“What the hell was that about? Did he think we were that stupid? No fucking way I’m going to be his patsy.”
“Chill, Bet,” Rafe said, patting my knee before zooming out of his parking spot. “If he doesn’t tell the cops, we will. Simple like that.”
“I have a feeling we should have taken the note with us,” I said uneasily. I couldn’t get over my feeling that Brian was trying to snow us. To what purpose, I couldn’t begin to fathom, but I would have felt better if the money and the note were in my possession.
“It would have been stealing,” Rafe pointed out as he swung into traffic. “He could have had us arrested if we tried something like that.”
“I hate it when you make sense,” I sighed, settling back into the seat. I shut my eyes, but they immediately popped open as I was too ramped up to sleep. “What else do you think he’s hiding?”
“I don’t know,” Rafe shrugged. “I’ll tell you what, though. I don’t think he killed Lydia, as much as I’d like to pin it on him.”
“I don’t think he did, either,” I replied sadly. It would have been nice and neat if he had been the killer, but I just couldn’t fit him in the role. If he had been found dead, I would have suspected it was Lydia who had killed him, but he really had no reason to kill her.
“Who do you think she was blackmailing?” Rafe asked, his eyes on the road.
“I don’t know, but I think that’s the person who killed her,” I said. I thought about it, but it was a mess in my head. I reviewed everything I knew about her or had heard about her in the past few days, and one thing stuck out in my head. “What about Eddie’s gambling problem and the accounts? If he was doing something nefarious, maybe he killed Lydia to keep it under wraps.”
“Then who killed Eddie?” Rafe asked reasonably. “It certainly wasn’t suicide, and I refuse to believe the murders are unrelated. And who’s been trying to kill you?”
“Phillip,” I said half-jokingly. “For years, he’s had a hankering to be king of FunLand. Now he has his chance.”
“Not bad as far as motives go, but why would he kill Lydia?”
“Target practice?” We both cracked up even though it was in bad taste. We had to break the tension somehow that had befallen us while talking about the murders. Suddenly, I wanted this cleared in the worst way partially so I could concentrate on what I wanted from my relationship with Rafe.
We rode in silence the rest of the way home. I didn’t know what Rafe was thinking about, but I was running through all the evidence and eliminating suspects. I still didn’t know if I was the original target, but I had to keep it in mind, considering that someone was still after me. If it was true that I had been the intended victim, then Eddie must have been killed because he had seen something or he had figured out who had killed Lydia. If I wasn’t the intended victim, then I’d bet that Lydia’s blackmailing scheme had something to do with her demise.
I couldn’t believe she had blackmailed somebody at the park about shady goings-on. She wormed a thousand dollars out of this person, which led me to believe it wasn’t one of the peons. We made ten dollars an hour before taxes; it would take many hours of prancing around in an animal costume to net that kind of money. The person at FunLand most vulnerable to blackmail was Eddie, but his murder precluded that he was the one being blackmailed. Unless the blackmail had nothing to do with the murders.
I shook my head to clear the confusion that was setting in. I felt like there were different threads running away from the problem and any time I got a hold of one, it dissolved in my hand or led me to another thread. There wasn’t anything solid—just speculations. It was almost as if someone had orchestrated the scene with maximum confusion in the foremost of the mind. Perhaps the killer was trying to throw as much mud as possible into the picture precisely in order to create such confusion. That would mean that there’s something sliding under the radar that no one was grasping, including me.
I tried to replay all the scenes in my mind as exactly as possible. It was difficult to do because I hadn’t taken any kind of notes, but I forced myself to think of it as an exercise which helped. It seemed to me the salient points were that Lydia was blackmailing someone; Eddie was skimming off the top and had a gambling problem; Eddie was killed after Lydia; someone was attacking me. I concentrated on the last topic for a minute. There was something stagy about the attacks on me, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. It was as if someone was playing at hurting me or wanting to scare me. I mean, the person stabbed me in the shoulder which, while painful, wasn’t exactly life-threatening.
“Rafe, what if the person attacking me wasn’t trying to kill me?” I asked, bolting up in my seat. I was excited by my idea and had to run it past Rafe. “What if it was a ruse to distract the cops from the real motive? It worked, didn’t it? It seems like the cops are focusing more on me than on Lydia. Or Eddie. I haven’t heard a damn thing about Eddie.”
“I don’t know, Bet. That sounds like a real Machiavellian thing to do. Who would be that devious?”
