I slip into the building. The receptionist is on the phone and she holds up her finger in a one-minute gesture. I look around me and spy a list of numbers on the receptionist’s desk. It’s the phone numbers for all the employees of the clinic. I don’t know how to snag it without her knowledge. She turns her back briefly and without thinking, I grab the sheet of paper. I walk quickly to the bathroom and lock myself in a stall. I scan the list to see if anything sparks my memory. I dismiss the men’s names outright which leaves me with twenty or so names. I concentrate on the last names and don’t see anything until I hit the ‘T’s’. There is a Leticia Torres. The name rings a bell. It’s the woman I saw interviewed on television, the sister of Rosie. The piece of paper says she’s an outreach worker. I snort at the catchall phrase, but I pull out a piece of paper and a pen from my purse and scribble her name and number down.
I return to the lobby where the receptionist is still on the phone. I slip the sheet back on to her desk without her noticing. I wait for her to get off the phone, thinking of a cover story in the meantime, hoping I don’t run into Carol. I am too wired to sit and wait, so I look at some of the reading material. There is literature for different social services, none of which seems very interesting. There are a couple of children’s magazines as well, and these are well-thumbed with pages missing. I look at the corkboard on the wall closest to the door. There are advertisements for roommates, for therapy with sliding scales, for safe places. I wonder how many of these services get used. Despite the unrelenting cheeriness of the place, I sense an underlying sadness which isn’t easily chased away. There is a woman in the lobby who hasn’t looked up once since I entered. A white woman with straggly blond hair, thin to the point of anorexic, with an eye so blackened, it’s swollen shut. She looks to be in her early twenties, but has already given up on life.
“Lou Ellen Barker,” The receptionist calls out in a clear tone. The white woman starts, jumps up from her chair and hurries over to the desk. Her voice is too meek for me to hear, but she’s ushered into the back office area in a manner of minutes. The receptionist turns her attention to me. “Ma’am. How can I help you?” Ma’am? I swallow my outrage at the form of address and smile at her.
“I’d like to see Leticia Torres, please,” I say with my best diction.
“Why?” The receptionist does not smile at me. She is a thin, black woman with exquisite cheekbones. Herr eyes are hard, however, and her lips are set.
“Um, it’s about her sister,” I stutter. I wasn’t expecting a hostile response to my request, and I’m thrown by it.
“Uh huh.” The receptionist is not giving an inch.
“Never mind.” I know that I am not going to budge her, so I don’t even try. Instead, I wait until I’m outside before whipping out my cell phone. Even though I detest people who talk in public on these things, I am forced to do so. I pull out the scrap of paper with Leticia’s phone number on it and call her.
“Leticia Torres, how may I help you?” Her voice is low, but professional. I can hear the sadness in it, but perhaps that’s because I’m listening for it.
“Ms. Torres? My name is Rayne Liang, and I would like to talk to you about your sister.”
“I have nothing to say about her. Good day.”
“Please, don’t hang up,” I say quickly. This may be my only chance to talk to her, and I don’t want to blow it. “I’m not from the press, if that’s what you’re worried about. I belonged to the same therapy group as your sister. I just want to know what’s going on so I don’t have to be afraid my life’s in danger.” I wait, knowing that nothing I can say will make a difference if she doesn’t want to talk to me.
“Where are you now, Ms. Liang?” Leticia Torres finally asks after what seems like forever.
“Right outside the clinic,” I say, breathing out in relief.
“Meet me at the Muddy Waters on Valencia in ten minutes,” she orders me. I have the distinct feeling that she doesn’t want anyone from the clinic to see me with her which is fine with me. I make my way to the Muddy Waters where I order a medium cup of decaf coffee (they have no small which seems to be a common trend these days. It puzzles me) and wait for Rosie’s sister to show up. I pull out a pad and a pen so I can scribble a few things to ask her, but I also keep an eye out so I won’t miss her.
