“Happy birthday, Raphael!” My mother said, beaming at Rafe. We were at Tiburon’s admiring the fish in the aquarium they had in the middle of the room. I liked the mood lighting and the subtle atmosphere. We were the first ones there, and the server graciously led us to our table so we could wait for the rest of the clan.
“Rafe! Happy birthday, man.” It was Hank, and he had a woman with him. The woman from the picture. Beth. She must have cancelled whatever other plans she had. “We’re keeping presents until after at the parents’ house, right?” His date waited patiently for him to introduce her, and I took the opportunity to discreetly look her over. She was more beautiful in person than in her picture, which was saying a lot. She had on a green dress that accented her red hair nicely, and a warm smile that was aimed at everyone. “Guys, this is Beth. Beth, this is my family.” He went around the table and introduced us as he and Beth sat next to our parents.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Beth said in a pleasant contralto. “Hank talks about you all the time.”
“Does he?” I murmured. I was grateful that he had introduced me as Trish and not as Dodo or Beezus or Beatrice.
“Oh yes. I am an only child, so I love to hear his stories of growing up with three siblings.” Her eyes rested on my sling, but she was much too well-bred to say anything. Hank leaned over and whispered something in her ear that made her look sharply at me. I smiled, and she reluctantly smiled in return. The chatter was light as we waited for the rest of the family. Next was Mona and Michele. They were wearing matching red dresses which looked great on both of them, but too precious. I hated it when couples dressed alike—I thought it was tacky. Though come to think of it, I was wearing my little black dress and Rafe was dressed in black slacks and a black shirt, so I shouldn’t talk.
“We’re not late, are we?” Mona asked breathlessly. “Michele couldn’t decide which red dress to wear.” She shot her lover a baleful glance which we all ignored. The two of them fought like cats and dogs, but wouldn’t have it any other way. They liked to fight and they liked to make-up, preferably in that order.
“Nah, Sis,” Hank said, draining his water glass in one fell swoop. The server scurried over to refill it. “We’re still waiting for Owen.”
“Funny, as we usually have to wait for you,” I quipped.
“It’s Beth,” Hank said, beaming at his girlfriend. “She’s a stickler about time.”
“Good for her,” my mother said under her breath. Again, introductions were given as we waited for the last member of the family. I hoped he wouldn’t feel out of place because the rest of us were paired off. It turned out that I needn’t have worried about that.
“Hello, all,” Owen said coolly, forcing a smile to his face. Conversation came to a halt as one by one, we realized that he had Sidney with him. What Owen had said about her was true; she had changed drastically since the last time I saw her. Then, she had short, punkish hair and wore clothes so tight and brief, they would have made Brittney Spears blush. And makeup? You couldn’t tell where her face ended and the makeup began. Now, she had her black hair pulled back in a classic chignon and her makeup was minimal. She wore a blue dress that covered all the important parts and several inches of her leg past her knee as well. This tramp had turned out to be a lady after all.
“Howie, what is this?” My mother asked, her face frozen in a fake smile. She couldn’t say what she wanted to because it would have been insulting. My mother wouldn’t be that rude to anyone, not even Sidney. I snuck a look around the table, and the faces that I saw were a study. My father had a neutral look on his face as did Rafe, Michele and Beth. Mona looked absolutely furious while Hank looked amused. I wondered what they would think of my face.
“I assumed everybody else would be bringing a date, so I brought one, too. You remember Sidney Wong, don’t you?” Owen stared at Mom defiantly, daring her to say something negative. Sidney surprised me by taking the bull by the horns.
“Mrs. Chen, Mr. Chen, it’s good to see you again.” Sidney addressed our parents, knowing where the real power lay. “I am so sorry about how I treated Owen years ago. It was abominable. I hope you can believe me when I say it won’t happen again.” What could my mother say? Nothing. She mumbled something under her breath and gestured for Sidney and Owen to sit down. The waitstaff had to scramble to find another setting, but they managed it with minimal invasiveness. Once everybody was situated, we had introductions one more time. This incantation of Sidney was also too well-bred to mention my arm, but Owen filled her in. She didn’t look askance at me which I appreciated.
