Plaster of Paris; chapter nine, part two

“If I am not knowing better, I would think you were avoiding me.”  Vashti’s husky voice causes the anger inside of me to melt into something much nicer.  I am practically deliquescing on the street.

“Sorry, Vash,” I say lamely.  “I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

“I understand.  How is Paris?”  Concern laces her tone, and I’m grateful.  I know she and Paris aren’t the best of friends, but she’s a kind-hearted woman.

“The same,” I say, my throat tightening.  “He’s still in a coma.”

“Oh, Rayne, I am so sorry,” she sighs.  “Is there anything I can be doing for you?”

“I’d like to see you,” I say impulsively.  I can’t spend all my time working on the case or at the hospital, or I’ll go mad.

“I cannot see you tonight, but how about tomorrow?  I’ll make you dinner.”

“Sold.”  Vashti is a fabulous cook, and I have no qualms about letting her cook for me.  We agree on seven o’clock, then I click off.  Immediately after, the phone rings again.

“This the cunt roommate of Paris?”  The voice is hoarse and ugly-sounding, not the same one as the one who’s been calling my home number.

“How did you get this number,” I demand, like an idiot.  Why on earth would he tell me that?

“Don’t worry about it, bitch.  Back the hell off before someone else gets hurt.”  Before I can respond, he hangs up on me.  I immediately press *69, but with little hope.  Just as I suspect; it’s scrambled.  I call Lyle.

“Hello?”  His voice is low.  “Rayne?  Let me call you right back.”  He must be in the hospital; they don’t allow cell phone conversations in most parts of hospitals.  He calls me in five minutes.  “What’s up?”

“That bastard or one of his friends called me on my cell,” I fume.  Lyle doesn’t ask which bastard, for which I am profoundly grateful.  “Told me to back off.”

“Your cell?  I wonder why he switched?”

“To show that he can get an unlisted number,” I say impatiently.  “There are very few people who have this number.”

“We’ll talk about it and more when you come here.  I talked to Bil—Matthews.  I cannot in good conscience call a guy over twelve Billy.  Anyway, get here as soon as you can.”  He clicks off before I can tell him I’m on my way.  I’ve run out of steam, so I hail a cab to take me the rest of the way.  The cabbie is an older white gentleman who calls me, ‘doll’ and ‘babe’.  I find it oddly enduring and don’t jump on his shit as I normally would.  He tells me about life as a cabbie, something he’s been for over thirty years.  He doesn’t believe the city’s become more dangerous—we’re just more aware of it.  He has a high school diploma, but never went to college.  Didn’t really see the point.  Got out of being drafted for ‘Nam because of his fallen arches.  He is sympathetic when I tell him about Paris.  Turns out he has a friend in St. Luke’s, too—a fellow cabbie.  The guy was driving his shift one day when he had a heart-attack.  He managed to drive to St. Luke’s since he was in the neighborhood before passing out.  Zachary, my cabbie, says his friend had to have a quadruple bypass, and wasn’t that a bitch?  I agreed that it was.  I give Zachary a healthy tip when I exit his cab in exchange for him cheering me up.  I stride to the ICU waiting room where my happy band of fellow sufferers are waiting for me.

“How are you doing, Rainbow?”  My mother asks me as I approach.  Lyle is slumped in the chair next to her whereas Mrs. and Mr. Jenson are absent.  My mother looks disgustingly fresh, which means she went back home at some point to shower and change.  Lyle, on the other hand, looks like he’ll never be well again.

“Ok,” I shrug, sitting across from them.  “I quit my job today.”

“What?”  Both my mother and Lyle look at me incredulously.

“Oh, Rainbow.  Why didn’t you tell me?”  My mother asks sorrowfully.

“No, it’s fine,” I say, quickly explaining what happened.  “The only thing I’m sorry about is Jamal.  He took it rather hard.”

“So you’re not staying much longer,” my mother says with a sigh.  “I didn’t think you would be.  What are you going to do now?”

“Be a housewife?”  I say with a smart-alecky grin.

“At least you have a few months to find something else,” Lyle says hopefully.  None of us mention that in the post 9/11 world, jobs are few and far between—especially in the nonprofit arena.

“It was time for you to go,” my mother decides with a nod of her head.  “I could ask around for you if you want.”  My mother sits on many boards, serves with various committees.  I have no doubt she could find me something, but I am uneasy about landing a job that way.  On the other hand, every edge helps.

