“Nah, we weren’t that close.” Maria shrugs and opens the door to her studio. It’s tiny but filled with riotous colors. The paintings on the wall are amateurish but quite good.
“Yours?” I ask, indicating the artwork. She nods happily as she gazes at her creations.
“I don’t make money doing it, but it’s my love.” She caresses the frame of a painting entitled, ‘Los Lobos Locos’, though there’s not a wolf in sight. I shrug. Paris has a few oddly-named pieces himself, so I’m used to it. “Can I get you something to drink? Some coffee, perhaps?”
“Orange juice if you have it,” I say. I’ve had enough coffee to last me a week. She disappears into the tiny kitchen after indicating I should sit on the futon. I slip off my shoes and sit, tucking my feet under me. She returns in a minute, sitting next to me. I feel the heat radiating off her. I inch away so I can make conversation without wondering what she looks like under her red dress.
“It’s too bad you joined the group now,” Maria says, handing me a glass of orange juice. “It was much better before, and not only because of the murders. What you saw of Ashley, she hasn’t been like that in months. I don’t know what set her off that meeting.”
“Tell me about her,” I say, settling back into the futon and sipping the orange juice.
The story is a familiar one. Ashley had come into the group with major attitude, looking to start fights. She jumped on everything everybody said, not waiting for someone to finish talking before attacking her. Even Carol fell victim to Ashley’s tongue-lashing. It got so bad, the group voted on having Carol kick Ashley out of group. However, Carol convinced them to give her one more shot, and the group did an intervention. Instead of striking out, Ashley listened to what they had to say before walking out the door. The group members were convinced that she would never come back again, but they were wrong. She was present the following week with her attitude in check. She still had strong opinions and verbalized them, but she was slowly being weaned off four-letter words and a hostile attitude.
“That’s why it was such a surprise when she jumped on you like that,” Maria explains, tossing back the rest of her coffee. “Maybe you remind her of somebody or something.” Or maybe she had found out something disturbing before the group and was displacing her anger; I happened to be an easy target.
“What do you think it was?” I ask. I don’t have much hope that Maria will know, but it’s worth a shot.
“She did say one thing before group the time before she was killed,” Maria says slowly. “We were talking about dating and she said everybody cheats, that it’s better not to trust anybody. When I asked her what she meant by that, she just repeated that everybody cheats. You know about her father, don’t you?” Maria looks uncomfortable relaying gossip, but it’s the Bay Area’s worst-kept secret that Mr. Stevenson couldn’t keep his pants zipped. It might be worth my time to talk to him. I nod encouragingly, hoping Maria’ll reveal more. “The thing is, I got the feeling she wasn’t talking about her father. I think she meant someone in the group, but I’m not sure who.”
“You have no idea?” I have difficulty keeping my voice even as her words confirm my suspicion that Ashley’s murder is tied to the group.
“None,” Maria shrugs. She sets her mug on the coffee table before leaning closer to me. “What are we talking about those murders for? It’s such a downer subject.” She takes the glass from my fingers and sets it next to her mug. “I can think of better things to do with our time.” I am disappointed as her lines and her moves are straight from a romantic comedy movie. I lean back slightly as she reaches for me.
“Maria, I’m not comfortable with this,” I say softly, placing a hand on her arm.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you find me attractive?” She pouts, leaning forward slightly to afford me a healthy glimpse of cleavage.
“I find you very attractive.” Despite my resolve, I feel the wetness between my legs. It has been a month since I’ve even felt the urge to have sex, let alone experience it. For a minute, I weaken. What would it hurt to have sex with her? Would it be so wrong to take what she’s blatantly offering? She must sense my ambivalence because she leans forward to kiss me. Just in time, I remember that she’s a suspect in the murders and more to the point, she knew both victims outside of group. I pull back and stand up.
“Hey, what’s the problem?” Maria’s eyes darken in anger. “You t’ink I had somethin’ to do with the murders?”
“I don’t know,” I say, fighting back my panic. “But I can’t, I’m sorry, I just—” I shove my feet into my shoes and flee from the room—not my finest moment. I race home, fighting the urge to look behind me. When I reach my apartment, I don’t stop until I’ve collapsed on the couch, feeling like a fool. I pull out my cell phone to call Maria to apologize when I notice that there’s a message. It’s Paris telling me to call him whatever time. Even though it’s ten o’clock which means it’s twelve in Graceland, I call.
“”Hey, Rayne” Paris answers immediately, sounding tired, but not as if he’s just been awakened.
“What’s up?” I kick off my shoes and curl up on the couch.
“My mother—she’s impossible,” Paris sighs, talking in a low voice. “She and I had our umpteenth fight today about my ‘lifestyle’—her word, not mine. I’m at the Holiday Inn with Lyle.”
