Plaster of Paris; chapter two, part two

“I think that’s our job, Ms. Liang.”  A woman’s voice, husky, informs me.  I sigh heavily.

“Hello, Inspector Robinson.”  I don’t have to look up to know what I will see.  A tall, slender woman with blond hair that falls to her shoulders and light gray eyes.  Cheekbones to die for.  A woman I’m attracted to, but could never date.  I don’t even know if she dates women, but we have too much history to be bed partners.  She holds herself responsible for not preventing both attempts on my life, though there really was nothing she could have done.  When I do look up, I’m struck again by her fragile beauty.  She is much too delicate to be a homicide inspector.  “How are you?”

“I’ve been better,” she says levelly.

“We must stop meeting like this.”  My attempt at jocularity falls singularly flat.  “What are you doing here?  This isn’t a homicide.”

“Attempted, Ms. Liang,” Inspector Robinson says wearily.  “In addition, because of Mr. Frantz’s involvement in previous homicide cases, we are taking every precaution to ensure that this attempt is not linked to the prior ones.”  Sounds like faulty reasoning to me as both the previous murderers are indisposed of, but it’s not my place to say so.

“What can I do for you?”  I am less cautious with Inspector Robinson than I would be with another cop, but I’m still on my guard.

“I would like to have a few words with you in private,” Inspector Robinson says, glancing at Lyle who is paying no attention to us.  He is more interested in staring at the back of his hands.  Inspector Robinson motions with her head, so I stand up and follow her a healthy distance away.  She gestures for me to sit, and I do so reluctantly.  She angles a chair so it’s facing mine, then sits.  She stares at me for a minute before starting her questioning.  I have the uncomfortable feeling that my blouse is buttoned crookedly; the inspector has that effect on me.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see Vashti walk over to Lyle and sit next to him.  She must have been waiting for an appropriate time to approach us.  What a thoughtful woman.  I’m so intent on watching her, I miss what Inspector Robinson says.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”  I wrench my thoughts back to the inspector who doesn’t look pleased with my request.

“Where were you this evening?”  Inspector Robinson asks, her voice brisk.  I stare at her uncomprehendingly.

“You’re asking me for an alibi?”  Unreasonably, I’m wounded.  After the last two cases, I would think I’d be above suspicion, but obviously not.  I take a minute to compose myself before replying.  “I was at Vashti’s apartment.”  I nod at Vashti, and the inspector follows my gaze.  “She made us dinner.”

“Then what?”  Inspector Robinson is scribbling notes, but doesn’t miss the blush that spreads to my cheeks.

“Um, we were getting to know each other better when Lyle called me on my cell.”  I am strangely reluctant to give the inspector the gory details, though they’re fairly tame.  “Vashti drove me over.”

“How have you and Mr. Frantz been getting along?  Things tense lately?”

“You have to be kidding me,” I exclaim.  “I just gave you my alibi!  You still think I might have,” I stop as my eyes flood with tears.  My best friend is in surgery fighting for his life, and I’m being questioned by the cops.  “I love Paris.  I would never hurt him.”

“What do you know about Mr. Kingston?”  Inspector Robinson asks, abruptly switching subjects.  I remember this is one of her favored techniques, one I think of as taking scattered shots, hoping to hit something.  It takes me a minute to translate Mr. Kingston into Lyle.

I give her the bare facts about Lyle.  He owns a novelty shop on Mission.  He’s a workout freak.  He and Paris met at the gym Paris works at.  I give her my opinion that he’s a good guy, and that I like him.  She asks about his relationship with Paris.  I say they’re partners.  She wants to know what I mean by partners.  Business partners?  Life partners?  Her tone is even-keeled, and I get no sense of how she personally feels about the issue of life partners.  I tell her life partner, watching her carefully.  Even though I have ruled her out as a potential date, I can’t deny my attraction to her.  I ask her why she isn’t questioning Lyle about this, but she allows the question to sail right by as she continues interrogating me.