“How about you sniff around, but don’t set up any interviews for me?  You just tell me who’s hiring, and I’ll take it from there.”  I offer a compromise which she immediately accepts.  We both know, however, that it will be nearly impossible for her to find out about who’s hiring without letting on why she wants to know.

“Matthews is on steroids,” Lyle blurts out.  My mother and I turn to stare at him.  “The client who got into an altercation with Paris.  He’s on steroids.”

“He admitted it to you?”  I ask skeptically.

“Not willingly,” Lyle chuckles.  “I talked to him about some weightlifting techniques, lulling him into a false sense of security.  Then I whammed him with the steroids question.  He denied it, but not quickly enough.  Besides, it’s pretty obvious.”

“What’s the big deal?  Don’t all weightlifters do it?”  I ask cynically.

“The big deal is, he’s entered Mr. Muscles of San Francisco which bans steroids use.  That doesn’t mean there won’t be any—but the WFL’s official stance is a ban on any performance-enhancing medication.”

“Viagra?”  I ask innocently, causing my mother to laugh and Lyle to sputter.  “What does WFL stand for, anyway.”

“Weightlifters for Life,” Lyle says reluctantly.  At the amused look on my face, and my mother’s, he become defensive.  “It’s a highly-respected federation,” he retorts to our unspoken criticism.

“I’m sure it is,” I say soothingly, avoiding my mother’s eyes.  I know if I look at her, I’ll lose it again.  Weightlifters for Life?  They need to change their name if they want street cred in the real world.

“Matthews became really defensive when I brought it up.  He almost attacked me in the gym.”  Lyle unconsciously flexes his muscles as he relates his tale.  “He had to literally talk himself down before he could finish our conversation.”

“Did you ask him about Paris?”  I ask eagerly.  This is the first person with a solid motive for killing Paris.

“Yeah, he tried to play it off like the fight wasn’t a big deal, but I could tell it still bothered him.”  Lyle perks up now that he has something to contribute.  “He wouldn’t tell me what it was about, but I found someone who overheard.  Said Paris threatened to tell on Matthews, and that’s when Matthews went berserk.”

“If the WFL bans steroids use, won’t they be testing for it?”  My mother asks, perplexed.  “How does this Matthew person think he’ll get away with it?”

“There are ways,” Lyle says grimly.

“I don’t know,” Mom says, shaking her head.  “It’s a pretty slim argument.”

“Look, he may not have been trying to kill Paris, but just pissed at him,” I suggest.  “Steroids make you angry and more aggressive.  Not a great combination.”

“Sure,” Lyle says eagerly.  “He’s driving through the Mission and sees Paris come out of my apartment.  Without thinking, Matthews runs into him.”  Lyle and I beam at each other, pleased with our scenario.

“Still pretty thin,” my mother says skeptically.  “But possible.”

“But the phone calls,” Lyle blurts out, despite the warning look I throw him.

“What phone calls?”  My mother asks, looking from Lyle to me.  With a sigh, I reluctantly tell her about the calls.  As I predicted, she’s upset.  “Rainbow Freedom Liang!  Why on earth did you hide this from me?  This means you’re in danger!  I don’t like it.”

I try to excuse myself by saying I didn’t want to worry her.  It sounds lame the minute I say it, and she is scornful that I even mentioned it.  She wants me to stop investigating and leave it up to Inspector Robinson.  Lyle flashes me an apologetic look before asking if it’s Matthews who ran into Paris, how does he know my numbers?  I am cross because of my mother’s scolding and reply sullenly that you can find anyone’s number these days.  My mother is quicker on the uptake than I and wonders how Matthews would know about me being Paris’s roommate.  It’s not as if Matthews was friends with Paris.  I shrug my shoulders.  I’ve been talking to people about him at the gym, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone mentioned me to him.  My mother points out that it still doesn’t explain how Matthews would get my cell phone number.  I am about to say something when the phone in question rings.

I excuse myself and trot outside.  By that time, the phone is silent, of course, but I see it’s Ursula who’s called.  When I call her back, she demands to know what I want, and her voice is taut.  I am nettled as she is the one who called me and not vice-versa.  I roll my eyes, though she can’t see me.  I don’t have time for this pussyfooting around.  She wants to know what I’ve found.  Her tone is imperious, though I hear the slightest slur.  I also hear the sound of ice tinkling in a glass.  I am caught off-guard by her question because I was not aware that I was to report to her.  This is not the gracious, charming woman whom I met a couple days ago; this is some harridan with her claws fully unsheathed.  I wonder what’s happened the last few days that has her in such a tizzy.  I wait her out.

