. I don’t know why it took so long for me to realize that, but it hits me extra hard.
“What time did you drop her off at her house?” Detective Quentin asks as Detective Lorrimore takes note on her tablet.
“Eleven-thirty, I think? Give or take ten minutes.” I close my eyes, overwhelmed by the situation.
“Did you know she had a date later on?” Detective Quentin’s face is impassive, and I wonder what they teach at cop school to make them appear so emotionless.
“Yes. That’s why we made it an early night.” I stop before giving them a name because I don’t want to get Ramona in trouble if they don’t already know her name.
“Ramona Thomas. Married. Owns a bakery.” Detective Quentin recites the facts, and I flush as he says them out loud. He clears his throat before changing the subject. “Can you think of anyone who would have wanted to hurt Ms. Araki?”
“Her ex-husband, Simon Blankenfield. He saw her as a cash cow, even though she refused to give him money ever since they divorced.”
“We are well aware of Mr. Blankenfield.” Detective Quentin’s voice is foreboding, and I’m pretty sure I know what he thinks of Simon.
“I don’t know of anyone else,” I say, my voice apologetic. “Wait! There’s….” My voice trails off. I’m not sure I should divulge family secrets, but at the same time, I want Julianna’s murderer found. “Her brother, Eric. He gambles and also wanted money from her, and she cut him off after paying off his largest debt. He was furious, and I think he’s still in trouble now.”
“Good, good.” Detective Quentin nods his head, then continues. “Do you have any witness who can verify you were home after you dropped Ms. Araki off?” Detective Quentin asks, his eyes trained on my face.
“What? You’re asking me for an alibi?” I’m unreasonably wounded, but of course they have to ask me that. People are often murdered by their loved ones, and I’m closer to Julianna than almost anyone else. I also realize that I don’t have an alibi other than my cats, and they don’t speak English. “No. I don’t have an alibi.”
“Right. That’s all for now.” Detective Quentin and Detective Lorrimore stand up, and I stand up as well. I walk them to the front door. Just as they’re about to leave, I impulsively place my hand on Detective Quentin’s arm.
“Do you have any information? Any at all?” I cringe at how pathetic I sound, but it can’t be helped.
“I’m sorry, no, we don’t.” Detective Quentin pats my hand once before gently removing it. He and Detective Lorrimore leave, and I sag against the door. It had been as painless as it could possibly be, but it still has drained me. I hope it’s the last time I have to talk to them in the near future.