“The first time I met Brian, something zinged through me. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he felt the same way.” A faraway look came into her eyes and despite the serious circumstances, a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “After that, we made excuses not to spend time together, but Linda insisted. She wanted me and Brian to get to know each other, so we gave in for her sake. Every time I saw him, I felt the same pull.” Mrs. Rodriguez stopped.
“This is starting to sound like a romance novel,” I muttered under my breath. Even though I wasn’t as pissed at her, I had to keep up my role. “Can you fast-forward to the sex part?”
“One time, he came over because Linda knew that my furnace wasn’t working right. He’s a whiz at those kind of things, and Linda insisted that he see to it. I have no sons, you see, to do that kind of thing for me. She thought she was doing me a favor.” This time, the smile Mrs. Rodriguez produced was mirthless.
“When was this?” I interrupted, wanting a timeline.
“Four months ago,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, clearly irritated that I kept interrupting.
“Can I take it that your furnace remained broken?” I asked archly, baring my teeth. It was amazing how easy it was to rile this woman, and I watched in amusement as she flushed.
“It got fixed,” Mrs. Rodriguez said through gritted teeth.
“Would have thought that fucking your daughter’s boyfriend would have kept you warm enough,” I said, deliberately using profanity to provoke a reaction.
“Shut your filthy mouth,” Mrs. Rodriguez cried, leaning forward. Before I realized what was happening, she slapped me across the face. “Oh, my god,” Mrs. Rodriguez groaned, burying her face in her hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” It was a bit disconcerting to watch this poised woman completely break down. Rafe flashed me a look that told me to back off. I flashed him a look that said I’d do what I damn well wanted if it would get the desired results. At least, that’s what I hoped my look had said to him. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, with unspoken communication.
“Marie, are you sure I can’t get you a glass of water?” Rafe asked, looking at Mrs. Rodriguez with real concern. She shook her head. After gathering her thoughts, she finally looked up. Her eyes were wounded, and her skin was ashen. In short, she looked like hell.
“We fell in love. The very first time. Then I kicked him out and said I could never see him again. And I didn’t, for another month.” Mrs. Rodriguez drew in a long, quivering breath before exhaling loudly. “Linda was under the impression that I didn’t like Brian which was why I refused to do anything with the two of them. She kept badgering me to let them take me out to dinner or something. I finally gave in. It would have looked suspicious if I hadn’t. I cooked dinner for us.”
What had happened was that Lydia had gotten drunk that night, drinking more than usual. She was a mess, nervous about something or other, using alcohol to ease the pain. When Brian tried to stop her, she rebuffed him, saying that she didn’t need a daddy. When Mrs. Rodriguez stood up for Brian, Lydia had said that she didn’t need advice from someone who couldn’t hold on to her husband. In short, Lydia was acting bitchy all night long. After dinner, she passed out on her mother’s couch, which was more a relief than anything. Even though Brian and Mrs. Rodriguez fought valiantly, they found themselves succumbing to the passion once again. Lydia slept through the whole thing. Just as before, Mrs. Rodriguez kicked him out after.
“What about the night Lydia took pictures of you?” I asked, leaning forward in anticipation. We were getting to the crux of the matter, and I was curious to hear what Mrs. Rodriguez had to say—although her story had little bearing thus far on Lydia’s murder.
“Dumb luck, I guess,” Mrs. Rodriguez sighed. “Brian came over insisting that he had to see me. He took me out to dinner, then we went back to my place. I don’t know how she took the pictures, but that’s what happened.”
“Nice story, Mrs. Rodriguez,” I sneered, putting as much contempt into my voice as possible. Her head reared back as if I’d hit her. “Ingenious to put such a spin on it, but what about the other pictures? The ones of you and him in the zoo and dancing? That certainly didn’t look like the two of you trying to stay away from each other.”
“That had, it wasn’t….We just enjoyed spending time together. Linda doesn’t—didn’t—like the zoo or to dance. That, no, I mean.” Mrs. Rodriguez was flustered.
“And the kissing? That certainly looked enjoyable,” I pressed, wanting her to know I didn’t buy her story.
