There is very little to be gleaned from my conversation with Derek other than Rosie’s strong sense of morality which only makes sense in the case of her murder if her belief system was her excuse for carrying out blackmail. Asking for money from people she didn’t approve of to care for her child might have seemed like some sort of poetic justice to her. Derek and I part, and I meander home. My head is pounding from too much information and not enough evidence. How I wish I had Paris here to bounce ideas off him—him and Lyle. Speaking of Paris, there is a message from him on my cell phone which I have forgotten to turn on. He is put out because he had to find out about Mariah’s death from the news. I call him when I reach home.
“What the hell is going on over there?” Paris’s voice has regained some of the vigor it had earlier lost. “Who’s going to be next? It better not be you! Tell me everything.” I tell him about Mariah’s death and what little information I have gathered about it. I still don’t tell him about the second attempt on my life or the threatening note in my pocket because there’s nothing he can do about it from Memphis, and the last thing he needs is to be worried about me.
“Enough of that. What about you? How are you?” I want to think about something other than the murders for a little bit even though I’d love to get Paris’s take on it. It’s clear, however, that his mind is focused on the situation with his family, and I want to be a good friend and support him.
He is at his wit’s end. His mother is wigging out. Last night, she started screaming and couldn’t stop. She kept saying it was her punishment for lying to Paris about being adopted. She started pulling out her hair, and her husband had to pin her arms behind her back to keep her from making herself bald. I ask about Lyle, hoping to take Paris’s mind off a difficult subject, but apparently, that is a touchy area as well. Lyle is trying to be supportive, but understandably, is under tremendous strain as well. He is spending the day alone because he needs some space. While Paris can understand the need, it still makes him panic. Any whiff of abandonment throws him into a tizzy, and they had a fight about it before Lyle took off. Paris isn’t sure he can come back Wednesday after all with his mom in such bad shape and Mr. Jenson not being any use at all. He just sits around, scowling, exhorting his wife to pull herself together. I vaguely remember Mr. Jenson from when the Jensons lived in Oakland, but that was years ago. He was very phlegmatic; I remember that much. Seems he’s crossed the line into asshole-ness.
“I don’t mean to be flippant, Paris, but what about your mother’s deep relationship with God? Isn’t that helping her at all?” I am not a Christian, but I admire the faith that devout Christians have. I wish I were that certain of a benevolent force having a positive interest in me.
“That’s the worst part, Rayne! She’s renounced God. She spent a half an hour calling Him every filthy name in the book. I never thought I’d see the day when I wished she would spout Bible verses at me.” Paris stops. I hear a distinct sniffle. “I don’t understand how someone’s faith can collapse like that. It’s as if she thought because she believed in God, she was protected from bad things.” I wonder if that’s why Rosie quit church as well. Her son’s death certainly seems like a catalyst for the catastrophic events to follow. I shake my head to remind myself that Ashley had been killed first. I have a gut feeling, however, that Rosie’s blackmailing hobby plays a large part in this whole mess. What if she found out something about Mr. Stevenson and tried to extort money out of Ashley? A glimmer of something niggles at my brain, but I can’t force it to the forefront. I let it simmer, hoping it’ll develop on its own.
“People deal with their grief in different ways, Paris,” I say soothingly, but honesty compels me to add, “Though I’m sure it’s not good to pull out your own hair. Have you talked to her about seeing a therapist?”
“We are not people who resort to therapist,” Paris says in a sing-song voice, obviously imitating his mother. Or perhaps his stepfather. “We take care of our own problems, thank you very much.” I restrain a sigh. That is such a prevalent feeling, even in this day and age, and it’s so destructive. I’m not advocating therapy for everyone or for every situation, and I balked at entering it myself, but at least I intellectually realize that there are some problems I can’t solve on my own and it’s not a weakness to seek out help. “I almost punched my stepfather when he said he’d take care of my mother himself. He’s doing a shitty job of it so far.”
“Maybe you should check out therapists yourself,” I suggest. I don’t want to widen the rift between Paris and his stepfather, but it’s clear that his mother is not coping well at all.
“I have,” Paris replies. “I gave my mother the names of three top-notch psychologists in Memphis and she has the insurance through my stepfather to cover it, but he won’t even allow us to talk about it. He keeps saying she just needs some rest.” There is heavy scorn in Paris’s voice.
We chat a bit more about nothing in particular before hanging up. I feel bereft as the connection breaks, as if I’m never going to see him again. There is no one I’d rather be with than Paris in a time like this. He has been there for me through everything I’ve experienced, and I hate having to do this on my own. There’s one other person who would make me feel better, but she’s off-limits for now. I shuffle into the living room, sorting through the mail. I flip on the news, hoping to find out more about Mariah’s killing. She’s still the lead story, which surprises me. Don’t we have some obscure country we need to be bombing in order to ensure world peace? And to score some primo oil as well?