Five minutes later, the woman I saw on television strides into the café, looking as different from her interview as possible. Here is the modern working woman who is in control. She is softly rounded with curly dark brown hair which frames her face and falls to her shoulders. Her face is devoid of makeup. Her large brown eyes scan the room and settle on me as I’m the only Asian in the place. She motions to the front of the café where she goes to get some coffee. I stare at her in interest, realizing that she’s younger than I first assumed. She is in her late thirties or early forties which means she’s older than Rosie, however. She is wearing a black skirt and a red blouse which complement her olive coloring. She turns and walks towards me, carrying a mug of coffee and some unidentifiable pastry.
“Ms. Liang?” She asks, looking at me quizzically.
“Please, call me Rayne.” I nod at her as she sets her mug and plate down, waiting until her hands are free before extending my hand. We shake briskly.
“I’m Leticia Torres, Rosie’s sister.” A spasm of grief mars her features, but she quickly smoothes out her visage. I can tell it costs her a great deal to keep her emotions in check. “Sorry,” she mutters, clenching her hands into fists.
“It’s ok,” I say softly. “I lost my father to a drunk driver ten years ago. The grief fades with time, but it never completely goes away.”
“I start talking, thinking she’s there,” Leticia say, her face crumpling again. “I pick up the phone to call her before remembering that she’s dead.” Leticia pauses to sip her coffee. “Did you know she had another child besides the one who got murdered? A seven-year old girl. I’m taking care of her now, but she keeps asking me where her mama is. What am I supposed to tell her?”
“I don’t know,” I whisper, tears springing to my eyes as well. “Times like this, words are nothing. I mean, it’s better for people to say something than to avoid the topic at all, but the words don’t help. Not at first.”
“Ah, it’s so true what you have said,” Leticia says eagerly. “So many people don’t talk about Rosie to me, as if she never existed. They are afraid it would be too painful for me to listen to their stories. You know what is painful? Not having anyone to grieve with. I’m so thankful my husband is willing to listen.”
“When my father died,” I begin, not sure I want to share the story but feeling compelled to do so. “Most of my friends came to the funeral. They would say things like, ‘Sorry for your loss’ or tell me to let them know if I needed anything. In the days to follow, they were great, but none of them would mention my father. Other than my best friend, no one dared say a word. Finally, a girl I didn’t even know very well shared a story about the time my father came to campus and she met him. It was the nicest thing she could have done.”
“You understand,” Leticia weeps openly, not bothering to hide her tears. “You truly understand.”
“Your sister didn’t say much in group,” I say cautiously, both because I don’t know how she’ll respond and because of confidentiality. “I got the feeling that she was more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.”
“That’s true. Rosie wasn’t a fast learner like me. She preferred Spanish to English.” Leticia smiles wanly. Her own English is only lightly accented in contrast to Rosie’s thicker accent. “She only spoke English when she had to, which wasn’t often.”
“She worked as a maid in Marin,” I say. “Wouldn’t she have to speak English then?”
“Just minimal. The people she worked for weren’t usually there when she did her work. She was more of a housecleaner than a maid. They treated her like she was furniture.” There is resentment in Leticia’s tone as she relays the information. It is obvious that she loved her sister, and I don’t know how to bring up the delicate subject of Rosie’s alleged snooping. I don’t have to as she brings up the topic herself. “My sister was always curious. She never said much, preferring to look and listen.” Leticia smiles at a memory before telling it to me. “Once, when I was a teenager, I came home from a date and was standing on the porch with this boy kissing. It took me several minutes to realize that Rosie was watching us through the glass on the door. I almost killed her for that one, but she didn’t say anything to Mama. She was seven years younger than me but already knew how to keep her mouth shut.”
“I heard that she found out things about her employers that they wouldn’t necessarily want her to know.” My approach isn’t delicate enough as Leticia takes offense.
“Are you accusing my sister of being a snoop? She wasn’t like that. It’s not her fault if those people left things out that were better off kept private. She didn’t go digging through closets or nothing like that. So she happened to see a letter or two. So what?” Leticia’s tone is combative, and I have nothing to gain by bringing up the blackmail angle. I make a note to ask Quinn to let me talk to her friend, the one who had used Rosie’s services.