“I would say Eddie if he weren’t dead,” I said, my enthusiasm waning a bit. I ran over the other players in my mind, but none of them seemed that highly manipulative to me. Rather, to be frank, none of them seemed that intelligent to me. “Damn, I thought I had something. The pieces just don’t make sense.”
“You might have something, indeed,” Rafe said, patting my knee. “I just don’t want you to jump to conclusion. It makes some sense, though. It would explain the random feeling of the attacks. It’s almost as if someone just struck out without paying attention to the target. You could have been anyone.”
That triggered something in my mind, but I couldn’t quite make the connection. I thought about it some more, but I couldn’t make it gel. Something about me being anyone and the switched costumes. What if someone had suggested to Lydia the switch in costumes as a lark? It was the kind of thing Lydia would have loved to do at Eddie’s expense. I had no evidence that she hadn’t thought of the idea herself, but it would make sense theoretically if someone else had planted the idea in her mind. That person would be the only one besides me who knew Lydia had switched costumes which would make it appear that I was the victim.
“Let’s assume for a minute that I wasn’t the target—that Lydia was,” I said slowly. “Eddie knew something about her death, so he had to die as well.” I felt a pang that Eddie was getting the short shrift, that his death didn’t seem to matter much to anyone. However, he wasn’t a very pleasant man in life so I wasn’t going to pretend to grieve for him now that he was dead.
“Why is he—and I’m using the proverbial ‘he’—trying to kill you then?” Rafe asked as he pulled into my parents’ driveway. I had been so engrossed by the speculation that the sight of the house took me by surprise.
“Either he thinks I know more than I do, or it’s a diversion.” I thought about it a minute, warming to my theory. “I mean, what better way to take the focus off Lydia’s murder or Eddie’s for that matter than by continuing a reign of terror?”
“So you don’t think he’s trying to kill you?” Rafe asked, not sounding as if he agreed. Hell, he had almost said as much a few minutes earlier.
“In this theory, no. He’s just trying to make it appear as if he is and as if the attack is racially-based. Which means it’s probably not.”
“Hey,” my mother said cheerfully. “You didn’t eat much for dinner. I made a chocolate cake while you were gone. Want some?” I could smell it, and it made my mouth water. My mother made the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted. Every time I ask her for the recipe, she just smiled and said, ‘Ancient Taiwanese secret.’ It made me want to crack her over the head. “Where have you been?”
“Visiting Brian,” Rafe said, leaning against the fridge. “He had some news to tell us.” He relayed what we had learned from Brian and from Mrs. Rodriguez the night before. Predictably, the news of the affair bothered her to no end.
“She slept with her own daughter’s boyfriend?” My mother said, her hand on her hip. She was so indignant, she forgot to watch the cake. She only noticed when I pointed out that it was done. She quickly pulled it out of the oven with little harm done. We all liked our cake slightly charred, anyway. “That’s just a disgrace. What explanation did she give?”
“She said she loved him,” I said, pushing Rafe aside so I could get some milk. “She said she tried not to, but she did. He, on the other hand, tried his damnedest to convince us it was just a fling.”
“Snake,” Mom hissed, slicing up the cake and handing out a thick slab to Rafe. He took it to the dining room so he could sit down and eat properly.
“Triple-layer?” He called into the kitchen. “You spoil me, Van.”
“Where’s mine?” I asked grumpily. “I am your own flesh and blood you know.”
“Raphael’s a guest, Beezus,” my mother said reprovingly. “You know what the rule is in this house concerning guests.” Boy, did I ever. She had drilled it into my head—not to mention the heads of my siblings—when I was a little girl. Guests were always served first. Children were always served last. At least, my mother served us kids by age which meant I got food before my siblings. Lord, didn’t I hold that over their heads? It was a good thing because the food sometimes took forever to reach us as my parents were popular in the Taiwanese community. One night, they had ten couples over for dinner; we kids had a long wait for our food that night. My mother handed me a plate, and I retreated into the dining room. A few minutes later, my mother followed with a plate of her own. We ate in contented silence for several minutes before my mother spoke.
“What else did you learn?” We told her about the blackmail, and she agreed that it was a prime reason to kill Lydia. The case was getting more complicated all the time, and I had serious doubts that I would be able to solve it. After eating, Rafe and I went upstairs for some rest and relaxation. By unspoken agreement, we didn’t speak of the murders while we ‘rested’. It was the best hour of the weekend.
