“I’m going out for a while, but I should be home before too late.” I kiss Onyx and Jet on their heads before leaving, ignoring their cries as I do. I drive to South Minneapolis where my sister lives and sit in the car after parking. I steel myself for the encounter, taking several smooth, slow breaths. I always have trouble interacting with normies, and my brother-in-law is definitely a normie. He does something in marketing, and he’ll drone on and on about it for hours if you let him. Coral is a pleasant woman who greatly resembles her mother, and she has the strong will as well. She has marched in Black Lives Matter protests for the past year and a half, much to her father’s dismay. She and her husband, Jamal Harrington, are prominent figures in the local chapter. Jamal is a teacher in an alternative high school, and despite being built like a linebacker, he never played sports as a kid. He’s a crack hand at chess, though. We’ve played it a few times, and he’s whupped my ass every time.
“I can do this.” I turn off the car, lock the door, and knock on the door to Jasmine’s house.
“Megan, come on in.” Jasmine grabs me in a hug, nearly taking my breath away.
“Auntie Meg! Come play.” Michelle and Ing-wen fly at me, nearly knocking me over in their enthusiasm to hug me. They’re wearing matching dresses, red for Michelle and orange for Ing-wen. They both have matching bows in their curls, and they look too cute for words.
“Hi, girls. How’re my babies doing?” I hug them with difficulty as they squirm in my embrace.
“Come play with us! We brought our Legos!” They pull at my hand, but Jasmine shoos them away.
“Girls, let her say hi to everyone else.” Jasmine leads me into the living room where her husband, Bob, is sitting on the recliner, and Coral and Jamal are on the couch. Bob’s black hair is slicked back, and he has a grimace on his face as Jamal and Coral chat with each other.
“Aunt Meg!” Coral springs up and hugs me. “It’s been too long!” She squeeze my hand. “I haven’t seen you in ages.”
“Coral. You’re looking great!” I look her up and down with a critical eye. She’s lost some weight while still retaining her voluptuous figure. Her curly hair is pinned up in a sloppy bun which suits her Madonna figure, and she’s wearing a brilliant red pantsuit which guarantees she’ll draw every eye in the room. “Your girls are lovely, too.” I look around for Smoochie, Jasmine’s calico cat, but she’s nowhere to be seen. She’s thirteen, has a touch of arthritis, and the only people she like are her immediate family, so I rarely see her.
“They are the best of me and Jamal, that’s for sure!” Coral leads me to the couch, and Jamal rises to greet me.
“Ms. Liang. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” Jamal extends his hand and engulfs mine in his.
“Megan. Please. It’s good to see you, too.” I eye Jamal covertly, not letting on how attractive I find him. He’s six-feet four inches of solid muscle, his dark brown skin looking deliciously edible. His dreads fall halfway down his back, and his tailored suit is just itching to be ripped off. “How’re you doing, Jamal?”
“Just fine, Megan.” Jamal says with an easy smile. “My kids this year are riled up about Phil Castilo’s shooting, so I’ve had my hands full with them.”
“That was such bull—crap,” I say, changing the word at the last moment. I’m keenly aware of my two grandnieces hanging on our every word, and I don’t want to be the one to corrupt them. Granted, they are playing with their ‘Legos’ (Duplos) on the floor and don’t appear to be paying attention, but I know better. The last time I saw them, I said something was shit, and the girls suddenly looked up from their plushies and said shit loudly and in unison.
“Bull,” Michelle says.
“Crap,” Ing-wen finishes. They go back to their Duplos, and I muffle a laugh.
“Really, Megan. You should be more careful as to what you say,” Bob says, his voice pompous. “Michelle and Ing-wen are at an impressionable age. You wouldn’t want to cause their tender minds any mental distress, would you?”
“It’s all good,” Jamal says, leaning back against the couch. “My girls have heard worse from me.”
“You cannot believe how worked up he gets about Game of Thrones,” Coral adds, laughing up at her husband. He smiles down at her, and I’m struck with how much they love each other.