“Good decision,” I say sympathetically. “Let the tempers cool down.”
“She kicked me out,” Paris says bitterly. I hear him inhale sharply and figure that he’s smoking. He only smokes three cigarettes a day, but I hesitate to ask how many he’s been through today. “What is it about us that we can’t be in the same room without fighting? You know what the problem is? Neither of us knows how to back down. We just have to keep pushing it until one of us snaps. This time, it was her.” He pauses, waiting for my response. Unfortunately, what he’s said strikes a cord with what Maria was telling me about Ashley, and I’m sidetracked. I recover before he can notice.
“That sucks, Paris,” I say sympathetically. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Go back tomorrow and try to talk to her,” Paris says. “Hopefully, she’ll have calmed down by then. What’s new back there?”
I take a deep breath and start regaling him with the happenings, not only to put them in some semblance of order, but to entertain him as well. I tender my theory that Ashley found out something about somebody and goaded that person until it got her killed. I’m pretty sure it’s someone in the group, but I can’t say for certain. I want to talk to Mr. Stevenson in order to see what he knows. True to form, Paris warns me to be careful, and I protest. Since I don’t see Mr. Stevenson as a suspect, I don’t really think I’ll be in danger just from talking to him. We drift from the subject of the murders to talking about Lyle who is having difficulty adjusting to the Southern culture. He’s sleeping, so I tell Paris to give him my love. We make kissy noises before hanging up the phone.
I flip on the television, but there isn’t anything on. I am restless, though I’m not sure why. I want to do something daring so I don’t feel so settled. I’m only twenty-eight, and yet, I feel decades older. I don’t enjoy going to bars by myself, however, and I usually find the company stultifying, anyway. I think about calling my mother, but I don’t want to bother her this late. I remember that I’m supposed to be keeping in touch with the cops, but I don’t feel like talking to either of them at the moment. I go to the kitchen and snag myself a beer. I wander to my room and turn on my computer—maybe I can find something interesting on the web. I sit and stare, without really seeing what’s on the screen. I decide to call Mr. Stevenson while it’s still fresh on my mind. It’s late, but that means I’ll have a better chance of catching him at home. I call the operator, but he’s not listed. Disappointed, I turn back to my computer. Might as well do some research.
First, I check my email. There’s one from Libby, which I ignore, and one from Vashti. I’ve shoved her to the back of my mind, and I don’t want to think about her. However, the provocatively titled ‘I am offering myself on a platter’ captures my attention. Against my better judgment, I open the email. It’s a beautifully-crafted poem about sorrow and regret that has my eyes reddened by the time I’m finished reading it. Vashti doesn’t make excuses for what she did—I have to give her credit for not dodging the bullet—but she repeats how sorry she is. She wants to talk to me; she can’t stop thinking about me; she’s tried to forget me by dating other women. At the mention of other women, a flash of jealousy overtakes me. I can’t believe I still have feelings for this woman, but I do. By the end of the email, I’m wavering on my resolve not to call her. She sounds sincere, and if there is purgatory, she has certainly put herself in it.
I hit the reply button, then cancel it. As much as I want to talk to her, now is not the time; not when I’m embroiled in another murder case. I stare at the screen, depressed by my lack of a love life. I’m not one of those women who thinks she has to have a partner in order to be whole, but I’m also not one of those women who scorns relationships. I view romance as the icing on the cake with life being the cake. Sex, however, is necessary to life, and it’s been too long—over a month—since I’ve had any of that. I’m not against one-night stands or sex for the sake of sex, but I have to be in the right space to indulge; I’m not in that space right now. I wonder if I ever will be. I shake my head to rid myself of those gloomy thoughts. There’s no point in worrying about it. I decide to go to bed early.
I call Inspector Robinson the next day, giving her the meager information I gleaned from the meeting without telling her what Maria told me after the meeting. I know I should tell her because it shows that Rosie had established a pattern of blackmail, but I don’t want to get Maria in trouble, either. There must be something in my voice, however, because Inspector Robinson asks me if there is anything else I’d like to tell her. She says it in such a way that it’s clear I better tell come clean. I reluctantly reveal that Rosie had tried to blackmail Maria, but I refuse to tell her about what. She can ask Maria her damn self if she wants to know, but she better not drag my name into it. I hang up, not feeling good about myself. I don’t want to be a snitch for the cops, but it doesn’t seem like I have much choice. I am in a bad mood all day, and my coworkers wisely stay away from me. To be truthful, they pretty much steer clear of me, anyway.