“The police have narrowed the time of death. Mariah was killed between two and six in the morning. Anyone with information is encouraged to call the police. There is a reward for information.” I can’t help but wonder what Mariah was thinking about when she was snatched from the house. I frown. How did the murderer extract Mariah without anyone hearing anything? Leticia was taking sleeping pills, but what about her husband? If Mariah was awakened in the middle of the night, wouldn’t she have cried out?
I sigh in frustration. Every piece of information seems to be a dead-end, rather than a springboard. I remember that Quinn is having dinner tomorrow with the woman who had hired Rosie. As much as I don’t want to subject myself to Quinn again, I know I’ll go. I wander through the apartment, feeling unusually forlorn. I think about calling up Lisa and going to the movies, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I flick through the channels, but find nothing of interest. Not for the first time, I contemplate canceling cable. What good does it do to have a zillion channels if they’re all showing crap? I turn off the television and decide to take a bath. Just as I’m sliding into the tub, the phone rings. I let the machine get it and continue soaking. When I am a total prune, I reluctantly get out. After dressing, I check the phone. It’s Leticia. Momentarily puzzled by how she had my number, I miss half her message. After remembering I gave it to her in the coffee shop, I rewind the message and listen to it again.
“Rayne, this is Leticia. I found something else in Rosie’s house. Please call me as soon as possible!” Her voice is urgent as she rattles off her numbers again, much too fast for me to catch them. Fortunately, I have her card in my purse. I call her back.
“Leticia? This is Rayne. I got your message. What’s up?” I wonder why she’s calling me instead of the police, but am not displeased.
“I found a notebook filled with initials and money amounts. I’ve gone over the totals. If I’m not mistaken, my sister has almost three-hundred thousand dollars stashed away somewhere. It’s not in her regular account. I already called Wells Fargo.” Leticia sounds like she’s barely keeping her emotions in check. “There’s also a key.”
“Safety box?” I ask immediately.
“Most likely. Again, it’s not Wells Fargo.” Leticia breathes loudly, a mixture of exasperation and pain. “Why the subterfuge? Why didn’t she just keep the stuff in the house?”
“Maybe it’s something she knew to be dangerous,” I reason. “She didn’t want to put Mariah in harm’s way.”
“Look what good that did her.” Leticia’s voice is laced with bitterness. It’s going to be a long time before she forgives her sister. “You have to help me. Let’s meet. Muddy Waters ok?”
“Now?” I squeak, my voice rising. I am exhausted, and I don’t feel like venturing out again tonight.
“Please.” She sounds like she’s at the end of her rope, so I acquiesce. I ask if it wouldn’t be better if I go over there? For privacy. She negates the idea, explaining that her husband mustn’t know what she’s up to. After a moment’s hesitation, I invite her over to my apartment. I don’t think she’s the killer, but how can I be sure? I give her directions to my place before heading to the kitchen to grab a quick bite to eat. Leticia is going to arrive in an hour. As I’m heating up a frozen dinner, I call my mom.
“Hello?” She sounds tired, which I put down to worry about me.
“Mom, it’s Rayne.” I let her know that Leticia is coming over. I tell her I’ll call her every hour on the hour, no matter how late the meeting runs.. If she doesn’t hear from me, she is to notify the police.
“Maybe I better come over,” she says in alarm. “If you don’t want me at the meeting, I can be in your bedroom or something.”
“Mom, no.” I don’t want to have to worry about my mother as well as me. “Just follow my plan and everything will be all right.” I wish I were as confident as I sound, but I must have convinced my mother because she gets off the phone without further protest. I spend the next hour trying to come up with a coherent plan, but my mind refuses to work. I give up and simply wait for Leticia to arrive, gin and tonic in hand. I want to be well-oiled before I talk to her. I call my mother again five minutes before Leticia is supposed to arrive, informing her to start the clock. I’ll call her as soon as the meeting is over or in another hour if the meeting is still going. She makes worried noises at me before reluctantly hanging up. Just in time.
“Thanks for seeing me on such short notice.” There are bags under Leticia’s eyes as if she hasn’t slept in years. I wonder if she took a sleeping pill last night, but there is no polite way for me to ask. She is lugging a large tote bag over her shoulder.
“Come in.” I usher her into my apartment. “Would you like something to drink?”
“Whatever you’re having,” she says, gesturing to my drink. She doesn’t take off her coat, and I don’t offer to take it from her. I fix her a gin and tonic as well as freshen my own, then lead her to the living room. She sits on the couch, not even looking at her surroundings. This is a woman who has been hit hard by life and isn’t prepared to fight back. I can tell she is in survival mode which means doing the minimal it takes to get through each day. I can well-relate to that. After draining half her drink in one gulp, Leticia slides the bag off her shoulder and opens it. Without saying a word, she hands me a little black notebook. If I didn’t know what to expect, I would think it was her address book. I flip through it eagerly, but the information is sparse. Initials with money amounts and dates. Rosie was keeping track of the payments from her ‘clients.’