“Daddy says fuck!” Michelle looks up and grins, a dimple poking into her cheek.
“Mama says, “Jamal”!” Ing-wen chimes in. They both giggle and cover their mouths.
“Michelle! Ing-wen!” Bob admonishes, his voice stiff. “We do not use that kind of language in this house.”
“Oh, come off it, Daddy,” Coral says, covering her mouth with her hand. “I’ve heard you say much worse about that in the last eight years about President Obama.”
“Caught, Bob,” Jasmine laughs, pointing a finger at Bob. For a minute, he looks as if he’s going to bite it off, but he relaxes. He also appears a bit distracted as he sips his beer, but it’s probably work-related.
“Touché, Jasmine, touché.” Bob leans back in his recliner, and the evening progresses without incidence. I have a lovely time playing Duplos with the girls and talking about anything but politics with the adults. When I get home, Onyx and Jet scold me for being gone for so long. I give them their cat bisque, this time with shrimp, in order to make up for my perfidy. Their grumbling subsides as they lap away at their treat. I put the Tupperware full of stroganoff that Jasmine gave me into the fridge. She made three times as much as she needed, as usual, so I have enough for three more servings. No wonder Bob is going plump in his old age. He’s not one for exercise, and Jasmine has really gotten into cooking in the past few years.
I’m feeling stronger, so I sit down at my laptop and Google Ramona Thomas again. I make sure to exclude her husband because I don’t want to deal with him right now. I learn that their bakery is barely above water and they are heavily in debt. Her father is the one backing them, and he’s threatening to cut off future investments. He’s a Baptist minister who is very passionate about pro-family values, and I have a hunch that he would not approve of his daughter cheating on her husband behind his back—especially with another woman. If Julianna threatened to tell her husband—I stop. That’s not like Julianna at all, and I have a hard time imagining her giving a damn about Ramona’s marital status. Then again, she didn’t mention it, so it’s possible she didn’t know. I don’t think she’d be planning a future with Ramona if she knew she was married. Still. I can’t shake the feeling there is something there. Maybe with the husband. I Google Ricardo Thomas, and I’m not surprised to find he’s been in jail before. Drugs. Solicitation. Of him, not him soliciting. Seems he was a rent boy back in his youth, which also can’t make Ramona’s daddy too happy. They don’t have children, which doesn’t surprise me given what Julianna said about how adamant Ramona was against having them.
The more I read about Ricardo, the less I like it. He’s a high school dropout, which isn’t in itself a bad thing, but he didn’t seem to have done anything for the next ten years. At least not that I can find. He went to Madrid for some time, but there’s nothing to say what he was doing there. He’s apparently been clean for five years, and then he and Ramona started the bakery a year after that. They’ve been married for seven years, but I have a hunch their marriage is on its last legs. What does this have to do with Julianna? I’m not sure. I can see Ricardo killing Julianna in a rage if he found out about her and Ramona, but how would he know? Well, if he’s the jealous type, he might have followed her or something like that. I’m merely speculating now, and I move on to Simon.
I Google him, trying to see if there is any nugget I’d overlooked. One thing catches my eye—he wants to start a new venture in Uptown, but the paper isn’t clear as to what it is. With whose money? Julianna’s apparently, if I’m surmising correctly. That’s probably why he got in contact with her, and he’s probably pretty pissed that she wouldn’t give him any money. If he thinks he’s still in the will, that’s a good reason for him murdering her. A good reason in his mind, I mean. There’s never a good reason for murdering my Julianna. For a moment, I imagine my hands around his neck and squeezing. Appalled, I shut my eyes and banish the thought. I don’t want to hurt anyone; I really don’t. But if he’s the one who killed Julianna, then I will do everything in my power to make his existence a miserable one.
