Chapter Thirteen; Part One
“Good evening, Ms. Yu. Or do you prefer Mrs. Milton?” I hold a hand out to the tiny woman in front of me, feeling like a behemoth as I do. She’s as fragile as a porcelain doll with her dead white skin and small hands. She’s wearing a sapphire blue dress that is high-necked and reaches her knees. Her abundance of hair is French-braided and wound around the nape of her neck.
“Please, call me Linda. I’m not old enough to be a mizz, let alone a missus!” Linda smiles, displaying perfectly white and even teeth. She holds out her hand, and I take it hesitantly. I don’t want to hurt her, but her grip is firm.
“Linda. I’m Megan. Thank you so much for seeing me.” I release her hand and step into the hallway. I take off my shoes and put on a pair of the slippers on the guest rack. I’m surprised someone who’s younger than I am carries out this tradition, but I don’t question it. Again, I’m glad I wore a simple black dress as I would feel underdressed otherwise.
“George Tsai. A name I haven’t heard in thirteen years.” Linda says, her voice frosty. “Until last week.” She breaks off and adds, “Let’s go to the living room so we can sit down while we talk. Would you like some tea and some chocolate roll?”
“Yes, please.” My mouth salivates at the thought of it. There are few desserts better than a Taiwanese chocolate roll, and I haven’t had one in ages. She shows me to the living room before disappearing. I inspect the room, not sure what to make of it. The walls are a pristine white, which indicates there probably aren’t any children or animals in the house. There’s a stillness surrounding us that corroborates my theory, and I don’t see any evidence of another living being. There are paintings of flowers on the walls—they’re watercolors and not really my style. I’m sure they’re expensive, though, because they are in gold frames. Everyone knows that you only put expensive paintings in golden frames. The room is mostly bare, otherwise. There’s no television or media center of any kind. There’s a bookshelf by the black leather couch, which is filled with business books. There’s no fiction or poetry that I can see, not even a memoir.
“Here we go.” Linda comes into the living room with a tray that has a tea pot, cups, and a giant chocolate roll on it. Plates and forks, too, of course. Linda sets the tray on the coffee table before pouring us each a cup of tea. Green tea by the smell of it. Not a favorite of mine, but I’ll drink almost any kind of tea. Except Lipton because that shit is foul. I thank her for the tea and watch as she cuts me a thick slice of the chocolate roll. I put my fork to it, and it’s so tender, it nearly falls apart. It’s delicious. Dark, chewy, dense, with just a hint of ginger. Linda sits on a high-back chair that is opposite the couch, and her posture is ramrod straight.
“Did you make this?” I ask, making sure to swallow first.
“Yes. It’s my mother’s recipe. She got it from her mother.” Linda is picking at her slice, but she’s beaming as I devour my slice.
“It’s delicious! You could sell it in a bakery.” I gobble down the slice, making sure not to chew with my mouth open.
“I’m glad you like it,” Linda says, a wide smile splitting her face. “Have another piece.” She cuts another slice and puts it on my plate, despite my protests. They’re not very convincing, I’ll admit, and I gracefully give in to her insistence. She waits until I’m halfway done before broaching the subject that brought me here. “You wanted to talk about George?” Her voice is even, but there’s a hint of longing as she says his name.
“Yes. It’s a long and convoluted story, but I’ll give it to you as precisely as I can.”
“Take all the time you need,” Linda says, sipping at her tea. “I don’t mind.”
“Thank you. It’s an incredible story, so bear with me.” Taking a deep breath, I begin. I start with him showing up on my doorstep pretending to be my father, then I wend my way through him ripping off my sisters and my inheritance, and I finish with him being recently run over. Linda listens without commenting, her eyes fastened on mine. When I’m finished, she finally speaks.
“George Tsai was an arrogant, narcissistic, self-important jerk. He was also the most exciting lover I’ve ever had, and he made me feel so special when we were together. I don’t know how much you know about our history together, but our relationship did not end well.” She looks at me, and I blush. I’m uncomfortable because I know things about her I shouldn’t, but I’m not going to lie to her about it.
“I know about it. I’m looking into who would kill Mr. Tsai, and your name came up in passing.” It’s not the whole truth, but it’ll do. I don’t see any reason to bring Mr. Liang into it unless absolutely necessary.
“You found out he seduced me after my parents died, and I gave him a lot of money for his project.” She closes her eyes and grips her teacup with both hands. I wish I could ease her pain, but I know there’s nothing I can do. She opens them again, and there’s anger in them. It doesn’t show up in her voice, though, as she continues to talk. “I’m sure you also know we had an affair, and I got pregnant.”
