“Goddamn it,” I mumbled, the phone breaking through the fog in my head. I squinted at the clock and saw that it was eight in the morning. Normally, that wouldn’t be too early, but Rafe and I hadn’t gone to sleep until one-thirty. “This better be fucking important,” I mumbled into the receiver without even checking to see who it was. Rafe turned onto his side, but didn’t waken. I envied him his slumber.
“Oh, Bea, I’m sorry. Did I wake you?” It was Brian sounding disgustingly awake, but not in a good mood.
“Yes, you did,” I said. “You better be dying.”
“Um, no. I, ah, just wanted to talk to you. And Rafe, of course.” His voice took on a pleading note which didn’t do much to move me.
“Call me at a civilized hour, and we’ll talk,” I snapped, hanging up the phone. I switched it to vibrate before burrowing my head under the pillow. Minutes later, I was back asleep.
“Wake up, Bet,” Rafe murmured in my ear. It seemed like seconds later, but a glance at my clock told me it was ten. I grabbed my cell and checked messages. Sure enough, Brian had left a few. It was urgent to talk to me. Blah blah blah. He’d like to meet me after work. Seven at his place. Whatever. I supposed I’d see him tonight. I had learned my lesson, however, and I told Rafe about it this time. “We have other things to do first,” Rafe said, an impish gleam in his eyes. He reached for me and for the next hour, we were strictly incommunicado.
“You don’t have to come with me, you know,” I said to Rafe later that night. I had called Brian and set up a meeting for seven. Rafe didn’t even bother dignifying my remark with an answer. We hopped in Rafe’s car and headed over to Brian’s place. I wondered how Brian could possibly justify his actions, if that was what he wanted to talk about. I couldn’t imagine what else since we weren’t bosom buddies.
“Thank you for coming,” Brian said, ushering us into his apartment. He looked ill-at-ease, and he had bags under his eyes. I had a shrewd hunch that he hadn’t slept much last night, and oh, yeah, he had to talk to the police this morning. I would also bet that Mrs. Rodriguez had called him last night either before or after talking to Rafe and me, so Brian was probably in a jumpy state. “Can I get you something to drink?” Brian led us to the living room and sat us on the couch. I noticed that Lydia’s painting was no longer hanging on the wall. I wondered if he’d sell it to me before deciding this wasn’t the right time to ask.
“No, thanks,” Rafe and I said, settling on the couch. Brian sat himself across from us, reaching for the Jack Daniels bottle sitting on the coffee table. He poured himself a healthy shot and slugged it down. He shuddered as it burned his throat, but that didn’t stop him from pouring himself another. By the smell of him, these were not his first drinks of the night, and I wanted to question him before he got hammered.
“What happened to your shoulder?” Brian asked, then added before giving me a chance to answer. “Someone try to off you, too?”
“Yes,” I said shortly. I didn’t like his choice of words, apt though they might have been. “I told you that before.”
“So you were shot, too,” Brian mused. “Welcome to the club.”
“No, I was stabbed,” I said, watching him closely. His mentioning me being shot sounded like a clever ruse to me, but his expression didn’t change. In fact, he seemed to lose all interest in the subject.
“You gave those pictures to the cops, didn’t you?” Brian asked, staring at first me then Rafe. His voice wasn’t accusatory but mournful. “Why did you have to do that? Now they think I killed Lydia because of my dalliance with her mother.”
“Dalliance?” The word escaped my lips before I could censor myself. I didn’t like the way he was downplaying what happened, especially as Mrs. Rodriguez was so into him.
“You know how it is,” Brian said, appealing to Rafe. “I have this thing for older women—I think they’re really hot. You’ve seen Marie—she’s still got it. I didn’t mean to get involved with her because she’s Lydia’s mother, but I, well, how do I put this? She wasn’t exactly keeping it under wraps, if you know what I mean. When a starving man has a steak placed before him, he’s going to eat. That’s the best I can do.”
I struggled to keep my temper in check. This lout was comparing women to slabs of meat? What a nice guy. What a whiner. He couldn’t help himself because he had this thing for older women. She threw herself at him. He didn’t mean for it to get out of control. If he uttered one more cliché, I was going to clout him over the head with my purse or something heavier. What was Lydia? Chopped liver?
“Why didn’t you just break up with Lydia, then?” I asked abruptly, sick of rationalizations. I didn’t have many rules about dating, but one of them was that you didn’t poach, especially not with your girlfriend’s mother. I knew I sounded like a broken record, but it seemed pretty obvious to me.
