“Lydia gave that to me for my birthday,” Brian said softly, interrupting my scrutiny. “It’s the best thing she’s done, though not really my cup of tea.”
“Does it have a title?” I asked, curious about the nomenclature of such an evocative piece of art.
“Willows Weeping,” Brian said, his eyes tearing up. “It’s almost as if she had a premonition about her death. It’s too bad, really. The day she died, she received a letter in the mail commissioning her for two paintings. It was someone who had seen a flyer of her work—she used to post them around town—and really liked it. That would have been her first big sale.” Brian looked at the ground as he talked, unable to meet my eyes.
“Brian, will you take the painting down for me?” I asked, gesturing to the painting. I wasn’t comfortable with his show of emotions, and I wanted to redirect his attention.
“Why?” Brian asked, folding his arms across his chest. He wasn’t being nearly as helpful or charming today as he had been a few days ago, but I didn’t have time to wonder about the change.
“Because,” I said snippily. My shoulder was really starting to hurt like hell, and his attitude wasn’t doing anything to improve my temper. “You want me to find out who killed Lydia, don’t you?” Brian didn’t answer, but he lifted the painting off the wall and set it on the couch. I flipped it over and carefully removed the backing. There between the backing and the painting was a manila envelope, and it was stuffed.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Brian said, looking thunderstruck. “What’s that?”
“Probably the evidence Lydia thought I’d be able to find,” I said dryly. “She’s just lucky that I’m persistent.” Brian didn’t say what was on his mind, but I had a hunch by the look on his face that he wanted to say that Lydia was dead, not lucky.
“Open it,” he demanded instead. I hesitated. While I had been happy to one-up Rafe in finding the packet, it suddenly occurred to me that Brian was still a suspect, and maybe I was being stupid. Granted, it was hard to believe that Lydia would hide the packet in Brian’s painting if it was evidence against him, but I still didn’t feel very secure in my current position. I glanced down at the envelope and saw that it had my name on it, which meant that she had intended for me to find it. If so, why hadn’t she hidden it at the park as she had the pictures of Tommy? I didn’t know, but I aimed to find out what was in it. I’d prefer to do it not in the presence of Brian, however.
“Listen, Brian,” I said, clutching the envelope to my chest. “I think it’s better if I opened this elsewhere. She meant for me to find it, you know.” I showed him my name, which didn’t seem to appease him.
“Look, she was my girlfriend,” Brian said, clenching his fists. “I have a right to know what’s in there.”
“Of course you do,” I said in a placating tone. “It’s just, well, I would feel more comfortable if my boyfriend was present when I open the envelope.”
“Then call him,” Brian said, his tone challenging. I sighed and pulled out my cell phone and called Rafe. He should either be off work or about to leave, but I had no clue what his plans were for the night. I did know that he was going to be pissed at me, however, for doing detective work without him. Or rather, without telling him.
“Hello, querida,” Rafe said warmly. “I am just getting off work and about to head home. What’s up?”
“Um, I’m at Brian’s,” I said cautiously, not knowing what to say. “Lydia’s boyfriend. I found her hiding spot.”
Rafe was not a man who angered easily, but my announcement did the trick. He didn’t yell at me, but in a voice taut with emotion, he demanded to know why I hadn’t told him my revelation this morning. I allowed him to rant and rave for a good five minutes before cutting him off. Brian was looking at the envelope with hungry eyes, and I didn’t trust him not to make a play for it soon if I didn’t get the ball rolling. I apologized to Rafe, telling him I’d make it up to him. I asked if he could get over his mad enough to meet me at Brian’s place. After an appreciably amount of time, he allowed that he could find it in his heart to temporarily forgive me as long as I realized that I had a royal reaming coming to me later on. I acquiesced and gave him directions to Brian’s before hanging up.
“He’s on his way,” I said, not letting my grip loosen on the envelope. Brian hadn’t taken his eyes off it the entire time I was on the phone, and he was making me nervous.
“Why don’t we take a peek?” Brian said, edging closer to me.
“Stay,” I said, holding up my hand. “I want Rafe here when I open the envelope.” There was an unpleasant gleam in Brian’s eyes as he looked me up and down. It was a look assessing my strength, and it seemed to say that he thought he could take me. I was thinking about digging out my pepper spray when he sighed and sat down on the couch next to the painting. I gingerly sat in the chair across from him, not taking my eyes off him.
“I met Lydia at a show at the Fine Line,” Brian said without preamble. I quirked an eyebrow at the non sequitur. “It was a Prince show. She showed up wearing a red mini-dress and not much else. She was the hottest girl in the place.” I didn’t interrupt as he reminisced. Although his eyes were appropriately moist, there was something slightly mechanical about his tone. “When he sang ‘When Doves Cry’, I knew she was the girl for me. I went over and introduced myself, buying her a drink. That was five months ago. We’ve been an item ever since. Were. Were an item.” Right on cue, the tears spilled over. I was a sucker for tears, but his left me strangely unmoved. Perhaps it was the calculating way he looked at me as if to gauge my response. Whatever it was, I merely waited for him to calm down without trying to placate him.