She wants to know how I felt that Paris had found himself a life partner.  Perhaps I didn’t like the idea and was jealous of Lyle.  I stare at the inspector, not happy with the line of questioning.  I retort that Paris is my best friend and roommate, not my lover.  I don’t think it’s necessary to clarify that statement with details of our past interludes.  I add that I am happy for Paris because he deserves a good man.  I tear up as I think of Paris, helpless, undergoing surgery and god knows what else.  Why the hell am I sitting here docilely accepting being questioned about my possible motives for offing my best friend?  If I had any guts, I’d get up and storm away.  Unfortunately, I know that’s not the ideal way to deal with the police, and Inspector Robinson is a fair cop, so I stay where I am and allow myself to be questioned.

“Mr. Kingston seems threatened by you,” Inspector Robinson comments blandly, scratching notes in her notebook.  “He seems to think there’s a history between you and Mr. Frantz.”

“There is!  We’ve been best friend half our lives.  It’s a different bond than a sex thing.”  I am getting tired of having to defend my friendship with Paris.

“He’s like a brother to you?”  Inspector Robinson suggests, quirking one eyebrow.  It’s disconcerting to have someone mimic your own gestures back at you.  I open my mouth, about to protest hotly, when I catch the glint in her eyes.  Inspector Robinson is making a joke; I relax in my seat.

“He’s more than family to me,” I say softly.

I pause a minute before deciding to tell her the in-depth story of how we met.  It’s indicative of our relationship.  I give her the bare bones how I was about to get beaten up by a gang of black girls because one of them thought I’d flirted with her man.  That was laughable as I was a nerd in high school, and the only thing boys wanted from me was my brain.  Nothing I said made a difference, however, and I was just resigning myself to an ass-beating when Paris showed up out of nowhere.  He knew the girl who claimed I stole her man, and he was able to charm her into leaving me untouched.  He even made her giggle!  It was disconcerting—as if Attila the Hun himself was giggling, but it did the trick.  Once the girl knew I was a friend of Paris’s, I was golden.  She never bothered me after that, and Paris and I became best friends.  I would do anything for him, and vice-versa.

“Touching,” Inspector Robinson says, not completely sarcastically.  “Why are you telling me this, anyway?”

“He didn’t have to stop.  He didn’t have to help me.  He did.  That’s the kind of guy he is.  I just thought you should know.”

“That still doesn’t preclude the two of you being lovers.”  Inspector Robinson is persistent; I’ll give her that.  I shrug and give up.  If she wants to believe that Paris and I are lovers, there’s nothing I can say to dissuade her.

“You going to have an officer guarding Paris’s room?”  I ask abruptly, changing the subject.  The thought of a killer waiting to get his or her second chance at my defenseless best friend turns my hands clammy.

“Yes, we are,” Inspector Robinson sighs.  “We can’t afford to, but we will.  No one not on the list will be allowed to see him.”

“Who’s on the list?”  I ask, sitting ramrod straight.  I damn well better be on it!

“His adoptive mother and stepfather,” Inspector Robinson says.  I wait for her to continue, but she remains silent.  When I look at her, she shrugs and says, “It’s a short list.”

“I’m on the list,” I say in a low voice.  I don’t want to get obstreperous, but I will not be barred from seeing my best friend.

“You are a suspect,” Inspector Robinson counters.  “I can’t put you on the list.”

“I am on the list.”  My voice is louder this time, and Lyle and Vashti turn to stare at me.  I pay them no mind.  “You can have your damn guard watching me every second I’m in there.  He can even sit in the damn room with me, holding my hand, but I’m on the list.”  I stare at Inspector Robinson, willing her to flinch.  She does.

“All right.  You are on the list.”  She scribbles a note to herself, looking disgruntled at the same time.

“Lyle, too,” I say.  In for a penny, in for a pound.