I try to remember the name of the slam poets she hung out with. They call themselves something, something dumb. Minneapolis Slammers? No, but something close to that. Minneapolis Slammin’! That’s it. I Google it, and my computer spits out more information than can possibly be useful. I find their address—they’re located in Uptown. There’s a number, and I make note of that as well. I’m not going to call them first because I’d rather take them by surprise. I think I’ll take one more day off and visit all the people I need to talk with, then go on my date with Rembrandt. Then, I’ll have a nice long weekend, oh, I can go to the afternoon taiji class tomorrow, too. I normally can’t as I have work; it’ll be a nice treat to myself after a couple of rough days. I send an email to Cara while I’m still thinking about it, just to let her know I’m not going to be in tomorrow.
I stand up and stretch, cracking my back in the process. My cats hop up and stretch as well, making me smile as they arch their backs in unison. I pace back and forth, trying to expel my nervous energy. My cats pace besides me, a serious look on their faces. I’ve done nothing but think about Julianna’s murder for the past hour and a half, and I want to think about something else for a while. The problem is, it’s all I can think about, no matter how I try to redirect my thoughts. I waste several seconds pondering Rembrandt’s generous assets, specifically his ass. It’s firm and meaty, and I can’t wait to grab it. Am I going to fuck him tomorrow night? I’d like to say I’ll wait, but I know myself pretty well. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve had sex, and I’m used to getting it on nearly a daily basis. The fact that Tessa withdrew her affection in the last few months we were together has made me even hornier than usual. Rembrandt has made it abundantly clear that he’s more than ready to tango, so it’ll be up to me to decide when I want to fuck him. I definitely want to go to dinner first. Victory 44 is chic in taste, but casual in atmosphere, and the chef likes to emphasize seasonal and local foods. I pull up the menu and waste several minutes studying it. Pork Schnitzel sounds delicious, but so does Spicy Clams & Spaghetti. Banana & Peanut Butter for dessert sounds perfect, and I’m satisfied with my choices.
“Mrrrrreow!” Onyx shoves her face in mine, meowing crossly. I absentmindedly pet her before moving her face to the side. She swats my hand away and meeps at me again.
“Stop it, Onyx!” I pick her up and set her aside. She marches back in front of my monitor and puffs herself up. “I’m going to put you in a timeout if you don’t quit it, Onyx.” I glare at her, and she holds my eyes defiantly. Three seconds later, she drops hers and moves three inches to the side. She sits down at the edge of my monitor, obeying my orders just enough to keep me from banishing her. Jet sits on my foot, and I pull my foot out from under him. He follows my foot and sits on it once I stop moving it. “OK, that’s enough.” I scoop them both up and carry their wriggling bodies upstairs. I set them on the ground in my bedroom and then shut the door in their faces. Almost immediately, they start howling. Loudly. “It’s your own damn fault!” I inform them through the door. “If you’d just leave me alone, you could be with me right now.” More simultaneous howling. Then, ominous silence. I wait for two minutes before cracking the door open. Jet is on the bed, staring at me as I walk in. I glance around and don’t see Onyx anywhere.
“Where’s your sister, Jet?” I ask sternly, staring right into his eyes.
“Meow?” Jet says, tilting his head to the side. He blinks slowly at me, and I do the same to him in return.
“I love you, too, Jet, but you’re not off the hook. Where’s Onyx?” I point a finger at Jet, which is something he doesn’t like. He shrinks away from it, his eyes flickering to the potted plant in the corner. I go over there, and Onyx is hiding behind it, curled in a tight ball. She’s staring up at me, her eyes large and her pupils dilated. She has a felt mouse in her mouth, which she seems to be in the process of burying in the potted (fake) plant.
“Onyx, don’t do that.” I wearily take the mouse from her, which she relinquishes without a fight. I toss it on the bed, and Jet immediately pounces on it. He turns on his back and bunny kicks it before biting its neck. Onyx hops up on the bed next to him and watches him indulgently. I sneak out and back to the living room. I pull my laptop on my lap and hear a bloop on Google Messenger. It’s Rembrandt, and I’m more than ready to talk to him.