She hisses, saying she needs to know.  The slur is more apparent as is the sound of liquid splashing on ice.  This is a woman at the end of her rope, and it’s not something I want to witness.  I bargain with her to tell me why she needs to know and perhaps I’ll tell her what I know.  I don’t see why I should be divulging my secrets without first hearing hers.  She is hissing again, and it’s not the most pleasant sound in the world.  I can’t understand what she’s saying because she’s so mad that only noises are escaping her, but it’s unpleasant to listen to.  I hold the phone away from my ear, looking at it with distaste.  I am so close to hanging up on her, but some obscure instinct tells me to wait her out.  I don’t say anything, gambling that my silence will push her to say something she might not want to let slip.  It works.

“I don’t have time to play games with you,” she snaps.  She is sounding more like a wet cat with each sentence.  “She—he, I can’t believe she—but what if he?  That tramp!  After what I did for her—so sick.  And him?  I thought—”  She stops mid-sentence, leaving what she thought dangling.  She inhales deeply, and the next time she speaks, her voice is calm.  “Rayne, dear, I’m sorry for being in a dither.  I have some information that might be useful, but before I tell you, please let me know if you have any suspects.”  Desperation reeks from her voice, making me suspicious.  However, I have no problem in handing her a sop.

“There’s a client at the gym where Paris works who got into a serious altercation with Paris recently.  Steroids.  Paris thought he was taking them.  He’s my best suspect right now.”  I sigh.  Ursula was supposed to be on Lyle’s list, but I might as well try to extract something out of her while she’s on the phone.  Dimly I remember some point I wanted to ask her about.  I rummage in my purse and pull out a scrap of paper with my notes on it.  I have written Max.  Max?  Oh yes.  Max, Paris’s ex-client who claimed to be Paris’s birthmother and knew specific details of his birth such as the handover happened in Tijuana.  The last thing Max said to Paris was something about secrets within secrets concerning his birth, that he’ll never discover the truth.

I ask Ursula what she knows about Max and at first, she is puzzled.  She mistakes Max for a man until I correct her, saying Max is actually Maxine Seavers, nee Bowers.  Ursula’s voice slides up a notch as she utters, ‘Maxie’.  Ursula wants to know what Max has to do with anything, and I bluntly say that Max was murdered a few months ago.  I am tired of Ursula’s drama.  She gasps, but I ignore it because the murder is not the relative part, and I don’t want to get bogged down in the details.  I’m more interested in the fact that Max knew about the circumstances surrounding Paris’s birth, which had to be more than a coincidence.   For a minute, Ursula doesn’t say anything.  When she finally does respond, her voice is so low, I can barely make out the words.

Maxie was a year ahead of Ursula in high school, or was it two?  Maxie was tough as nails, had a foul mouth and didn’t take shit from anyone.  She dressed in black and rimmed her eyes in black eyeliner—a Goth before anyone knew such a thing existed.  I am impatient with Ursula’s trip down memory lane and urge her to skip over the nonessential details.  I’m tired of talking to her, and I want to get back into the hospital to see how Paris is doing.  It turns out that Max is the one who knew how to ‘take care of the problem’, as Ursula puts it.  Since I’m disgruntled with her, I put it in plain words—selling a baby.  Ursula is defensive, saying she didn’t want to do it but had no other choice.  Turns out that Ursula had kept in sporadic contact with Max, the last time being a few years ago.  Ursula had told Max about finding Paris in San Francisco.  Ursula is pretty sure she never mentioned Paris by name, but I take that with a grain of salt.  I’m done with this conversation, and there’s one question I still need to ask.

“The last thing she said to Paris was that he’ll never know the true secret about his birth, that there are secrets within secrets.  What was she talking about?”  There is a pause, then Ursula swears under her breath.  I catch ‘bitch’ and ‘never should have trusted’.  “Ursula!  This isn’t a game.  What’s the story?”

“There is no story.”  Without preamble, she hangs up on me.  I immediately try to call her again, but she doesn’t answer.  I do some cursing of my own before returning to the waiting room.  Mr. and Mrs. Jenson have joined my mother and Lyle, and none of them look particularly happy.

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