“Ms. Liang,” Inspector Robinson begins, but compresses her lips when she sees the determination on my face.  “Fine.  But our guard will be in the room at all times when either of you visit.”  I nod; I expect nothing less.  “Anything else you can tell me?”

“Oh, and my mother.  She’s like a mother to him.”  My tone brooks no argument, and she merely nods.

“That’s about it.”  I slump forward, the adrenaline rush subsiding.  Just as the inspector is about to leave, I remember something.  “Wait!”  She turns expectantly.  “Paris called to tell me he found out who his birthmother is, but he wouldn’t tell me over the phone.  He was going to tell me tomorrow morning.  He told Lyle, too, but not the name.”

“Thank you, Ms. Liang.  I’m sure I’ll be in touch.”  With that, the inspector strides towards Lyle and Vashti, beckoning to Vashti.  The two of them go off into a corner, and I return to Lyle.

We sit for a minute, exhausted.  Lyle is muttering under his breath about how it’s all his damn fault for arguing with Paris and where is the damn doctor, anyway?  A horrible thought enters my mind.  What if Lyle staged the fight to impel Paris to dash out of the apartment?  What if Lyle set up Paris?  I shake the thought out of my head.  I summon up enough energy to ask if Lyle’s called Paris’s mom, and he shakes his head.  He looks so stricken that I offer to do it for him.  He hugs me gratefully.  I don’t like Mrs. Jenson, but she likes me well enough and certainly better than she likes Lyle.  I think it’s because she entertains hope that I will turn Paris back to women.

“I’ll go call her.”  Squeezing Lyle’s arm for comfort, I hurry outside.  I flip on my cell phone and punch a number on my speed dial.  A month ago, Lyle and Paris were in Memphis because Paris’s baby half-sister died, and I talked to them every night.  I usually called one of their cells, but once in a while, I’d call Mrs. Jenson’s landline.  I never removed her number from my phone, thankfully.  I hate having to do this, especially so soon after she lost her daughter.

“Hello?”  It’s Mrs. Jenson, and her voice has lost all its color.

“Mrs. Jenson?  It’s Rayne, Paris’s roommate.”  I wish I had a cigarette to brace myself for the upcoming experience.

“Oh, Rayne.  I meant to call and thank you for the flowers.  They were lovely.”  I sent a bouquet for Mary’s funeral.

“That’s ok, Mrs. Jenson,” I say, stalling the inevitable.  She had written me a thank-you card, which was more than enough.  There is a pause as I think of the best way to tell her why I’m calling.  She displays no curiosity about it, which makes it that much more difficult.

“How’s Paris?”  Mrs. Jenson asks suddenly, as if realizing that it’s strange that I’m calling her out of the blue.  “Does he have more questions?”  The last time I called her like this, I asked her about Paris being adopted.  Initially reluctant to tell me the truth, she finally spilled the sordid story.

“Um, Mrs. Jenson?  Are you sitting down?”  I curse myself for uttering such a trite phrase, but it’ll have to do in a pinch.

“Yes, dear, I am.  Why?”  Her voice is no more than perfunctory, which alarms me even more.

Before Mary’s death, Mrs. Jenson would have been jumping down my throat by now.  I try to think of a gentle way to phrase what I have to say, but there isn’t one, so I plunge in.  I tell her that Paris has been in a car accident and that it’s pretty serious.  I stop after offering that information.  I want to see how she receives what I’ve told her before adding the rest.  I’m surprised Inspector Robinson hasn’t called her yet, but perhaps that’s next on the good inspector’s list.  Vaguely, I wonder if she’ll be mad at me for beating her to it, but I decide it’s her problem.  I can’t in good conscience not tell Mrs. Jenson that her only remaining child is in the hospital.