“You don’t get it,” Brian said, pouring himself another shot. Rafe reached over and plucked the bottle and the cup from Brian’s hand who relinquished them without a fight. “I didn’t want a relationship with Marie. She’s old enough to be my mother, you know? I mean, I can’t imagine actually dating her,” Brian said, laughing a little. It pissed me off even more that he was denigrating Mrs. Rodriguez who, despite her role in this whole debacle, actually seemed to love this fool.
“She’s good for a roll or two in the sack, but that’s it?” My voice was cold, and if Brian were more perceptive, he would think carefully before answering.
“Oh, I had to take her out a few times, too, so she wouldn’t think I was just fu—using her, but yeah, mostly she was a fantasy.” Brian focused his attention on Rafe as if thinking he’d find more sympathy from that corner. Rafe didn’t look all that
understanding to me, but I wasn’t on my way to inebriation, either.
“So you were just using her while you were betraying her daughter? Does that about sum it up?” I asked, my eyes glittering.
“You’re missing the point,” Brian exclaimed, reaching for his glass, forgetting that Rafe had taken it from him. He looked sadly at Rafe before returning to the subject at hand. “I wanted to stay with Lydia so there was no motive for me to kill her. See?”
What I saw was that he was covering his ass. It was in his best interest to describe the ‘dalliance’ with Mrs. Rodriguez as just for kicks, so he did. I would have had more respect for him—which wasn’t saying much—if he had stood by Mrs. Rodriguez, but no, he was ready to throw her to the wolves if it took the heat off him. I wondered how far he would go with this version of his story and decided to test him. It was my instinct that he would stop at nothing to clear himself, but I had to put that hunch to the test.
“Actually, you’re not the main suspect,” I said casually, watching him closely. “The cops think Mrs. Rodriguez may have killed Lydia over the affair. What do you think?” Rafe did an admirable job of keeping his face neutral, but Brian wasn’t looking at him, anyway.
“Marie wants to be with me but Lydia won’t give me up,” Brian said slowly, sounding it out. “They fight. Marie shoots Lydia at work to make it seem like the murder is related to the park.” Brian nodded his head as he shaped his theory. “I hate to say it, but I think it’s something Marie could do. She loves Lydia, but she loves herself more. Always looking out for number one.” I looked at Brian with repugnance at his eagerness to pin the murder on anyone but himself. He didn’t even care if what he was saying made sense as long as it cast doubt elsewhere. I could tell by the look in Rafe’s eyes that he was having similar thoughts.
“Mrs. Rodriguez is under the impression that you care about her,” Rafe said, not bothering to hide the disdain in his voice.
“Oh, I do,” Brian reassured us, running his hand through his hair. He flashed a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “She’s a wonderful woman. But I’m not romantically attached to her, by no means.” He straightened up and added, “So you can see, I had no reason to kill Lydia.”
“Did the police see it the same way?” I asked. I had an incorrigible desire to goad this man out of his comfort zone. “I bet they didn’t. They probably have you down as suspect numero uno.”
“They are so stupid,” Brian exploded, his face flushing. “They think that a meaningless affair would make me kill Lydia. What a crock of shit! I should call and tell them my theory about Marie, don’t you think?” He looked from Rafe to me, but didn’t gain any sympathy from either quarter.
“Why did you call me?” I asked abruptly. I was sick of listening to Brian and was planning on jetting if he didn’t have anything pertinent to tell me.
“I wanted you to talk to the police for me,” Brian said simply, his face looking drawn. I felt no sympathy for the bastard, however, as his discomfort was of his own making. “Tell them I had nothing to do with Lydia’s murder.”
“Don’t you have an alibi?” I asked. “You must have been at work. It happened during the day.”
“I was, uh, off that day,” Brian explained, ratcheting my suspicions up ten notches. I could tell by the closed look on his face, however, that he wasn’t going to elaborate on his evasive answer.
“Does Marie work?” I asked, my mind going on a tangent.
“She works part time at a Barnes & Nobles, but she was off at the time of Lydia’s death.” I didn’t ask him how he knew that as it was obvious that he had been in contact with her frequently over the past few weeks.
“How do they tie in the owner’s death with Lydia’s?” Rafe asked, wrinkling his brow in confusion.
