The Friday before the party, the day in question when Mrs. Curtis saw Vashti livid outside of Moira’s house, started out like any other day. Vashti went into work thinking of the five thousand things she had to do that day, and how she was going to do it all in eight hours. She didn’t even have enough time to pour herself a cup of coffee before her supervisor pulled her into his office, a grave expression on his face. Vashti thought of the million things he might want to talk to her about, but couldn’t find anything about her job performance that would have put him in such a solemn mood. They had their differences, sure, but he respected the work she did with the kids; Vashti was certain of that. She sat in the chair across from his desk and waited for him to speak. She knew from experience that he liked to take control of a meeting and things would proceed more smoothly if she allowed him to speak first.
“Vashti, we’ve had a complaint about you,” he said slowly, looking at her from over the top of his bifocals. He was a slight, nervous man who was constantly popping Tums because of his ulcer. He wasn’t cut out to be in a supervisory position, but he wasn’t good with kids, either. The board figured he’d do less damage as a supervisor than as a counselor. Still, Vashti didn’t speak. She had a hunch that she would want to reserve her words until Mr. Benson finished with his speech. “A woman called up this morning. Said she is thinking of pressing charges against you.”
“What?” Vashti couldn’t help interrupting. “Who? A mother?”
“No, not a mother.” Mr. Benson’s eyes shifted away from hers so he was gazing at a point just above her left shoulder. He picked up his pen and started fiddling with it. He was one of those men who had to have something to do with his hands even if it’s only to jingle the coins in his pocket. He took a deep breath and let it out explosively.
“Who, then, Mr. Benson?” Vashti was careful to keep the impatience out of her voice, but she wanted him to just tell her. She had been on the job for less than a year and was still considered the new kid on the block. This was exactly what she didn’t need to feel more confident doing her job.
“A woman who claims that you sexually harassed her,” Mr. Benson said slowly. He knew that Vashti was a lesbian but didn’t like to talk about it. Any allusion to her sexual orientation caused him discomfort, and this time was no different. “She said she stopped by to learn more about her program—something about a nephew or niece who might need placement—and you wangled her number out of her. She said you then proceeded to call her day and night and to stalk her at her home until she was afraid to leave her house.”
“Who is this woman?” Vashti asked, though she knew who it had to be. When Mr. Benson wouldn’t respond, she added angrily, “I have a right to know who my accuser is, don’t I?”
“Now, Vashti, let’s not be too hasty about this,” Mr. Benson said, setting the pen back down on his desk before picking up a paperclip. He began unbending it, focusing his attention on the task.
“It was Moira Kelley, wasn’t it?” Vashti asked, unable to keep silent any longer. “She’s lying, Mr. Benson. I did no such thing. I didn’t even meet her here. Besides, if her claims are true, why didn’t she go to the police?”
“She said she wanted to let us know about the unprofessional conduct of one of our employees and give us the chance to handle it ourselves before going to the police about it and making an official complaint.”
“What does she expect you to do about it?” A coldness grabbed Vashti. She couldn’t believe Moira would stoop so low as to do something like this.
“Fire you.” Mr. Benson finally lifted his eyes form the now completely straight paperclip and stared at Vashti. “I told her that was impossible, but I have agreed to place you on a temporary administrative leave with pay while we investigate the matter.”
“This is outrageous!” Vashti burst out, jumping up from her seat. “There is no merit to her complaint! She’s a spurned lover who’s trying to get back at me.”
“Ms. Das! Please, sit down.” Mr. Benson fluttered his hands as if to rein in Vashti. “Let’s talk about this. Please!”
Vashti sat down reluctantly. She had nothing further to say because she wanted to go beat the crap out of Moira for messing with her like this. However, Mr. Benson was her supervisor and if she wanted to keep her job, it was imperative to stay on his good side. She listened impassively as he outlined the plan. She would be immediately placed on administrative leave with pay while he talked to the administrative assistant and tried to figure out a way to get through this without being sued. Oh, he didn’t say it in so many words, but Vashti knew that was what was on his mind. He wasn’t so concerned about the police being called in because sexual harassment of this sort was very difficult to prove, but publicity from a suit was to be avoided at all cost. In essence, he wanted to show Moira that he was acting in good faith in hopes that she’d back down. Vashti knew from experience the chance of Moira backing down was nil.
“I’m sure this will all blow over if we’re just patient,” Mr. Benson finished with an impersonal smile. It was as if he hadn’t worked with Vashti for the last ten months. Vashti knew he would sacrifice her if that’s what it took to keep the agency safe.
Vashti left the office fuming. After a few hours driving aimlessly in her car, she headed over to Moira’s to have it out with her. Moira was drunk and stoned, even though it was only a little past noon. She reeked of sex, booze and marijuana. She laughed in Vashti’s face when the latter confronted her with her behavior. Said she wouldn’t have had to resort to it if Vashti had just talked to her and not left her out in the cold. When Vashti tried to impress upon Moira how serious the situation was, Moira brushed her off with a smile saying, “Now you’ll know never to cross me again.” Vashti screamed; Vasthi raged; it made no difference. Moira remained oblivious to Vashti’s rage, preferring to remain in her own world. “I’ll tell your supervisor it was all a joke if you come back to me,” Moira said with a leer. She pulled her shirt off in one swift motion, revealing her naked breasts. Repulsed and still pissed-off, Vashti left.