Dinner was a relaxed affair as everyone put forth the effort to be gracious, even my mother. She seemed to realize that there was nothing to be gained by criticizing Sidney at this point, and Sidney really did appear to have changed. Mona refrained from glaring at Sidney which was good of her since Mona wasn’t one to hide her feelings, ever. It was simultaneously her strongest and weakest point. I could tell that Michele was doing her best to lighten Mona’s mood, and it was working. Soon, I wished everyone wasn’t quite as convivial because the discussion turned to me and my near brushes with death. Mona asked me how I was doing, and my mother took the opportunity to jump in and recount what happened the night before. I could tell by the look on Beth’s face that she didn’t know quite what to think. Michele didn’t change expressions as she was used to the shenanigans of the family, and Sidney didn’t overreact either. Predictably, it was Mona who reamed me out as I concentrated on eating my food.
“Dodo! What is it with you? Do you have a death wish?” I saw Beth mouth ‘Dodo’ to herself, but to her credit, she didn’t so much as smirk. “I thought you were going to be more careful.” She went on in this vein for five more minutes before I could interject.
“Mona, chill,” I said, striving to keep my tone light. After all the drama of the last few days, I didn’t want to make total hash of Rafe’s birthday. More selfishly, I didn’t want to think about the murder investigation for one night. I didn’t think that was too much to ask but apparently, Mona didn’t agree.
“Chill? My big sis is trying to get herself killed, and you tell me to chill?”
“Mona, zip it,” Michele said softly. By now, my mother was regretting opening her big mouth. She forgot about Mona’s tendency to take things over the top. It was Michele’s role to rein Mona in. Most of the time, Mona abided by her lover’s command, but not tonight.
“I’m serious, Dodo,” Mona insisted, throwing her napkin on the table. Beth was watching the action as if it were a football game. “You have got to stop doing this!” She glared at me, forgetting her delicious chicken with mango chutney while doing so. “Mona, this is not the time nor place. Let’s talk about it later,” I said, still trying to keep control of myself. I didn’t want to fight, but I was tired of being treated like a child.
“No, we’ll talk about it now!” I didn’t know why Mona was in such a bad mood, but I wasn’t going to listen to her any longer.
“Stop it, Ramona,” my mother cut in before I could say something I’d regret. “I shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place, but your sister’s right. This is supposed to be Raphael’s birthday celebration, so let’s put the family fireworks on the backburner.”
“Don’t stop on my account,” Rafe said lightly, forking in the spicy corn. “This is better than a movie, and I’m not paying a cent for it.” That broke up the tension, and Mona backed off from the conversation. We didn’t talk of anything else inflammatory for the rest of dinner.
“Can I get anybody anything to drink?” My mother asked once we were all safely ensconced in her living room. We shouted out our orders, and I went with to help her carry the drinks one by one. Once we made it into the kitchen, Mom put her hand on my good arm. I stopped, waiting to hear what she had to say. “I’m sorry, Beezus,” she said, shocking me to pieces. I could count on one hand the number of times my mother had apologized to me in my life. “I shouldn’t have brought up the shooting in front of the others. Forgive me?” Of course I did. That was a foregone conclusion. We hugged and had ourselves a Kodak moment before my mother brought up the truly salient question: Cake now or later? I thought later would be better, once we allowed our stomachs to rest. She had made German chocolate, Rafe’s favorite, and he would appreciate it better when he wasn’t stuffed to the gills.
“Rafe is going to open the first gift!” Mona shouted out when Mom and I returned. I paused a minute to look at the gathering and to my surprise, became teary-eyed. It was rare when we had the whole family plus love interests gathered in one room, and who knew how many more times it would happen? I smiled in genuine pleasure,
“Look what I go, Bet!” Rafe crowed, holding up a kick-ass black leather jacket. It had to be from my mother, and I could see that she was beaming at him. I felt a twinge of jealousy as she had given me Beezus and Ramona for my last birthday. Granted, it was a first-edition signed by Beverly Cleary herself, but still—it wasn’t a cool leather jacket.