“Yes, I know all that. I also know what happened afterwards.” I want to let her know she doesn’t have to tell me any more if it’s too hard on her, but I’m not sure she hears me.
“I didn’t want to have the baby, but I was very pro-life at that time of my life. I was so young and stupid then.” Linda laugh, but there’s no mirth in it. A tear slips down her cheek, and she doesn’t seem to notice. “When I told George, he lost his shit, and I mean completely. He called me a slut and said it probably wasn’t even his.”
“The asshole!” I exclaim before I can censor myself. “I’m sorry he was such a jerk about it.”
“So am I,” Linda says, dropping her eyes. “When he accepted he was the father, he insisted I have an abortion. It was my turn to freak out, and I told him I wouldn’t. He refused to back down, however, and he made an appointment for me the very next day. He, um, he kept me with him and drove me to the appointment. I think the doctor was a friend of his because he wouldn’t listen to me saying I didn’t want the abortion.”
“Are you telling me he made you have it against your will?” I ask, my voice frosty. I am stridently pro-choice, which means I believe it’s 100% up to the woman what she does with her pregnancy. I grip the edge of the couch tightly, wishing it were Mr. Tsai’s neck instead.
“Yes, he did.” Linda bursts into tears, and I feel helpless as I watch her sob. I reach forward, grab her hand, and squeeze. She hangs on to my hand as if it’s a life-preserver and continues to cry.
“I am so sorry you had to go through that,” I say, my own eyes filling with tears. I can’t imagine the horror of being forced to have an abortion against your will, and I’m furious Mr. Tsai did that to her.
“It was the worst experience of my life!” Linda declares as she continues to cry. “Plus, I think the man who did it wasn’t licensed to do the procedure because I almost bled to death a day after the abortion.”
“I think it’s incredible you made it through that,” I say sincerely as I let go of Linda’s hand. I want to go back to eating my cake, but I feel it would be insensitive.
“Many of my friends thought I was crazy when I married Theodore,” Linda says, staring straight into my eyes. “They told me I was so young, why would I want to marry an old man like him? Other friends were sure I was just a gold-digger, marrying him for his money. They were right—and they were wrong.” She sips her tea before continuing. “I lost most of my money to George’s scheme, and I ran out of the rest of it in the year before I met Theodore. I was a woman with no prospects and no skills, and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. When I met Theodore, he was very frank about his proposal. He needed someone to take care of the house and his physical needs, including sex, and in return, he would see that I was well taken care of for the rest of my life.”
“It must have been a difficult choice to make,” I say neutrally. I don’t know what to make of her declaration other than it doesn’t seem to bother her at all.
“Not at all. Theodore is, was, a very passionate and erudite man, and I enjoyed his companionship tremendously. He was a gentle lover who didn’t demand very much, and I was happy I could be there for him in the end.”
“He was lucky to have you,” I say gently. “I’m really sorry for your loss.”
“Me, too,” Linda says forlornly. “I didn’t love him, but I was very fond of him, and the house is lonely without him.” I remain silent, respecting her grief. “Anyway, now I don’t have to worry about money for the rest of my life, so I can do whatever I want. I just have to figure out what that is.”
“You can take your time with that,” I say, feeling awkward at counseling her.
“Enough about that,” Linda says, wiping a tear from her eye. “You’re here about George. I’ve spent the last thirteen years putting back together my life after he shattered it, and then he has the nerve to show up out of the blue. I didn’t want to meet with him, but, well, he could be persistent. We met at the Cheesecake Factory by the Southdale Center because there was no way I was letting him into my house.”
“I don’t blame you,” I say, nodding my head.
“He gave me some sob story about how Richard and Scott scammed him out of his money and ours, but I had talked to both of them, and I knew the real story. Richard gave me back most of my money, which I invested poorly. This time, I hired a topnotch financial adviser who is making sure that I will be comfortable for the rest of my life.” Linda takes a deep breath and adds, “I didn’t tell George about my new marriage, but he knew about it, anyway. I’m sure he investigated me, the same way you did. When we met, he was all over me with a sob story about how he wanted to call me, but his bitch of a wife wouldn’t let him. He told me she found out about us somehow and threw a hissy fit.”
“Did he?” I ask, my eyes narrowing. I’m fairly certain that’s a lie, but I suppose I’ll have to confirm it with Mrs. Tsai.
