“Rise and shine, Rayne!” I hear a voice from a distance and desperately try to block it out. I lie very still, rationalizing if I act dead, it may leave me alone. “Come on.” The tone turns from cheerful to cajoling. “It’s after twelve, Rayne! Time to get your lazy ass out of bed.” It’s Paris, of course, and he’s standing over me. When I do not respond, he reaches down and rips the covers off me. I let out a shriek as a) I’m naked and b) it’s freezing.
“Paris Frantz! You give me back my covers!” I curl into a ball as I wait for him to comply. Instead, he hands me a pair of sweats and a sweatshirt while waiting for me to get up. When I realize that he’s a) not going away and b) eyeing my naked body, I quickly slip into the sweats. Once I am covered, I fall back into bed and ignore Paris.
“Vashti called. She wants to see you tonight.” Paris frowns as I make no movement to get up. “I’ll make you pancakes if you get up this very minute.”
“Chocolate chip pancakes?” I ask, my voice muffled from the pillow I have placed over my head.
“Yes, Ms. Sweet Tooth,” Paris sighs loudly. “Now get your ass out of bed.”
“Why are you so mean to me?” I emerge from under my pillow to gaze dolefully at Paris. “Why do you never show me any love?”
“I tried the other night,” Paris quips. “You rebuffed me, remember?” He waits until I sit up before slipping out of the room. I yawn as I contemplate going back to bed. I don’t understand why Paris has such a thing about me sleeping past noon. He considers it a great failing of mine that I like to sleep in. At least he didn’t shake his head sadly this time. I would have had to clock him one, pancakes or no pancakes. I shuffle out of bed and head to the bathroom. I take a shower, brush my teeth, the usual things. I wash my wound and put more gauze on it, best I can. It isn’t red or weeping, so I assume it’ll heal. I slip the sweats back on and go to the kitchen. It’s only Paris, so there’s no need to look my best. Besides, he’s wearing sweats, too, only his are gray and mine are black.
“Smells good.” The fragrance of the chocolate chip pancakes perks me up. There are few odors I like better than baked goods. Especially ones with chocolate in them.
“Pancakes a la Paris, coming right up. How’s the neck?”
“Come take a bite and find out,” I reply with a wink. Paris laughs, but stays focused on his cooking. I decide to call Vashti while he’s doing his thing and hunt down my cell phone.
“Hello?” As usual, her voice makes me think of molasses and honey, with blindfolds and gags thrown in for good measures.
“Vashti? It’s Rayne. Glad that you called me back. Sorry we’ve been playing phone tag. Can you believe it about Max?”
“No, it is not believable to me at all. It must be having something to do with Moira, don’t you agree? We must get together tonight and talk about it. There is something I must tell you.” Far from sounding like her usual confident self, Vashti actually comes across as uncertain.
“I’d love to see you,” I blurt out before realizing that isn’t the most appropriate response given the circumstances. We arrange to meet at Vashti’s place at seven that night. I look forward to it.
I return to the kitchen and sit down at the table to watch Paris cook. I know from long experience that it is useless to offer assistance as he prefers to do everything himself. We dish about Vashti, though I have no clue what it is she wants to tell me. Paris is glad that I’m getting a little something-something after sniffing around that tree forever. His words, not mine. I tell him we’re just friends, but he doesn’t believe me. He ladles three pancakes on a plate and hands the plate to me. I grab the maple syrup and dig in. I make moans of appreciation while he pours milk for the two of us. Then he serves himself four pancakes and sits down as well. I coo my love to him as we both wolf down the pancakes. The edges are slightly charred, just the way I like them.
We are silent as we concentrate on eating. One thing I like about Paris is that he understands the importance of feeding. After an appreciable amount of time, Paris lets it drop casually that he lost a modeling a contract with Banana Republic this morning. He doesn’t look at me as he says this, but I can feel the shame roll off him. Although the company didn’t say so, they thought that using Paris was bad PR what with Max’s death quickly following Moira’s. Even if Paris isn’t the perp, they don’t want their product to be associated with him. The agency tried to argue on Paris’s behalf, but ultimately, the customer is always right. I would think he could sue for some kind of discrimination; after all, he hadn’t been charged with anything. Paris says they were very careful how they phrased it. They never once mentioned the actual murders. Just spouted a lot of nonsense about how Paris doesn’t quite fit the image they’re trying to project and how it’d be better for everyone concerned if they chose someone else. No hard feelings and all that nonsense. Funny, they didn’t think that when they hired him in the first place.