“I knew I loved her on our third date. We went out to eat at Chino Latino, and she was grooving on the scene, you know? She was so ‘on’ that night, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She’s such a fireball.” A small smile tugged at his lips. “And of course, her mother’s great.” Something flashed in his eyes, but it was gone before I could place it. A question occurred to me, so I interrupted his paean.
“Why did Lydia lie?” I watched his face carefully, but he gave nothing away.
“She didn’t lie, exactly,” he protested, leaning forward. His whole being radiated honesty, which made me trust him even less. “She just, stretched the truth sometimes. More to the point, she embellished. She liked to tell a good story.” He shrugged it off as if it were a foible such as biting one’s nails.
“She told me her mother was a drunk,” I said casually, just to see his reaction. Another flash in his eyes came and went.
“Well, obviously, Marie isn’t,” Brian replied, leaning back. “You could see that for yourself when you met her. She’s a charming, elegant woman. Sure, she has a drink now and then, but who doesn’t?” I glanced at him sharply. There was a tinge of ‘he doth protest too much’ in his voice, and I had to wonder why he was so ardently defending his dead girlfriend’s mother. He must have caught my suspicion, because he forced a laugh which didn’t deceive me a bit. “Really, Bea, you have to understand. Lydia told stories, but not for any reason. Honestly.”
Now, when someone tells me something ‘honestly’, I naturally distrusted what he had to say. This guy was slick, but not slick enough. Everything he said caused me to be more suspicious of him, which might not be fair on my part. I seemed to have a natural aversion to the guy for no good reason at all. Well, unless you consider the fact that I thought he’d been lying to me the whole fucking time he’d been talking a legitimate reason to dislike someone. Even though he played the part of the bereaved boyfriend well, there was something wrong about him. His tears didn’t seem real, nor did the pain in his voice. I sensed that while he was sad that she was dead, he didn’t overly grieve her absence, either. While it was true that people mourn in their own ways, this guy wasn’t truly grieving; I’d bet a large sum of money on it. His guilt for not doing so was what made him profess his deep love; his type was a dime a dozen. Shifting in my seat, I allowed my voice to take on a slightly coquettish tone.
“Tell me, Brian, what is it you do?” I leaned forward, signifying my interest. I wasn’t above using a bit of feminine wiles to elicit information. Predictably, he preened under my scrutiny.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” he said proudly.
“My, that does sound important,” I murmured, nearly batting my eyelashes at him. I watched in amusement as he puffed out his chest and tossed his head back. “Tell me more.”
“Well, it’s a bit difficult to explain,” he said condescendingly, causing me to grit my teeth. I had to clamp my lips shut so I wouldn’t bitch him out. He paused a minute to sort his thoughts, then continued. “I have a supplier in New York.” I was a bit startled. A supplier? Like a drug supplier? Why would he admit that to me? “He has an amazing collection of…artifacts. I tell him what I need—he ships it to me, and I sell it.” He beamed as he sat back on the couch, but I was none-the-wiser as to what it was he actually did.
“What kind of artifacts?” I asked curiously.
“This and that,” Brian said vaguely, waving his hands in the air. Now, my curiosity really was piqued. What was it he was selling that he couldn’t name it? Two possibilities—what he was selling was illegal, or he really wasn’t selling anything. I considered either possibility equally viable. I didn’t think I could get him to explain any further, however, so I let it go.
“What do you like to do in your spare time?” I asked, trying vainly to break through his façade. I wanted to unsettle him, though I couldn’t say why.
“I like Diane Keaton movies,” Brian said with a ready smile. “Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep, too. What about you?”
“I rather read than see a movie,” I said, the gears in my mind turning. “As far as movie stars go, I like and Ewan McGregor and Geena Davis.” I was setting him up, but I had to know for sure. Just as he was about to answer, the doorbell rang. It had to be Rafe. Even though I was disappointed, I was also relieved. I was in over my head and wanted a second opinion. Brian went to let him in and brought him into the living room. Rafe looked calm, which I took to be a good sign.
“May I get you something to drink?” Brian asked politely, looking from Rafe to me. This time, I requested water as did Rafe. Brian fetched us our drinks, playing the courteous host.
“So, what do you have there?” Rafe asked me as soon as Brian had returned. The two of them sat on the couch while I reclaimed my chair.
“I found the envelope Lydia left,” I explained, holding it out to him. “It was behind the painting she gave Brian for his birthday. I guessed the wrong one.”
“Well, open it,” Brian said sharply, tapping his foot against the floor. Far from the congenial person reminiscing about his girlfriend he had been a scant five minutes ago, he was now perspiring and impatient for me to open the envelope.