“I called him a liar to his face. He didn’t like that at all.” Linda smiles, but it’s not a nice one. I don’t blame her as Mr. Tsai really put her through hell. “He tried to tell me about his plan to get his money back from Richard and Scott, but I didn’t want to listen to his bull. Finally, he asked me for some money, for old times, he said.”
“He did what?” I ask, my voice incredulous. There really is no limit to the hubris and chutzpah Mr. Tsai had possessed.
“He flat-out asked me for ten million dollars. Peanuts, as he called it. When I asked him what he wanted the money for, he refused to tell me.” Linda pauses, then says quietly, “It is with the utmost pleasure that I told him to go fuck himself. You should have seen his face when I said that. All of the blood drained from it, and he stormed out of the restaurant.” Linda laughs, and I laugh with her. I think he got exactly what he deserved, and I have no sympathy for him, even posthumously. Linda sips at her tea before staring me right in the eyes. “For the first year after George left me, I would have killed him without hesitation if I had a chance. Five years later, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to kill him, but I wouldn’t have spit on him if he were on fire, either.” Linda nibbles on her (first) slice of the chocolate roll, but it’s more a stalling tactic than because she actually wants to eat it. “Now, I feel nothing for him. That’s not exactly true. I pity him, and I despise him a little, but I made my peace with him the last time I saw him.”
“When was that?” I ask, finishing off my second slice of cake.
“The night before he was killed.” Linda rubs her forehead before continuing. “That was a few days after the Cheesecake Factory incident, and I was ignoring his emails because I just didn’t want to deal with them. Then, he sent one entitled, “Urgent.” I know, I know, but I couldn’t take the chance that he wasn’t lying.”
“You were trying to be a good person,” I say. “He was counting on that.”
“In the email, he told me he was dying, and he needed to make amends to me before he died.” Linda tears up, but she maintains her composure. “After the ordeal with Theodore, I vowed never to let anger get the best of me because life is too short. I agreed to meet up with George so he could make his amends. When we met, he begged my forgiveness, and I gave it to him. I also wrote him a check for a hundred thousand dollars.”
“What?” It slips out of my mouth before I can censor myself. “Why the hell would you do that?”
“It was for medical expenses!” Linda says, her face flushing. “His insurance wouldn’t cover it all! I know it sounds like a lot of money, and I know this sounds unbearably crass of me, but a hundred thousand is very doable for me.”
“Linda, I don’t know how to tell you this,” I say slowly. More to the point, is it my place to tell her? Maybe not, but who else will?
“What is it?” Linda asks, her eyes looking wary.
“Mr. Tsai wasn’t terminally ill. He made that up.” I keep my eyes on Linda’s face, and she can’t hide a wince from me.
“How do you know that?”
“His wife told me.”
“You can’t believe a word she says! She’s a liar!” Linda says vehemently. No matter how much she claims she’s over Mr. Tsai, she’s not. “Besides, she might not have known.”
“I’ll grant you the latter,” I say. It’s not as if I hadn’t thought it myself. “But, I think it’s more likely that he lied about it since he lied about everything else.”
“You’re probably right,” Linda says, her anger deflating. “I can’t believe I fell for it again!”
“It’s not your fault,” I say comfortingly. “He was very persuasive—it was his one talent.” A thought occurs to me, and I add, “I wonder what he did with the money. I’ll have to see if there’s any trace of it.” I make a mental note to ask Yuri about it, then focus back in on Linda.
“I wish he had just stayed away,” Linda says with a sigh. “Why did he have to come back again?”
“I don’t know,” I admit in a low voice. It’s something I’ve thought about quite a bit, but I still don’t know the answer. “Linda, I have to ask. Did you run him over?”
“No, I didn’t,” Linda’s tone is even, and her eyes stay on mine. There’s no twitch to her hands or her face, and I think she’s telling the truth.
“Thank you for meeting with me.” I stand up and extend my hand, and her hand is cool and dry in mine. She stands up as well, motioning me to follow her into the kitchen. She wraps the remainder of the chocolate roll in Saran wrap before handing it to me. “Thank you!” I say, tucking it into my purse. “I will certainly enjoy this.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more of a help,” Linda says, walking me to the door. I take off the slippers and put my shoes back on.
“You’ve given me plenty to think about,” I assure her.
“Maybe we could meet up again?” Linda asks, a hopeful note in her voice.
“I’d like that,” I say, much to my surprise. After another shaking of hands, I leave. I have so much to think about once I get home.