“Let’s see how many there were,” I murmur, starting to count. She used first and last initials to designate each victim; there are fifteen in all. Some paid weekly—some every other week. Each ended up paying her two thousand dollars a month. The dates show that she started her lucrative business in June of last year. It’s now late February, and all her clients are paid up until the end of the month. That means nine months at thirty-thousand a month. Two-hundred and seventy thousand dollars. More than enough to pamper her remaining child with whatever material goods her heart may desire.
When Leticia sees that I’m done with the notebook, she draws out the key. It’s ordinary-looking—with the number 24C on it. It’s heavy in my hand. I wish it could tell us its secrets, but I put it aside for now. There isn’t much I can do about the key without getting on my computer and instigating a search. Leticia is watching me with an inscrutable look on her face. She is scrutinizing me for some reason. I hold my tongue and wait for her to make the first move. She must be satisfied with what she sees, because she dives into her bag again. In her right hand is a small, bound leather booklet with a tiny lock on it. In her left hand is a key. I look at the objects, not wanting this duty. Who died and appointed me God? I must have missed the memo that said Rayne Liang must poke her nose where it doesn’t belong. Well, some would say it’s my god-given talent and that I should put it to good use. I accept the diary and key, for that is what I’m sure they are. I fit the key into the lock and turn. I am right.
“Where did you get this?” My voice is even, but I have reverted to not trusting Leticia again. The way she’s producing evidence is too easy. Again, I can’t help but wonder why she hasn’t gone to the police with her booty—unless it’s all manufactured. Then it would make perfect sense that she’d want to stay as far away from the cops as possible.
“I told you! In her house! They wouldn’t let me go in for the longest time.” She sounds defensive, as if I’ve accused her of stealing something that isn’t hers. “Plus, I was too distraught to deal with it. It’s only after you started asking questions that I decided enough was enough.” I bow my head and reluctantly open the diary. It’s a dainty affair—more for decoration than for actual writing. Still, there may be something important within the pages—a woman is more apt to divulge her nasty secrets in a diary than to another person. I pick a date at random and start reading, just to get the flavor of her writing. When I think I have a good enough feel on her style of writing, I turn to the days leading up to her murder. Like her account book, she only uses initials in her diary. I find it hard going because she’ll drone on for pages about the eggs she cooked for breakfast, the number of dishes washed, which dog she petted on the street. She has no censor in her mind telling her to edit what she’s written. For some reason, she’s written in English. I look at Leticia questioningly. She correctly interprets my look.
“She liked to practice her English by writing in it. I keep telling her that writing doesn’t help with speaking it, but she doesn’t listen to me.” I nod and return to the diary. I don’t mention that Leticia is talking about Rosie in the present tense; I figure she’ll realize it soon enough.
Today is most special day. Is eight month anniversary of Michael’s death. How many months I count off before I forget? Already, I am forgetting his laugh. What will be next? Do I want to find out?
A.T. say she can’t pay yet. Say end of month, she come into some money, and I should wait for it then. Wait? Who does she think she is! She not so special. I tell her if I give her extension, I have to give everyone. Besides, she not need the money—life insurance. I am running a business. Is not good to be softhearted. She not happy, but what she can do? I sent her away.
Cleaning C.T.’s office paid off. She think I too stupid to know. Or care. She begged and she cried, but she paid in the end. She ask for a little favor, and why not? I get the money all the same.
Leticia came to see me. She not happy I no take better care of Mariah. I say, I feed her and cloth her. What more I have to do? Wipe her bottom when she poop? I’m done with that, thank you.
R.S. was a bad choice. He much stronger than was reported. He laughs at me. Doesn’t care if I tell. Who would I tell? Who would really matter? I was forced to give him up. Too bad. He would have been most lucrative for me. As is, I make much money.
I flip forward a bit. There isn’t much real new knowledge in the gobbledygook she’s penned. I think had she lived, she would have eventually been embarrassed by what she wrote in her diary. I zoom ahead to the last entry, which was written the day before she died.
This one, is very special. I play right, I no have to work rest of my life. Ten thousand dollars for first increased payment. Is fair for a life.
Was good group last week. I said it as I planned. Boy, did it work. She knew. She no like, but she knew. Is good I offered to clean.
That’s all she wrote, and I curse her for not being more specific. I also don’t know if the two thoughts are connected because she wrote each on a different line. It is clear that the former is in reference to Ashley’s death while the latter must be about the odd remarks she said in the last group she attended. I think hard. She said something about not sure she saw something she shouldn’t have seen, or something like that. I wish I had a better memory, but I know it’s no use to push it. It’ll either come to me or it won’t. If the two comments are related, then the murderer is, indeed, part of the group. I frown and return to the previous entry I had read, noticing the initials A.T. Life insurance. It might be Astarte.