Saturday night, I am going stir-crazy. I hadn’t quite realize how much of my social life revolves around Paris. I have to get out of the apartment or I’m going to do something regrettable. I doll myself up, putting on makeup for once. I wear my shortest black skirt and tightest silver top, winking at myself before heading to the Lex. It’s eighties night at the Lex with the two bartenders looking like extras from a ZZ Top video. I fit right in with my glittery top. Women are dancing in a tiny space cleared by pushing back tables, and I throw myself into the mix after grabbing a gin and tonic. The first one feels so nice going down, I order another. By the time I’ve finished drink number three, I’m feeling no pain. I smile at the Latina mamacita who is giving me the once-over. She has curves in all the right places and is flashing a smile so bright, I can see my reflection in it. Her dark brown hair falls to her waist. She reminds me a little of Maria without any of the complications.
I grab her to me and start dancing to Culture Club’s Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?. Her hands slide down to my ass as we dance. I grab her ass in return, and we are really finding our groove. Somehow, her lips find the side of my neck, and she begins sucking as if she’s a teenage girl in the backseat of her date’s car. I tilt my head so she has better access. I squeeze her ass with my hands, feeling those firm, meaty cheeks tense under my caress. Her tongue trails its way down my neck and in between my breasts. I press kisses on the top of her head in encouragement. Other women around us are in various states of undress as well, so no one pays us any mind. By this time, my skirt is pushed up, exposing my thong underwear. The woman next to us whistles appreciatively at my ass. I wink at her before returning to the task at hand.
“I still can’t believe she’s dead.” A woman’s voice, thin and slightly reedy, pierces my hazy mind. I try to ignore it as I’m getting my fucking groove on—no pun intended, but the words refuse to leave my boozy brain.
“I can’t believe she was only seventeen,” another woman retorts, her voice thick and angry. “She played us for a fool.”
“I don’t agree,” the first woman objects. “She was really depressed that night.”
“She shouldn’t have been here in the first place,” one of the bartenders snaps, jumping into the conversation. “If Flo had been doing her job properly…” The bartender glares at her fellow bartender who glares right back.
“She had a fucking ID. What the hell was I supposed to do?” Flo’s voice is rich with contempt.
“Excuse me,” I say, the mood completely shattered. “You wouldn’t happen to be talking about Ashley Stevenson, would you?”
“Yeah, what’s it to you?” The woman who started the whole conversation, a short, stocky brunette with thick black eyeliner scowls at me.
“Nothing. I just knew her and was curious what she was doing here. It’s not her usual kind of place.” My innocuous words pays dividends. The four women immediately start babbling while my Latina drifts off to greener pastures. I watch regretfully as her ass sways away from me, but some things are more important than getting laid. I pull down my skirt, straighten my top and move to the bar. I am no longer drunk, though still somewhat tipsy. I can hold my own, however, so I’m good to interrogate. I buy a round, which makes everyone happy. The two women and I sit at the bar to talk; the two bartenders filling in what they can when they aren’t working.
“Me and Melissa felt sorry for her,” the brunette begins, shooting a look at her partner. “My name’s Jean, by the way. Yeah, we felt sorry for her. She reminded us of our daughter.” She pulls out the obligatory pictures with the obligatory story of turkey basters and such. Melissa is nodding and cooing as her partner talks.
“Casey, our daughter, is the same age,” Melissa says softly, patting her dyed blond pageboy self-consciously. “Ashley was sulking at the bar, so we talked to her.”
It was the Tuesday night I first attended the therapy group, about eleven at night. Ashley was sitting by herself at the bar drinking a rum and Coke. Once in a while, someone approached her, but Ashley rebuffed everyone. By the time Melissa and Jean had made their way towards her, Ashley had turned down at least five offers. She had a snotty remark ready before realizing that they weren’t hitting on her. When it was established that Melissa and Jean were a monogamous couple with no intention of seducing her, Ashley relaxed. She allowed them to buy her some bottled water in order to keep her hydrated. After chitchatting with her for about half an hour, she suddenly grew expansive. After demanding to know if they could keep a secret, she told them she was having suspicious thoughts about someone she liked. When they pressed her for more details, she clammed up.
“If only we had pushed her harder,” Melissa says sorrowfully, looking at me with rounded blue eyes. “Maybe she would be alive today.” I don’t say anything. While I believe their story, I also think they were trying to hit on Ashley, daughter or not. That taints whatever else they have to tell me, but I don’t let on what I’m thinking. I know I will get more out of them if I just let them talk, and I can sort everything out later.
The women don’t need much prodding. A second round of drinks for the four of them is enough to keep the information flowing. The two women—Jean and Melissa—are especially enjoying themselves. It is clear that those two love being in the limelight and have probably dined out on this story ever since Ashley was murdered. I don’t bother to remind them that there’s a killer running loose so they ought to be careful because I know their types. They thrive on danger and wouldn’t mind if a taste of it came their way. I could tell them that the last thing they’d really want is to be closely intimate with a killer, but they wouldn’t believe me. In the end, I sip my drink, shut up, and let them talk.