“That is what was happening, Rayne,” Vashti says, looking me in the eyes. “As you can tell, it’s not a nice story.” No, it isn’t. Moira comes off as cold-hearted bitch, but Vashti doesn’t fare much better. This is something I wish I didn’t have to know about her.
“Why didn’t you tell the girls?” I ask softly, not sure I want the answer to that, either. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“I was too ashamed,” Vashti sighs, resting her cheek on her hand. “Try putting yourself in my place and see if it would be so easy to confess something like that.” I don’t have the heart to argue with her. Besides, knowing this earlier probably wouldn’t have prevented the second murder from occurring.
“Do the police know?” I am persistent, even though I want to drop the subject. I can tell it’s making her uncomfortable, which is the last thing I want to do.
“No,” she replies with a flash of the old Vashti. “They are not needing to know since I did not kill Moira. Or Max.” I want to believe her, but I don’t know her that well. I can’t let my hormones triumph over my rationale. I look at my watch and see that more than an hour has passed.
“Excuse me a second, Vashti.” I go into the living room so I can make my phone call in peace.
“I was about to go after you, girl,” Paris says upon hearing my voice. “You ok?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I think we can do without the check-ins from now on.” I feel like an idiot calling Paris like he’s my father.
“Next hour,” is his response before hanging up. He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my pain in the ass. I return to the dining room where Vashti is looking amused.
“You are calling Paris to let him know I haven’t killed you yet?” I have the grace to blush. I am not the quietest of people, and I must have forgotten to whisper. “You should be telling him I would not kill you without having sex with you first. It would be such a waste.” We both laugh, breaking the slight constraint that had fallen over us. “Rayne, you must believe me that I did not kill either of them. I was mad at Moira, yes, but I would not kill her.” It’s my turn to look away. I am fairly certain that Vashti didn’t kill Moira, but I need hard evidence. I turn up the heat a notch.
“Were you at the party, Vashti?” She hesitates for a second before answering. I wait to hear what she has to say because that pause gives her away.
“Yes, I was. Only for a few minutes because Max was wanting me to go. A few of Moira’s lovers I was seeing there. When I saw Moira, I was just getting mad all over again, and I had to leave.” She sounds sincere and is looking me in the eyes. I can’t help but notice what nice, dark eyes she has. I am a sucker for dark brown eyes. I suppose that’s narcissistic of me, but it can’t be helped. I stare for what seems like hours, but is only really minutes before she waves her hand in front of my face. Embarrassed, I drop my gaze.
“Sorry,” I mutter under my breath. I take a long drink of water to clear my mind. The problem is, I don’t know if this is an investigation or a seduction. I suspect it’s a little of each, but a horrible thought enters my mind. What if, knowing my attraction to her, she is playing me to win me over to her side? I vow to keep things professional until I am certain that she has nothing to do with the killings. “Did you know about her affair with Annie?” I hope to take her by surprise, but the expression on her face doesn’t change.
Vashti claims no knowledge of any specific affair, informing me that Moira had too many to count. As I know this is true, I cannot argue. Vashti has calmed down, her earlier pique gone. She has nothing to add and cannot understand why I’m so obsessed with the murders. When I tell her that Paris is the main suspect and that I’m doing what I can to clear his name, a wistful look creeps upon her face. I hasten to clear up any preconceived notions by assuring her that Paris is not my lover, but my best friend. That doesn’t reassure her, so I ask if she’s ever had a friend who knew her better than she knew herself. She hasn’t because her father was a diplomat which meant they moved around quite often when she was a kid. The longest she stayed in one country was two years in Switzerland from sixteen to eighteen. I try to imagine what it would be like to always be the new kid on the block, but fail.
I steer the conversation back to the murders, asking if she understands why it’s so important to me to find out more about the murders. When she nods her head, I ask if she remembers anything else. I have the feeling she’s not telling me everything, but I have no concrete evidence for feeling thusly. Vashti tells me that Max talked to her a few times following Moira’s death because Max didn’t have many female friends. Vashti felt sorry for Max, not to mention felt guilty for having an affair with Moira, so she would listen when Max felt like talking. Vashti had the feeling that Max knew who had killed Moira, but Max never actually came out and said a name. Vashti was still upset about what Moira had done to her before her death and hadn’t paid much attention to what Max was saying.
I tell Vashti a little about Emil in order to comfort her that she wasn’t the only Moira had lied about being sexually harassed by. Vashti is indignant that Moira had pulled the same stunt against someone else and can’t understand why she had done it. I let her know that Emil knew something damaging about Moira, but I don’t reveal the details. It’s not really my story to tell, and I’m not sure I can trust Vashti yet. I give her the basics and say that Moira started spreading rumors about Emil in order to make him look bad so if he came forward with what he knew, it would seem he was just trying to defend himself. Vashti shakes her head after I finish outlining Emil’s case, declaring Moira a menace. Vashti pauses before telling me the rest of her Moira story.