When I woke up, I remembered that I had told Liza I would get together with her this weekend. I knew that in the mood she was in, she’d never let me hear the end of it if I didn’t go. I quickly called the cops and found out that Brian had, indeed, called them. Then I explained the situation with Liza to Rafe, and he was sweet about it. He said he would hang out with my mother while I went over to Liza’s. I joked that he better not pull a Brian at which he stared at me aghast. My mother was a second mother to him, and the thought of having sex with her clearly disconcerted him. I laughed and kissed him before getting up to get dressed. After calling Liza, I went over to her apartment.
“Girl, it’s been too damn long.” She grabbed me in a fierce hug and wouldn’t let go. “It’s a good thing I love you already, or I’d be pissed at you for keeping me in the dark half the time.” She ushered me into her apartment which was uber-sleek and up-to-date. She was the opposite of me in many ways which made for a lively friendship. She was constantly trying to overhaul my look—my very own straight eye for the queer gal—while I tried to get her interested in politics. It was tempestuous to say the least, but it was never dull.
“I know,” I said, hugging her again. “Cuff me and stuff me. I’m guilty as charged.” She led me to the kitchen where stainless steel pots and pans decorated the walls. She was a wonderful cook when she put her mind to it which wasn’t often. On the ‘informal’ table, she had laid a spread worthy of a king. I hadn’t eaten breakfast so my mouth watered at the sight of the slabs of country-fried chicken, ears of buttered corn, mounds of hand-whipped potatoes with homemade gravy. Obviously she was effecting a country theme today which was fine by me. For dessert she had baked a blueberry cobbler, and I was willing to bet that she had vanilla ice cream to go with. She was nothing if not thorough.
“Sit, sit,” Liza said, motioning me to sit in the chair shaped like an overgrown cherry. It looked as uncomfortable as hell, but it was surprisingly comfy. I needed no urging to tuck into the food, and conversation was minimal as we ate. Or to be more accurate, while I ate. Though Liza loved to cook, she was constantly on a diet, trying to whittle her size-six frame down to a zero. With her russet curls, moss-green eyes and sprinkling of freckles on her pert nose, she was a cutie who had the guys flocking all over her. She didn’t see it, however, and was convinced that if she could just lose five pounds, she would be so much more attractive. No matter how much I ridiculed her for her belief, it didn’t change. It was one thing I grudgingly accepted about her as long as she didn’t go overboard. If she showed any signs of anorectic behavior, I was going to tie her ass down and force-feed her.
“So, tell me everything,” Liza said as I was mopping up the last of the gravy with a sourdough biscuit. After I finished every last morsel on my plate, I plunged into a recitation summing up everything that had happened since I last talked to her.
“The damnedest thing is that nobody knows who the real target was,” I said, finishing up my narration. “It could have been me; it could have been Lydia; it could have been Eddie. Hell, maybe it’s Antoinette and she’ll be the next one killed.” That cheered me up as I watched Liza cut me a generous slice of the cobbler. As I had suspected, there was vanilla ice cream to go on top after she had nuked my slice to warm it up.
“I don’t think it was you,” Liza said, setting the cobbler in front of me. After I made a dent in it, I asked, “You don’t?” She shook her head emphatically. “I think the notes and the other stuff that’s happened to you is either misdirection or someone worried that you’re getting too close. It’s in that person’s best interest if the cops think you are the main target as then they’ll focus all their attention on you.” It was something Rafe and I had discussed, but hearing it from Liza’s lips made it sound more ludicrous. If it were true, someone was going to an awful lot of effort to make it appear I was the target.
“I don’t know what to do, Liza,” I said, sighing as I dug into the cobbler. It was really good, and I wasn’t about to let my melancholy get the best of me.
“Why do you have to do anything?” Liza asked reasonably. “It’s up to the cops, not you. Man, the last thing I want is for you to get your fucking head blown off or something. That would really suck, and I would be really pissed at you if you got yourself killed.”
“I don’t plan on it,” I said dryly, gobbling the cobbler as fast as I could. I felt lucky to have so many people in my life who wanted to cook for me as I couldn’t be bothered cooking for myself.
“Did you want to lick that, too?” Liza asked, her eyes laughing at me. “You know, I could just give you another piece.”
“No, I better not,” I said, pushing the plate away. “I’ll explode if I eat another bite. It was great, though.” I started to stack the dishes, but Liza waved me away.
“I’ll take care of that later,” she said, pushing back from the table. “I’ll put the water on for tea.” After we have our tea, we go to the living room. By an unspoken agreement, we spend rest of our time together talking about anything not related to the murders. I stopped at the hospital to get checked out by my doctor who let me take off the sling. By the time I got home, I was more than ready to just play. Rafe and I ended the night in a nice fashion.