“It’s just something I heard,” I say in a conciliatory tone. I don’t want to upset Leticia before we’ve talked things over. “Have the police told you anything?”
“No, not really.” Leticia’s temper flares again, but not at me this time. “They’d give me more of a runaround if my husband wasn’t a lawyer. The most I can get out of them is that there is a connection between Rosie’s death and that white girl’s death. Rosie worked for the girl’s father. He hit on her, you know. Rosie, I mean, while his wife was dying of cancer. Told her he could keep her in a nice house up there in Marin County.” She refrains from spitting but just barely. I wonder if this is a fairy tale her sister told her or if there is hard evidence of it. I can’t see someone of Mr. Stevenson’s stature propositioning his housecleaner. Then again, I don’t know anyone with a housecleaner, so I cannot gauge his attitude towards the hired help. He just may be arrogant enough to believe that anyone in Rosie’s position would jump to be his mistress.
“What did Rosie say to him?” I ask, keeping my skepticism to myself.
“She turned him down. She had her pride, no? What does she want with a man who was saddled with a dying wife? Rosie didn’t want to be any man’s kept woman. If she wanted that, she would have stayed with her daughter’s father. He was a corporate man, too. Head over heels in love with Rosie. He was married as well, but Rosie didn’t know until it was too late. He offered to put her up in her own apartment and to be on a generous allowance. She turned him down, too.” I sip my cooling coffee, digesting this information. What was it about Rosie that made her so desirable to men? She was pretty in that quiet way, but nothing stunning. Then again, I only have Leticia’s say-so that any of this happened. Third-hand information isn’t worth very much.
“Does your niece’s father have contact with her?”
“Mariah, that’s my niece, has never seen her father. When Rosie told him she didn’t want to be his mistress, he settled a lump sum on her and vanished from her life. It was a nice amount of money, but it only went so far.”
“Maybe Rosie kept in contact with him,” I suggest. “Maybe she asked for more money, and he took offense.”
“I told the police about him,” Leticia says scornfully. “They refrained from laughing at me, but just barely. They are convinced the two deaths are related.” Her shoulders droop a fraction as she admits, “They probably are; I just can’t see how. You didn’t hear anything in the sessions, did you?” I hesitate. I don’t want to divulge secrets, and besides, there is nothing of importance that I can remember. Rosie rarely talked in group, and Ashley talked too much, but not about herself. Now, if Jennifer had been found dead, I would have had my suspicions.
I finally tell her that there was nothing of importance in the two meetings I attended. She looks wistful as she says she just wants Rosie’s death to mean something. My heart aches at the naked grief on her face. I remember how it was, being unable to hide the pain. It takes years for that kind of emotion to fade, at least it did for me. I sigh as I finish my coffee. There doesn’t seem to be any point in further questioning Leticia. Anything I try to say about blackmail will be hotly contested, and it’s clear that Rosie didn’t share her secrets with her sister. I stand up to leave, and Leticia motions for me to wait. She pulls out a card and scribbles something on it. She hands it over to me; it’s her home number and her cell phone number. She wants me to call her if I find out anything. I promise that I will and scribble my numbers on a piece of paper in return.
“Thanks for giving a damn,” Leticia says, her eyes tearing up again. She stuffs the paper I give her in her purse. It’s dark and dreary out, and I pull my coat closer to me. Fragments of our conversations flit through my mind as I try to hold on to them. I should have taken notes, but I didn’t think of it in time. Besides, I hadn’t wanted Leticia to feel uncomfortable talking to me as I’m sure she would have if I took notes. The pertinent information is that Mr. Stevenson made a pass at Rosie while his wife was dying, if Leticia’s story is to be believed. What would he have done to cover it up? Is it possible that he had a hand in Ashley’s death and Rosie knew something he didn’t want her to know? This is starting to sound James Bondish to me. I’m not saying it’s completely out of the realm of possibility, but it’s highly improbable. I wonder if there is a germ of truth in the story or if it’s Rosie’s wishful thinking. It wouldn’t be the first time a domestic imagined herself the paramour of her employer.