The Monday after Moira’s murder, Vashti went back to her office to see what the official word was on her possible return. Mr. Benson was ‘in a meeting’ his smug secretary informed Vashti, and he would be all day. It was clear to Vashti that he had no desire to talk to her, but she had to know what was happening with her job. She told the secretary she’d wait and sat in a chair in the lobby. Five minutes later, Mr. Benson strode out of his office, a scowl on his face. He may not be made of managerial stuff, but he knew how to deal with recalcitrant employees. He ushered her into his office, not bothering to close the door. The second she sat down, he lambasted her for the situation and how it looked. He didn’t care that she was innocent or that she had only been at the party a few minutes. The fact that the woman who had accused Vashti of impropriety had been murdered was enough to make Mr. Benson livid. He let loose with a stream of curses that dropped Vashti’s jaw. She could understand him being upset about Moira’s death and concerned about how it would affect the agency; she hadn’t foreseen that he would completely lose his mind.
She waited. She knew if she tried to interrupt him, it would only wind him up further. She also knew that once his rage ran down, he’d be more open to negotiating rather than dictating. She had to wait fifteen minutes for him to run out of steam, but he finally wrapped things up and thumped down in his chair. After catching his breath, he asked her to relate her side of the story. As she did, he closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He was so still, Vashti didn’t know if he was asleep or awake. She had no choice but to tell him everything she knew, which wasn’t much. When she was through, she held her breath. At that point, there wasn’t much more she could say to save her job if he decided to fire her. Oh sure, she could make noises about discrimination and improper procedure, but it would take time and money. Two things she didn’t want to spend if she didn’t have to.
The longer Mr. Benson remained silent, the further her heart plunged. The silence meant that he was thinking of a way to fire her without getting in trouble. If he had confidence that she didn’t kill Moira or if he was planning to give her her job back, he would have spoken by now. Vashti kept her eyes firmly fixed on the clock above Mr. Benson’s head. It seemed that Mr. Benson was waiting for Vashti to continue, but she had nothing left to say. She had shot her proverbial wad and knew better than to try to embellish. She picked at her nail polish, thinking that she’d like to take it off and just coat her nails clear. It was too much trouble to fix the inevitable chips—time better spent doing more productive things. She knew how to play the waiting game, and she was confident that she could win. She had nothing to add—Moira’s charges had been bogus in the first place, and Mr. Benson hadn’t had the guts to stand up to her. Vashti had no illusions that she was so invaluable to the agency that she couldn’t be let go. Just when she couldn’t stand it any more, he spoke.
“Ms. Das.” Uh-oh. A bad sign that he was calling her by her last name. “I want to believe that you had nothing to do with this horrible crime, but I’m not sure. The easiest thing would be to let you go. However, I do believe in innocent until proven guilty, so I’m not going to fire you. I am, however, going to remove you from your caseload and put you to work administratively. It wouldn’t be smart to have you continue working with the children at this time.” Even though he phrased it neutrally, the underlying message was clear. He was saying the agency couldn’t take the chance that she wouldn’t turn into a homicidal maniac and start picking off the kids one by one. It was ironic that she had chosen the job because she wanted to help kids and now, she was deemed a threat to them. She almost told Mr. Benson what he could do with his organizational efforts, but decided that would be foolish. It was better to stay on his good side and to be grateful that she still had a job at all.
“That’s horrible,” I burst out, unable to keep it in any longer. “Not to mention discriminatory, I think. You should contact a lawyer ASAP and see what can be done about it.”
“That’s the last thing I want to do,” Vashti retorts, tossing her hair over her shoulder. “Are you ready for dessert? I’m horrible with Indian desserts, I’m afraid, so I bought cream puffs with the chocolate on top. I think I have some vanilla ice cream as well.”
“Yum,” I say, my mouth watering. It’s easy to divert me with food. . This is the reason I work out daily—so I can eat what I like. I don’t like to talk about working out, however, as that smacks of obsession. I stand up to help clear the table, but she pushes me gently back into my seat
“You are my guest. You are not allowed to do any work.” She disappears into the kitchen and comes back in five minutes with the chocolate cream puffs with ice cream and a steaming kettle of tea. She pours each of us a cup and sets a cream puff in front of me. I attack it as if I hadn’t just eaten a fabulous meal. “I like a girl who eats,” Vashti says with a wide smile. “Especially when I’ve cooked all day.”
“I shouldn’t,” I mumble around a mouthful of creamy goodness. “Then my sister wouldn’t tell me I needed to lose ten pounds by her wedding.”
“That girl needs to be slapped,” Vashti says sharply, eating her popover neatly. I caught a bit of the chocolate as it slid down my chin. I fill Vashti in on the latest. Like a good friend, she is properly incensed. “She is thinking she’s so special because she’s getting married? She needs to have her head examined. Any idiot can get married. It doesn’t make you special or give you the right to be a dictator. Why is it this way in America? The bride being so much the focus of the wedding that anything she says goes?”