Paris’s tone is even, but I know he is hurt. He is a professional, and it must bother him to be under this cloud of suspicion. I’m glad that my employers don’t know I’m involved. Nowhere in any articles am I mentioned as a possible suspect, unlike poor Paris. They would make my life miserable. Well, Alicia would, anyway. That heifer has never liked me. Secretly, I think she doesn’t like Asians, but I could never prove it. Paris gets up to make some more pancakes. He looks at me inquiringly, and I hold up two fingers. He nods and gets to work. I like having a live-in chef, and I don’t even have to pay him. It’s more than worth it to do the dishes in exchange for being fed. Paris finishes making the pancakes and sets my plate in front of me again. As I’m digging in, he drops his next bombshell. “I’m losing clients at the gym.” Again, he strives to keep his tone even, but doesn’t quite succeed.
I set down my fork, unable to bear what I’m hearing. Anyone who knows Paris would know that he had nothing to do with the murders. He points out that everyone says that. ‘He’s such a nice boy. I can’t believe he did it.’ Many of his clients are looking at him sideways as they work out. He even overheard two women discussing him in hushed tones. They immediately shut up when they realized he could hear what they were saying. I am venomous in my denunciation of them, but Paris is philosophical. He points out that we’d be doing the same thing if we weren’t so closely involved. Dishing the dirt, he means. Speculating who did it and so forth. In fact, we are dishing about it; we just know that neither of us killed Moira or Max. It doesn’t make me any more sanguine towards the women blathering about Paris, however; I got his back.
This conversation with Paris has convinced me that I can’t give up my informal investigation. I am not personally that affected by it, but it’s clear that Paris’s livelihood is at stake, not to mention his reputation. He won’t let on how much it’s hurting him, but I know it is. I don’t want him to suffer for something someone else has done, and it doesn’t look as if the police are any closer to finding the killer. It really is up to me to do something about it, no matter what Paris says. It’s the least I can do to repay him for his various kindnesses over the years. I know he doesn’t keep count of who owes whom, but I definitely have more debits in my column than credits. I am not a woman who likes to be beholden, so this is one small thing I can do to pay him back.
After breakfast, he has to go to the gym. I do the dishes and think about what I have, which isn’t much. To me, the main suspects in the killing of Moira and Max are Annie, Emil, and Billie. Peripheral suspects are the people I overheard talking about Moira at the party, any woman Moira has slept with in the last year, and Max’s ex. My list is meager, and the evidence is slim. I wish the case wasn’t so strong against Paris, but that can’t be helped. The only thing that comforts me is that I am sure he didn’t do it. I suppose I should consider myself an outside suspect, but I doubt even Inspector Robinson has me on her short list. Lack of motive or opportunity. Well, at least, lack of motive. If Vashti had been at the party, I’d have to add her to the peripheral suspects’ list. I’m relieved she wasn’t there. Besides Paris, she is the person I’d least like to be guilty. I have a feeling it’ll be easier to find out who killed Max, then work my way back to Moira. The way that girl got around, there must be a dozen women out there with a grudge.
I spend the afternoon reading articles on the internet about both murders. The articles on Moira speculate wildly on who might have killed her, but the stories on Max focus on Paris. They refer to him as her ‘trainer’, as if they suspect him of being more than that. I don’t know if the police leaked the information to the paper or if they found out some other way, but there are lengthy articles about Paris being seen leaving Max’s house, how he’s most likely the last person to see her alive. There’s even an article about how he was supposedly her lover. I shudder to think what the papers would do with the tidbit that he had slept with Max just hours before she died, that she threatened to call it rape when he got up and left. I know the papers would have a field day with that information. They already have the noose drawn around Paris’s neck and are just waiting for the cops to pull it tight.
I call up article after article, hoping to find anything to exonerate Paris. After the six or seventh article, I am discouraged. Not a single one doubts that Paris is guilty, as they take great pains to explain. They list all the reasons why he’s guilty, and not one has anything to say in his defense. I have to take a five-minute break to stop from feeling overwhelmed by the inevitability of it all. In fact, the case is so strong, I wonder why the cops haven’t arrested him yet. When I return to the monitor and start reading the next story, there is one tiny paragraph that catches my eye. I reread it to make sure I am reading it correctly. It states that a neighbor had seen a man fitting Paris’s description leave the house, then minutes later, the neighbor saw someone else enter the house. When questioned about the phantom person, the neighbor can’t say anything other than, ‘I think I saw someone go in that house, but I can’t be sure.’ Besides being old, the woman is blind as a bat without her glasses on. She doesn’t like to wear them for vanity reasons and wasn’t wearing them when she saw this alleged person enter Max’s house. No wonder most papers passed on this part of the story—the woman sounds like a loony. Either that or one of those people who make things up in order to get attention. As much as I want to believe she saw someone, I’m having a hard time doing so. I note her name and decide to go over there and talk to her, anyway. It can’t hurt, and I have nothing else.
“Mrs. Curtis?” I flash her my best smile. I’m wearing the one decent suit I have—Liz Claiborne—with a white blouse, gray jacket, and gray skirt that skims the top of my knees. I look pretty snazzy if I do say so myself.