“Very nice,” I said, sizing it up. It would look good on me; I predicted that I would be borrowing it in the future which cheered me up immensely. I looked over the rest of the gifts he’d opened and saw a gift certificate for the Electric Fetus from Mona and Michele. He enjoyed eclectic music, so that was a good choice. Hank had given him a calendar with half-naked babes lounging on classic cars—how typical of Hank. Rafe was opening up my ‘safe’ present to him which was the chocolates and the talisman in the pouch. He read the sentimental words I wrote for him in the card and smiled.
“I will wear it all the time,” Rafe said, slipping the pouch on around his neck.
“That’s not all, but you’ll have to wait for the rest until later,” I whispered into Rafe’s ear. He grinned mischievously and whispered back that he couldn’t wait.
“Cake time!” My mother said jumping up from her seat on the couch. She was genetically unable to have people in her house for more than a half hour without serving them. I didn’t know what she thought would happen if she didn’t serve food, but she wasn’t taking any chances. I followed her into the kitchen to grab plates for everybody. We hadn’t bothered asking who would take any because my mother refused to let anybody turn her down. The cake looked moist and oh-so-fattening as my mom revealed it to me. I could feel my hips expand just from looking at the cake, but I didn’t care. To make matters worse, my mother opened the freezer to get a carton of chocolate ice cream. She didn’t believe in cholesterol, no matter how many studies doctors did about it. I shuttled the ice cream and plates into the living room. My mother followed, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as she went, proudly bearing the cake. The whole family joined in as I set the plates in front of everyone and Mom gently placed the cake on the coffee table in front of Rafe, eight candles burning. Mom always used eight candles because she believed it was the luckiest number of all—it’s another thing my siblings and I had long ago giving up arguing with her about.
“Thanks, guys. This has been a great birthday.” Rafe smiled at everyone indiscriminately before blowing out the candles. I asked him what he wished for, but he told me it was a secret. I was about to pester him about it when I heard my cell phone ring somewhere in the distance. At least I would get out of handing out cake or scooping ice cream. I raced around trying to find it, but the person hung up before I could locate it. When I finally found it in my room, I had a message from Detective Bradley. I called him back.
“Ms. Chen?” His voice was formal as if we’d never talked before. “I have some information about a few of the people you mentioned. Mind you, I shouldn’t be telling you this, but, well, part of cop work is to protect the public, so I guess this would qualify.” My eyebrows nearly shot off my head at this concession. The cops had been such hard asses the entire investigation, I was beginning to think they were made out of stone. “You still there?”
“Yes, Detective Bradley. Go on.” I paced back and forth, gripping the phone with both hands. I heard the rustling of paper and assumed that he was checking his notes.
“Um, Carlos Bates, son of Phillip Bates.”
“What?” I was caught off-guard by this information. For some reason, I hadn’t connected Carlos and Phillip. Maybe Phillip was terrorizing me in the name of Carlos! I couldn’t wait to share my theory. Detective Bradley, wet-blanket that he was, immediately shot it down.
“The two haven’t spoken in ten years. Besides, Carlos has an airtight alibi both the day you were stabbed and the day you were shot at. He was a guest of the jail because he got in a bar fight.” Detective Bradley snorted as if it weren’t the first time he’d heard that particular story before.
“So he’s out of it. What about my stalker?”
“Kylie Sorenson. Locked up in the psych ward at the U. She still thinks you’re a goddess, by the way, and worships, quote, your nurturing breasts, unquote.” Detective Bradley chuckled, but there was very little mirth in it. I winced as I imagined the adjectives she had used to describe me and my physical assets to the stalwart detective.
“What about Shannon?” I asked desperately.
“Haven’t been able to track her yet. She’s not in jail or the hospitals. Don’t worry, we’ll find her.” I didn’t find much comfort in his words, but they would have to do.
“How about the park murders? You got anything on that?”
“Have a nice night, Ms. Chen.” Well, you couldn’t blame me for trying. I hung up the phone and went back to the living room where the party was breaking up. Everyone had eaten their cake, so I must have taken longer than I thought.