“Here goes nothing,” I said, struggling with the envelope. Lydia had duct-taped it shut, and I had no fingernails to speak of. Brian went to get a pair of scissors which he handed to me without comment. I finally got the envelope open and pulled out a sheaf of papers plus another envelope. The top piece of paper in the pile was a letter addressed to me, so I read it to myself.
Bea, if you have this, it means that I’m in serious trouble and most likely dead. While I hope that’s not the case, I can only surmise it is so. Consider this a voice from the beyond!! That’s not really funny, but I thought I should lighten the moment. If you found this, then Brian is probably somewhere near. I don’t want him to see everything. I put those in the other envelope. I’m sorry for putting you in this position, but I didn’t know where else to hide it. I was afraid that someone would search my apartment. You’ve probably found out that I haven’t always been truthful, and I apologize for that, too. Believe me that I’m telling you the truth now. Please, I beg you, make sure he only sees the things that are marked. Thank you for being a good friend. Lydia.
“What does it say?” Brian asked impatiently, holding out his hand. I didn’t give him the paper because it was a personal letter to me, and he had no reason to read it. I didn’t totally understand why she had hidden the envelope at his place if she didn’t want him to see everything, but I felt obliged to follow her wishes.
“It’s personal,” I said softly, tucking the letter away. Brian wasn’t happy to hear that, but I didn’t give a fuck. “There were some things she didn’t want you to see,” I explained. He looked less happy to hear that and began glowering. Rafe flexed his muscles to remind Brian who was in charge. Brian let out a sigh and sagged back in his seat. I put the private envelope back into the manila envelope and placed that in my purse. I divided the papers evenly and handed a portion to Brian and one to Rafe before diving into my own.
The first batch I had included a note about the pictures of Tommy. Lydia explained how she had caught Tommy with the girl earlier, but they hadn’t been doing anything other than talking so Lydia didn’t feel she could bust him. She wanted to catch him in the act so that he would never bother another little girl again. Pedophiles really ticked her off, and she didn’t give a damn what kind of excuse he had. When she busted him, he begged with her not to tell, saying he’d do anything, even pay her money if she would keep it a secret. When she refused to keep it a secret, he told her she’d be sorry that she squealed on him. That was slightly different than the story Tommy told, and I wondered who was telling the truth. My guess was that the truth lay somewhere in the middle of the two stories as it usually did.
I set it aside and brought out a batch of papers stapled together. It was a copy of the money transactions for the last few months at FunLand, and I couldn’t figure out why she had them. Nobody but Eddie handled the books, and he would be—would have been furious if he knew that Lydia had somehow gotten hold of them. I frowned as I looked over the numbers. They didn’t add up. The total take should have been higher than what was reported in the book. Even I knew that, and I didn’t know much about the workings of the park. I just walked around in my stupid head talking to the bratty kids, but I knew that there was money missing. Antoinette had said that Eddie was losing money hand over fist, but there was no way the numbers in the books were correct. I would have to talk to Antoinette again, much to my chagrin. I set aside those papers as well and looked at the next sheet.
I went through the rest of my pile in an orderly fashion. Most of it was tittle-tattle, such as whom at the park was cutting out early and things of that nature. Nothing earth-shattering and certainly nothing that needed to be hidden. I wondered why she bothered to include it in the batch. I looked more carefully, but the only things worth noting were the few cryptic messages she had left about fellow park workers. Such as, Stephen—jail—crim. sex ass. , and Delia—not her real name, and Ginger—not the princess. While these tidbits were fascinating, I wasn’t sure if they had any relevance.
“Look at this,” Rafe said, holding out a sheet of paper. Brian made a move to grab it, but I was faster. I snatched the sheet and scanned it rapidly. It was an invoice of equipment, and it had less orders than what was reported in the accounts book.
“Look at this,” I said in return, handing him the copy of the accounts. His eyes widened as he realized what he was reading.
“He was skimming the books,” Rafe said incredulously. “But why? He was the owner, so who was he fooling?”
“What’s going on?” Brian asked plaintively. We handed him the information so he could read it for himself.
“The IRS,” I said slowly, puzzling it out. “He was evading taxes. Lydia found out and he killed her!”
“Then who killed Bates?” Rafe asked reasonably.
“Wait! He had gambling debts, remember? He killed Lydia because of the cooked books, and whomever he owed money to killed him!” I raised a fist triumphantly; I liked my solution.
“Where did Lydia get this?” Brian whispered, his face drained of color. “Why would she do something so dangerous?” He shook his head in disbelief.
“What have you found, Brian?” I asked, more to bring him back to earth than because I really thought he found something of interest.
“She appears to have been…stalking various members of FunLand, for lack of better word.” He waved a notebook in the air. “This was her journal keeping track of the actions. Most of it is irrelevant.” He frowned as he leafed through the pages. “I thought she was busy with her painting when she couldn’t see me. This was what she was doing instead.” I took a look, but there wasn’t much that I hadn’t already known or suspected. I’d have to look more closely at it later.