“Change of plans,” Paris says cheerfully. “We’re walking you to group, having a cup of coffee or a beer at some Mission dive, then we’ll pick you up at nine sharp.” I want to argue, but it’s not worth the effort. I simply nod, and we’re off.
“How was the funeral?” I ask, needing to get my mind off the murders.
“It was hard,” Paris says, his shoulders drooping. “The casket was so tiny! It looked like a shoe box. My mom started wailing the moment she laid eyes on it and wouldn’t let up.” His face twists in remembrance. Lyle squeezes his hand on one side while I do the same on the other side. “Douglas kept shushing her. He was fucking embarrassed! Told her she was making a scene.” Paris sneers as he utters the last word. “I finally had to tell him to leave her alone.” Lyle puts his hand on Paris’s back and rubs. We walk in silence, reaching A Ray of Hope in fifteen minutes. Paris and I smoke just to have something to do. When it’s time, I give each of them a brief hug.
“Call when the meeting’s done!” Paris orders. Before I can respond, he and Lyle are gone. I shake my head in mock exasperation. I take a minute to look for the police, but I can’t spot them—they are that good. I go inside where the atmosphere is glum. The women are huddled in their chairs, not looking at each other. Sharise isn’t there, and I have a feeling that the group is going to disintegrate very soon regardless of what happens tonight. Jennifer is rocking back and forth and mouthing something, most likely a rosary.
“Good evening,” Carol says, her professional smile in place. “I know this is a difficult time for all of us, so I’d like to open the floor up to anyone who wants to speak.”
“Dis has gotta stop,” Maria bursts out, her eyes flashing. “First, Ashley. Den, Rosie, now her kid. Who’s gonna be next?” She throws back her head, but her voice is trembling. She can’t cover the fear in her eyes.
“Why were you on television again?” I ask, bringing up the question foremost in my mind. It has nothing to do with the murders, but I have to ask.
“I know it may seem cold-blooded,” Carol says carefully, looking at each of us in the eyes. Only Astarte and I return her look. “I want to help as many people as possible with their pain! This is a good opportunity to spread the word. I hate the fact that it’s death that gives me the chance to promote the clinic and my book, but I’m trying to make the best of a bad situation.”
“I won’t be coming any more,” Jennifer says, still rocking. “I can’t be a part of this. That girl, she was just a child.”
“Listen, please.” Carol raises her voice slightly, the smile no longer on her face. “This is the time when a group such as this is needed, when in the middle of a crisis. If you quit now, you may regress. Besides, Mariah’s death proves that the murders have nothing to do with the group. You’re all safe.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say demurely. “Maybe Mariah knew something about her mother’s death, and that’s why she was killed. Maybe she read her mother’s notebooks.” The silence is sudden and chilling; I have everyone’s undivided attention. For once, Carol isn’t scribbling in her own damn notebook.
“What notebooks?” Carol asks, her voice neutral.
“I’m not sure,” I lie. “Leticia gave them to me to peruse, but I haven’t had a chance to do more than glance. It seems that Rosie had a lucrative business going.” I am watching both Astarte and Maria as I make this pronouncement. Maria doesn’t betray any surprise, but Astarte jumps slightly. The friendly look in her eyes is replaced by a wary one. “There were a bunch of initials,” I continue, focusing on Astarte. This time, there’s no mistaking the look of recognition in her eyes. Despite the situation, I feel a surge of excitement. “And money amounts,” I add. Maria is nodding slightly as if I have confirmed her suspicions. Unless she is a great actress, she’s not the murderer.
“I think we are straying from the topic,” Carol says, her leg jiggling. She jots a note in her notebook. “Grief. Everyone must be feeling some right now.”
“Not grief,” Tudd says gruffly, her cheeks flushing. “Mostly fear. Who’s next? Not easy.”
“What’s not easy, Tudd?” Carol says, turning to look at Tudd.
“Not panicking. Couldn’t leave the house yesterday.” Looking exhausted, Tudd sinks back in her chair.
“Look, I really don’t want to be here,” Jennifer says, standing up. “I think there is a bad spirit here.” She stares at each of us in turn before hurrying out the door. I feel like we’re playing a game of And Then There Were None. Who would be the next to go?
“I think perhaps we should call a hiatus,” Carol says sharply. I think she’s peeved at losing control of the group. “For a few weeks at least. What does everyone think?”
“Good plan,” Tudd says, standing up quickly. Maria follows suit.