“You can’t help who you fall in love with,” Rafe said, shooting me a look. I wasn’t sure if the look was for Mrs. Rodriguez’s benefit or mine, but I was determined to get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth from Mrs. Rodriguez.
“You understand,” Mrs. Rodriguez said gratefully to Rafe. “It wasn’t a sordid affair, really it wasn’t. If it was just physical, I most certainly would have not followed through. But, it was, well, we were soul mates.” She blushed at the trite phrase, but stared defiantly at me, anyway. “We really enjoyed spending time together.”
“Why didn’t you tell Lydia?” I asked Mrs. Rodriguez. “If what you had was so holy and pure, you should have brought it out into the open.”
“We were going to!” Mrs. Rodriguez said, raising her voice. “You have to believe me. We just wanted to make sure it was…real.”
“When were you going to tell her?” I asked harshly. “After you were married?”
“Back off, Bet,” Rafe said, putting an arm around Mrs. Rodriguez. Just watching him made my blood boil. What was it about this woman that she brought out the protective instinct in men? “Mrs. Rodriguez is having a hard enough time as it is dealing with the death of her daughter. You don’t need to make it harder on her.”
“What if she killed Lydia?” I asked, keeping an eye on Mrs. Rodriguez. “What if Lydia was going to make a big fuss about the affair and Mrs. Rodriguez decided to take care of her?”
“How dare you!” The blood drained from Mrs. Rodriguez’s face. “You have the nerve to suggest that I would harm Linda!” Apparently, having an affair with Lydia’s boyfriend didn’t fall under the realm of hurting her.
“Or how about this?” I continued cheerfully, relishing my role. “Lydia confronted Brian about the affair, perhaps called him a few names, and Brian killed her. Mrs. Rodriguez is covering for him because she loves him.” That actually made more sense to me than thinking that Mrs. Rodriguez killed Lydia, but Mrs. Rodriguez didn’t seem to agree.
“Get out of my house,” she screamed, standing up suddenly. “I won’t have you making those kind of accusations against Brian. I won’t have it, you hear? He’s a good, decent, sweet boy and would never do such a thing.” I opened my mouth to say something, but Rafe quelled me with a look.
“Calm down, Marie,” Rafe said, making shooing motions at me at the same time. Begrudgingly, I left. I heard the two of them murmuring as I went, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I jumped into the car, rolled down the window and waited. Rafe came out a half-hour later. By that time, my shoulder was killing me.
“About time,” I said grumpily as Rafe got into the car. “We ready to leave, my liege?”
“Sorry for being so mean, but I figured I would get more out of her alone,” Rafe said, kissing me on the cheek. “What a piece of work.”
“But Rafe, you can’t help who you love,” I mimicked in a high voice. “Isn’t that what you said?”
“Funny girl,” Rafe laughed as he started up the car.
As he drove, he told me what had happened with Mrs. Rodriguez. She said that she and Brian were going to tell Lydia after another month if things went well. Neither of them had any idea that Lydia had known and both were mortified that she had gone to her grave without hearing the explanation as to why they did what they did. Personally, I didn’t think any reason would be good enough in her mind, and I wouldn’t have blamed Lydia for not wanting to hear it. If I were her, nothing would make me feel better after news like that. I didn’t know how Rafe was able to remain outwardly sympathetic as I had had a strong urge to grab her by the shoulders and shake. Sure, it’s not easy being a fifty-something year old woman, but there were better options other than chasing after a man twenty-some years younger, especially when that man happened to be your daughter’s boyfriend.
I switched my focus to Brian, wondering what the hell he got out of the relationship. Mrs. Rodriguez was an attractive woman, but not especially so. Lydia was attractive, too, in her own way, and more Brian’s age. I wondered if it had anything to do with older women being more grateful for the attention shown to them. I knew that in this culture where older men can date younger women without a murmur of protest but older women who date younger men were subjected to ridicule—see Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher—an older woman could be pathetically appreciative of any affection directed her way. I didn’t think that would be my feeling in twenty years, but who knew?