She wants to know the details, and some of the lethargy is shaken from her voice as what I’ve said sinks in.  I tell her what I know, which, unfortunately, isn’t much.  I don’t tell her that it was deliberate because I don’t think it’s my place to do so.  Mrs. Jenson starts keening and wailing which grates on my ears, but is better than the dead voice she had previously been using.  She starts chanting to God which is simultaneously irritating because I’m not a Christian and gratifying because she had renounced her religion when Paris’s sister had died.  Even though I don’t necessarily like what religion has done to Mrs. Jenson, and I certainly don’t like what it’s done by extension to Paris, I’d rather deal with the Mrs. Jenson I know than one I don’t.

I tune back into the conversation.  Mrs. Jenson informs me that she’s flying down today and can I pick her up from the airport?  I say yes, repressing a shudder.  I hate driving to SFO, but I know that I have no choice.  I also have no car, but I can use Paris’s, or worst comes to worst, Lyle can fetch her.  Or I can use his car to fetch her.  I’ll figure something out.  I give her my cell number and tell her to call me with her flight information.  Then I return to the Emergency Room.  I relay the conversation to Lyle who squeezes my hand gratefully.  We sit in silence, holding hands as the time crawls by.  Ten minutes later, Vashti returns sans inspector.  I wonder why Inspector Robinson isn’t questioning Lyle, but I dismiss the thought.  I don’t have the energy for it.

“That inspector is asking many questions,” Vashti says solemnly as she sits next to me.  “She is wanting me to give you an alibi, I think.”

“I hope you did,” I joke feebly, reaching for her hand as well.  I need all the human contact I can garner at this point.

“Most certainly,” Vashti retorts, looking impish.  “I am telling her that I was trying to get you in bed at the time.”  We both chuckle before guiltily glancing over at Lyle who isn’t paying any attention to us.

“Lyle, he’s going to be all right,” I say, hugging Lyle’s stiff body.  “I know it.”  Privately, I have my doubts, but I keep them to myself.  One of us has to be strong, and it isn’t going to be Lyle.  Vashti looks away uncomfortably, not wanting to witness something so intimate as shared grief.  She and Paris never got along, anyway.  “Vash, why don’t you go?  I’ll call you later, ok?”

“Are you sure?  I can stay if you are needing me.”  Vashti squeezes my hand, but looks relieved when I nod my head.  “Call me the minute you are knowing,” she says sternly before hurrying off.  Lyle and I sit in silence until my cell phone vibrates.  I hurry outside but am not in time to get the call.  It’s Paris’s mom.  I call her back.

“Rayne?  It’s Mrs. Jenson.  I was able to book a redeye.  I’ll be there at six tomorrow morning.”  I stifle a groan as she recites her information.  I jot it down, then tell her I’ll pick her up at the baggage claim.  “Is he going to be all right?”  She whispers, just as I’m about to hang up the phone.  I can sense her need for reassurance, so I tell her what she needs to hear.

“He’s going to be fine.”  I try to tell myself it’s not a lie, but I don’t quite make it.

“Thank you, Rayne,” Mrs. Jenson says, her voice filled with relief.  I hang up the phone feeling guilty, but I would have done the same thing given the chance to do it over again.  I rush back to Lyle to fill him in.

“The doctor was here.”  Lyle informs me, his face pale.  “They’re still operating.  Apparently, his insides got really messed up.  The doctor advises that we go home and to come back in the morning.”  We look at each other and simultaneously shake our heads.  No matter what time they’re done with Paris, we want to be there to hear the news.  “He did say he’d call us as soon as anything changed.”  Uh huh.  Neither of us buy that as we know how busy doctors are.  A little detail such as informing the patient’s loved ones of his progress would slip right out of the doctor’s mind.

“One of us needs to get a semblance of sleep,” I say softly.  “We have to pick up Mrs. Jenson in the morning.”  Unspoken is the assumption that the two of us will be picking her up.

“We’ll take turns sleeping,” Lyle says grimly.  I doubt either of us will be able to sleep much, even if we go home.  I glance at my watch, surprised that it’s only nine o’clock.  It feels as if several days have passed since Vashti and I were cuddling on her couch when in fact, it’s only been an hour and a half.

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