“I agree,” Astarte says, her voice quavering. She is a far cry from the vibrant woman of a couple weeks ago. I nod my head and stand as well. I go over to Astarte to question her.
“Hey, Astarte,” I say with a smile. “Have time for a cup of coffee?”
“No, really, I can’t.” I’ve never seen a black woman go pale before, but now I have. “I, I, I have to go.” She rushes away before I can say anything else. I’m about to leave when there’s a tug on my sleeve. I turn around; it’s Carol.
“Rayne? Would you come to my office for a minute? There’s something I have to tell you.” Her tone is concerned. I nod and follow her to her office.
“What’s up?” I sit down, waiting for her to sit as well. She shuts the door and fiddles with the knob. “Uh, can you open the door a little?” I hate having to ask, but I’m still not comfortable in small, enclosed spaces.
“What I have to say is private,” Carol says firmly. “I have to make sure no one can hear.” Finally, she sits down and stares at me.
“What’s up?” I look at her curiously, wondering what could be so important. Something on her desk catches my eye. It’s a business card. Rosie’s business card. What is Carol doing with Rosie’s business card? Suddenly, bits of what Rosie had written in her notebooks came back to me. Something about cleaning an office and hitting pay dirt. Carol’s husband’s last name. An entry in Rosie’s client book. When I look in Carol’s eyes, I see that she knows I know. I stand up, but I’m not fast enough. Somehow, she’s out of her seat and has a pistol pressed to my temple. Oh God, not again! I can’t believe it’s happening again! I flash back to the last time I was in this position, but force my mind back to the present. It won’t help to regress. Carol forces me to sit down again before exploding in rage.
“Why did you have to get involved?” Carol hisses through clenched teeth. “Why couldn’t you mind your own fucking business? I’ve had to take time out of my busy schedule to follow you, see what you knew.” Now that it’s too late, I’ve put together the pieces of the puzzles. Most of them, anyway.
“You’re C.T., aren’t you?” I blurt out, throwing caution to the wind. No use trying to play dumb, not when there’s a gun pointed at me. I try to remember what she’s being blackmailed for, but it’s slightly out of reach.
“Damn spic bitch,” Carol spits. She jams the gun against my temple before easing up. A white face flashes before my eyes before I can stop it. “I do her a fucking favor by letting her clean my office, and that’s the thanks I get? She blackmails me! How she found out I didn’t really have my degree, I’ll never know. Stay still or I’ll crack you across the head. Understand?” I nod stiffly, keeping my movements to a minimum. I couldn’t attack her even if I wanted to; my limbs are not under my command.
“Your diploma,” I say softly. She smacks me across the face with her open hand.
“No more talking unless I say so,” she snarls, backhanding me for good measure. After a considerable pause, she asks, “What do you mean my diploma.”
“She knows where you supposedly got your degree. It wouldn’t be hard to find out.” I cringe, waiting for her to strike me again, but she doesn’t.
“How did she tumble on to it in the first place?” Carol is thoughtful, stroking her upper arm with her free hand. I could tell her that I had my own suspicions of her educational background, but it doesn’t seem like a good time to say so.
“So that’s why you killed her,” I croak, forgetting I’m not supposed to talk. She quickly reminds me by punching me in the gut. A cry escapes from me involuntarily. For a therapist, she’s surprisingly strong. I strain my ears to hear the police, anything. Where are they? They should have seen the others leaving and come to investigate. I know I can’t count on Paris an Lyle for at least another hour and a half. By that time, I’ll be dead.
“You’re not so smart,” Carol sneers, pinching my cheek. I jerk my head away which causes her to chuckle. I can feel my lower lip beginning to swell from her earlier treatment. “No, she was blackmailing me. Two thousand a month. It hurt, but I could afford it. Just.” She correctly interprets the look on my face. “My husband’s a neurosurgeon.” I wonder how she explains the monthly two-thousand dollar bill. Shopping at Macy’s? “It’s her own fault she’s dead. If she had left it at that, I would have continued to pay. Instead, she demanded more money. Saw me with Ashley. Why the hell she was in Marin at that time of night, I don’t know. Greasers like her are all over the place.”
“Why’d you kill Ashley?” I brace myself for another hit, and she doesn’t disappoint. She punches me in the jaw—hard. Blood pours into my mouth, filling it with a warm saltiness.