I switch to thinking about her daughter’s father. Again, I have a hard time believing that a rich, powerful, married man would offer to set up Rosie as a kept woman, but that’s because the Rosie that I saw was only half alive. She was pretty in a washed-out way, but she wasn’t enough to catch an important man’s eye. Perhaps I’m unduly cynical, but she didn’t really have much to offer. Of course, men love to play Henry Higgins, and corporate men usually like to be one-up. I wish I had known Rosie for more than two meetings. I can’t stop thinking about what she had said about seeing things as a housecleaner in Marin County. I stop walking and frown. If the cops are right about the therapy group being an important part of the murders, Rosie’s comments during the last group could prove vital. Even if she wasn’t a blackmailer, someone overhearing those comments could possibly construe her as a threat. The key is to discover who else had a connection with Ashley and/or Rosie outside of the group.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” I sing out as I enter the apartment. I am feeling smug by what I have accomplished today.
“Hope you’re hungry!” Paris calls out from the kitchen. Lyle is sitting at the table, watching as Paris is cooking up a storm. “How was your day?”
“Interesting. I had a date with Quinn. Besides propositioning me for a threesome as a birthday present to her not-boyfriend, she imparted some important information about Rosie.” I plop down in the chair nearest to Paris. “Oh, my aching bones.” I sigh as I rest my feet.
“You don’t know aching bones until you’ve past thirty,” Lyle says knowledgably. He winces in exaggeration as he cracks his back.
“How old are you?” I ask. I know it’s not a polite question in America, but I feel comfortable around Lyle and know that he won’t mind me asking.
“Thirty-five,” Lyle says, smiling fondly at Paris who is concentrating on his concoction. “I don’t know what Paris is doing with an old stodgy like me.”
“He needs someone stable,” I counter, shooting Paris an impish look. “Before you, he had a tendency for chicken meat. Then he’d get bored.” Paris stops stirring to shoot me back a look of his own. Lyle laughs out loud and encourages me to tell him more about Paris’s conquests from his early years. Taking a deep breath and ignoring the warning looks Paris is throwing my way, I begin.
I regale Lyle with slightly sanitized stories about Paris’s time in high school; Lyle loves every minute of it. It transports me back to those days, which is not necessarily a good thing. Paris saved me from an ass-whooping by a bunch of tough black girls because they thought I stole one of their boyfriends. Not likely. I didn’t date my first guy until I was well into college as I was a nerd in high school. It was only after Paris befriended me that I gained any sort of status in high school. Sometimes, I wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t met Paris. I probably would have had moved out of state after high school, which might not have been a terrible thing. I smile. I can’t imagine a life without Paris, nor do I want to. I continue telling Lyle stories with Paris occasionally correcting me. The smells percolating from the pots and pans are making me salivate.
“What are you cooking, Paris?” I ask, getting up from the table to peer eagerly at his masterpieces.
“French onion soup, lasagna, a mess of greens, and few other things,” Paris says, frowning at his soup. He opens the oven to peek at his lasagna before gently shutting the door.
“A man who can cook AND knows how to work it off,” Lyle growls playfully. “You’re definitely a keeper.”
“And don’t you forget it,” Paris shoots back. It’s the first time I’ve heard him joke with a partner about permanency without getting freaked out. I consider it a good sign. I wonder if I could meet someone if I go to Paris’s gym. I doubt it as the women who attend are mostly straight.
The rest of the night flows by. I am comfortable around Lyle, which is a good thing considering that it looks like he’s going to be around for a while. He and Paris have that easy grace about them that couples acquire after a while. We decide to go to a movie, but can’t decide on which one to see. The boys tend to like artsy flicks whereas I could really do with an action film. They also like weepers which I am not in the mood for. Since the three of us cannot agree on a single film, we nix the idea. Paris tentatively floats the idea of going to a bar, but after being in one with Quinn, I have no desire to do that, either. Our talk naturally shifts to the murders. I fill the guys in on my conversation with Leticia, which I forgot to mention earlier, Like me, they are intrigued by the mysterious father of Rosie’s child and wonder if he might play a hand in the situation.