“We have to talk to Brian again,” Rafe said as he pulled into my parents’ driveway. “I’d be curious to hear his side of the story.” We snuck into the house as my parents were sleeping and crept up to my room. We started where we had left off when Mrs. Rodriguez had phoned me only to be interrupted again by my cell.
“Don’t answer it,” Rafe murmured, kissing my neck.
“It might be important,” I gasped groping for my phone. I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked up, anyway.
“Ms. Chen? It’s Detective Bradley. I hope it’s not too late.” The impersonal tone of the detective instantly cooled my ardor. I pushed Rafe away so I could talk to the detective.
“No, no, it’s fine, Detective Bradley.” I emphasized his name so Rafe would get the picture. Rafe sighed, but moved away. He slowly started stripping, causing me to swallow hard. He had a tight body from all the construction work, and there was not an ounce of fat anywhere. I enjoyed watching him strip, and it was making it difficult for me to concentrate on the phone call.
“We found Ms. Drake’s residence,” Detective Bradley said without preamble. For a minute, I was befuddled. Who was Ms. Drake? Then I remembered that it was Shannon, and I started sweating. Was this it? Could the killer have been caught? “Unfortunately, Ms. Drake is still nowhere to be found. It would appear that she is on the run.”
“That means she’s the killer, right?” My heart leapt. Even though I didn’t like the idea that she was on the loose, I wanted her to be the killer. It was worse facing an unknown entity, wondering who could be after me. Detective Bradley dashed my hopes.
“We can’t say at this time,” he said cautiously. “There was nothing in her apartment to indicate that she was the killer.” He paused, and I had the feeling that he was editing his thoughts before relaying them to me. “There is one thing, though, Ms. Chen, that I think you should be aware of.” My senses immediately went on alert at the tone of his voice.
“What would that be, Detective?” I asked, my voice quavering. He sounded so damn serious.
“It appears that Ms. Drake is obsessed with you,” Detective Bradley said, choosing his words carefully. “She has a shrine with many pictures of you. I don’t know how she got them, but I would suspect that she’s been following you.” Ice crept down my back at his words. How frightening was that?
“Um, thanks for telling me, Detective,” I said, my mind numb. “I should go now.”
“There’s one more thing, Ms. Chen,” Detective Bradley said, ignoring my attempt to get off the phone. This time, however, the pause was much longer.
“What is it?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know if it made the good detective think twice before telling me, but I needed to know where I stood. I clutched the phone, waiting to hear the worst of it.
“Every picture of you had the eyes poked out,” the detective finally said. I was sick to my stomach upon hearing his words.
“How?” I croaked, my throat dry.
“With a pin is my best guess.” The detective kept his voice even, probably in an attempt to keep me calm. It wasn’t working. I thanked him and asked him to keep me informed.
“Well?” Rafe looked at me in concern as I flipped my phone onto my desk. I walked to him and folded myself against his chest. He put his arms around me and didn’t push. When I felt steady again, I raised my face and told him what the detective had told me. Rafe’s face went stony as he listened to the details.
“So she’s out there, god knows where, doing god knows what,” I finished, my voice miserable. “I can’t believe she’s stalking me.”
“It sounds like we may have your would-be attacker,” Rafe said, rubbing my back.
“The detective doesn’t think so, but he told me to be careful.” I plopped down on the bed and withdrew into myself. The part about the eyes really bothered me, and I couldn’t shake the image from my mind. “Sorry, Rafe. This hasn’t been the greatest birthday for you, I know.”
“I’ve had a great time,” Rafe said firmly, sitting besides me. “Besides, we have all day tomorrow.” He kissed me on the cheek. “I think we should hit the sack. I’ll see you in the morning.” He kissed me again before standing up.
“Stay,” I said suddenly, pulling him back down on the bed. “I don’t want to be alone tonight.” Rafe studied my face a minute before breaking out into a wide grin.
“I’d thought you’d never ask. Though I wish it could have been on a happier occasion.” The smile on Rafe’s face made me wonder how close he was to asking me to move in with him. I dismissed that thought and prepared to go to bed. I had enough to think about—I’d deal with that in the distant future.