“They don’t think the two murders are connected,” Brian explained. I was incredulous that the cops would think the two murders which had occurred within days of each other were not related. I shook my head as Brian briefly summarized what Detective Bradley had to say on the subject.
“They are full of shit, and so are you,” I said, suddenly standing. “You have this nice and neat explanation for why you cheated on Lydia. You want us to believe that you could never have killed her. You even want us to advocate you to the cops. May I ask you what you’re smoking because I’d certainly like some of that!”
“Please, I’m telling the truth,” Brian pleaded, catching me by the arm. Seeing the lack of sympathy on my face, he moved on to Rafe who didn’t appear any more sanguine. “You’ve got to help me find the killer.” He wasn’t making a dent in either of us so he switched tacks. “Look, I know that what I did was slimy. I don’t blame you for being mad, but you want to do right by Lydia, don’t you? Can you honestly say that you think I killed Lydia? If you can look in my eyes and tell me that you think I killed her, I won’t ask for any more help.” Rafe and I remained silent. I didn’t know what Rafe was thinking, but I thought Brian was too pathetic to kill anybody. The worst he could do was whine someone to death.
“Look, I don’t think you killed her, but I don’t think the cops are going to listen to me,” I said reluctantly. Brian hesitated before getting up and crossing over to his bookshelves. He selected a book and opened it. Before doing anything else, he turned to us.
“I have something to show you,” he said slowly, his eyes solemn. “I want you to promise that you won’t tell anyone.”
“This isn’t a fucking game, Brian! Tell us what the fuck you know,” Rafe yelled, catching both Brian and me by surprise. Rafe rarely raised his voice, and it was an indication that he was at the end of his rope. If Brian was a smart guy, he wouldn’t push any harder. Apparently he got the message because he quickly pulled something out of the book and brought it over to us. It was a thousand dollars in cash which I knew damn well Lydia didn’t earn at the park.
“Where did you find that?” I asked Brian. I knew it was Lydia’s—I just couldn’t make any sense of it.
“In that book,” Brian said wearily, sinking into his chair. “I was looking around today, after—after the cops left. Here’s a note.” He handed it to me. Rafe read over my shoulder.
Dear Brian, consider this your payment for services render. If you find it, it means something has happened to me. The only bright spot of that is that I no longer have to pretend. You are a jackass, but I pay off my debts. There would have been more where this came from. Too bad I’m not in any shape to take advantage of it. Enjoy the money, asshole. You fucking wrecked my life. Lydia.
“Not very edifying,” I commented, glancing over the note a second time. “Find anything else?” Brian shook his head then admitted that he hadn’t been looking very hard. Seemed to me that he was more interested in studying his hands than he was in figuring out what else Lydia might have hidden in his place. I looked down at the sheet of paper and noted that it was dated the day of Brian’s birthday. Something caught my eye, and I read it one more time. There it was.
“There would have been more where this came from.” I said it slowly and clearly so Brian and Rafe could understand. Rafe got it, but Brian simply looked disinterested. I wanted to smack him, but restrained myself.
“She was blackmailing someone,” Rafe said softly. A feeling of excitement passed between us. We were on to something.
“Did you tell the police about this?” I asked, handing the note back to Brian.
“Nope,” Brian said, shaking his head. He gathered the money and the note and put it back in the book. I couldn’t see the title from where I sat though I strained to see it. “Why give them more reasons to suspect me?”
“Brian, you can’t withhold evidence,” I said in exasperation. He seemed to live in a fantasy land where the loved ones of a murdered person didn’t have to deal with the cops on a daily basis. I conveniently forgot the times I hadn’t told the cops everything because I’d eventually revealed all my secrets to them. “What the hell is wrong with you? Anyone would think you didn’t want the cops to catch Lydia’s killer.”
“That’s nuts,” Brian said, standing by the bookshelves. He seemed reluctant to rejoin us, perhaps because we had given him such a ringing endorsement of his innocence. “Of course I want them to catch who killed her—I just don’t want to get crushed in the process.”
“Tell them,” I said, standing up. Rafe stood up as well. We had outstayed our welcome, and besides, I was eager to get back home. “If you don’t, I will.” Brian glared at me, but grudgingly acquiesced. He promised that he would call the cops as soon as Rafe and I were gone. I didn’t think he’d follow through, but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt at least until morning. Then I was going to call the cops to make sure they knew.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Brian said, ushering us to the door. “You’ve made me feel a hundred percent better.” The minute we got into the car, I exploded.