“You don’t learn, do you? I thought you chinks were supposed to be so damn smart?” Carol laughs. “Enough talk. Time for action.” She presses the gun against my temple again, and I tense my body. The images of the last time are flooding my brain until I no longer know what is real and what is memory. I send out mental apologies to Paris and Lyle and my mother. I suddenly have a longing to see Vashti, to hold her and tell her I forgive her. Yes, she betrayed me, but it just seems petty. She did it out of love which covers many evils. I say goodbye to the girls and hope they’ll continue meeting. I wait for the gun to explode, taking half my head with it. Instead, I hear a huge sigh and feel the pressure ease up. Startled, I look up. Carol has the gun up in the air and a petulant look on her face.
“What am I going to do with you?” She tsks her tongue against her teeth as she contemplates me. “I can’t kill you here. Blood splatters, you know.”
“Like when you killed Mariah?” I croak through a mouthful of blood as it trickles out the corner of my mouth. I can’t seem to stop talking, which is probably not a good thing.
“See, you’re dripping already,” Carol says disapprovingly. I open my mouth to spit out the blood, but she closes it for me with a snap. I almost bite my tongue in the process. “Don’t you dare. I’ll staple your lips shut if I have to.” She would, too. I keep my mouth close, even though I’m choking on my own blood. “Get up.” She prods me in the chest with her gun. I carefully stand up, my body screaming at me. I should do something, but I can’t think of what to do. The blood is still seeping out the corners of my mouth. “Let’s go.” She has the gun in the small of my back as she walks closely behind me. She reaches around me, and a flutter of hope beats inside me. Surely, the police will be right outside. They aren’t. Carol is cursing under her breath as she hurries me along. She pushes me out the front door of A Ray of Hope with the gun still in my back.
“Freeze!” Suddenly, a dazzling light blinds me. “Drop your weapon!”
For a minute, it could have gone either way. Carol automatically moves the gun to my head, and time has stopped. All I can think about is how much I’m going to miss my friends and family. I won’t miss the job, though. My body is aching, my brain is frozen, and my feet suddenly feel encased in cement. I think Carol’s going to try to run for it with me as her hostage because what does she have to lose? I tense my muscles, ready to do what it’ll take to stop her, but my brain isn’t thinking. Carol’s tugging on my arms and pressing the gun, then suddenly, she stops. Pushing me slightly so I stumble away from her, she holds her arms in the air. I fall flat on my face, not particularly caring what is happening above me.
“Drop the gun on the ground! Do it now!” There is a cacophony around me, but I am blissfully unaware. The endorphins have kicked in, so I am feeling no pain. There is an inordinate amount of noise for a time, then blessed silence. I lie where I am, thankful to have everything stopped. I hear someone shouting, asking me if I’m all right. I can’t answer as I’ve lost the power of speech. Someone carefully turns me over. The first face I see is Inspector Robinson’s. To my disconcertment—and most likely, hers—I burst into tears.
“Call Paris,” I blubber over and over, blood burbling from my mouth. “Please, call Paris.” The other police hovering around look at me as if I’m an idiot—I want them to call France?—but fortunately, Inspector Robinson has met Paris and knows to whom I’m referring. “My cell.” She fishes it out of my purse and dials the appropriate number under my scattered directions. After briefly talking into the phone, she tucks it back into my purse.
“He’s on his way, Rayne,” she says gently. “Can you sit up?” I try, but am engulfed in dizziness. I am dimly aware that this is the first time she’s called me by my first name. I decide to lie there for a while. “An ambulance is on the way.”
“I want Paris!” I say, panicked at the thought of riding by myself.
“We’ll wait for him,” Inspector Robinson smiles reassuringly at me. A thought occurs to me.
“What happened to Carol?” I struggle to sit up, but the nausea prevents me from doing so.
“Rayne,” Inspector Robinson begins, then stops. Her colleagues are looking at her curiously. When she speaks again, a slight formality creeps into her tone. “Ms. Liang, Ms. Sayers is safely in custody; she gave us no additional fuss.” I can tell by the grim tone that Inspector Robinson half-wishes Carol had tried something so the good inspector would have an excuse to shoot her..
“Damn,” I swear softly. “I wish you’d shot her.” I’m shocked at what I’m saying, but I recognize the truth of it. It pisses me off that the person who is supposed to be helping me and others is the one who killed three people.
“Rayne!” Paris is running towards me, his face a mask of fear; Lyle is right on his heels. Both of them are tearing up the ground as fast as they can.
“Paris is here!” I say, a smile creasing my face—making me hideous, I’m sure. “Paris is here! Everything is fine now!” After repeating the phrase with immense delight, I pass out. I figure I deserve the rest.