“Yes?” She’s old. Not just elderly, but old. Seventy-five if she’s a day. Plus, she’s stooped over, which makes her just five-feet tall. She has to peer up in order to look me in the eyes. She’s so thin, the belt she’s wearing is loose, even though it’s notched at the last hole. Her white, fluffy curls are sparse, and I can see bits of pink scalp peeking through. Her voice, however, is surprisingly robust for someone of her frailty.
“My name is Monica Chan. I’m with the Chron. May I ask you a few questions?” I feel guilty for lying, but I have no way of knowing if she’d talked to me if I introduced myself truthfully.
“Come in!” Mrs. Curtis breaks into a huge smile and steps backwards. Her house is tiny, musty and dank. She has only one dim lamp on, and she feels her way into the living room. I follow her, taking in the depressing décor. She has nothing on her walls, and very little in the way of furniture. She has a bookshelf filled with Oprah-recommended books. They are all brand-new with spines intact. I would surmise that she buys them, but doesn’t read them. She stops so suddenly, I step on her heel. Ignoring my profuse apologies, she turns to face me. “Would you like something to drink? Some lemonade, perhaps?”
“Oh, please, don’t go to the trouble.” I am feeling worse about my deception as this sweet old lady smiles at me.
“It’s no trouble Miss—what did you say your name was again? You sit. I’ll be right back.” She stumbles off. Resisting the urge to run after her to make sure she’s ok, I sit on the puffy couch. There is a photo album open on the coffee table, and I leaf through it. There are pictures of her from her younger days, and she is a pretty, young woman with blond hair shimmering down to her waist. She is slim with an erect carriage. Her eyes are lively blue, not the faded cornflowers they are now. She is wearing cat-eyed glasses which accentuate the slight tilt to her eyes. There is a smirk on her face which seemed to say, ‘I know more than I’m letting on.’ In most of these pictures, there is a smart-looking young man with slightly buck teeth, a warm smile and dark hair slicked back. He has his arm around Mrs. Curtis’s shoulders and is looking at her as if he can’t believe his good fortune.
I flip forward a few pages. Next are pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Curtis, the latter holding a chubby baby in her arms. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Curtis are smiling in these pictures, and the mister no longer looks at the missus like she hangs the moon. Mrs. Curtis looks as if she’s holding back tears as she tilts the baby to face the camera. I watch as the baby grows into a surly little boy who never smiles as his picture is taken. When the boy is around seven, Mr. Curtis is no longer in any of the pictures. The little boy is the spitting image of his father except for the scowl on his face. There is not one picture of the boy where he’s smiling. Mrs. Curtis is trying to smile, but isn’t able to pull it off. I wonder what happened to Mr. Curtis and what happened to the little boy.
“Here we are!” Mrs. Curtis trips back into the room, carrying a somewhat tarnished silver tray laden with a pitcher of lemonade, two glasses, and a plate of homemade cookies. I can’t tell what kind they are, but they smell wonderful. Lemonade and cookies don’t mix, though. I hold my breath as Mrs. Curtis makes her way to where I am and sets the tray on the coffee table. She pours me a glass of lemonade, and I almost choke on the first sip. She has spiked it liberally with vodka, which she neglected to tell me she was going to do. I set down the glass and watch as she drinks a fourth of the liquid in her glass. “Ah, that hits the spot.” She wipes her mouth with her arm. “Nothing like a glass of lemonade.” She reaches for a cookie and starts munching. After a minute’s hesitation, I do the same. Chocolate chip oatmeal. Delicious. She finishes her cookie and brushes the crumbs off her lap. “What can I do for you, Miss?”
“Monica,” I say brightly, finishing off my cookie as well. “I just wanted to get your reaction to what happened next door.” I think it best to start with a general question, an easy question, and see where it leads. I pull out a pad of paper and a pen from my purse, looking at her expectantly.
“Terrible,” she says immediately. “I don’t understand it. This is not the Tenderloin. Things like that just don’t happen here.” Ah, suburban denial. Not in my backyard. Must be nice to bend the world to fit your perspective. “Of course, those two were lesbians, you know.” She drops her voice on the word ‘lesbians’ as if it has to be kept a secret. “It’s probably a lesbian thing, the murders.” I am tempted to ask what she means by that, but I don’t want to be here all day.
“You saw someone going into her house. Tell me about it.” I don’t want to lead her on, so I try to leave it open-ended.
“I saw two people,” she corrects me. “One, definitely a man. Went in, stayed for about an hour, left. He didn’t look too happy as he left. The second one came by not five minutes later. I couldn’t tell if it was a girl or a boy.”
“How long was the second person in the house?” I scratch notes on my notebook as fast as I can.
“I don’t know.” Mrs. Curtis shrugs, munching on her fourth cookie. I don’t know where she puts them. Maybe this will be all she eats. “I was tired and decided to lie down. I was up with the fairies all night long.”
“Excuse me?” I blink. “Did you say fairies, ma’am?” I am sure I must have misheard her.
“Yes, Missy. Fairies. They talk to me all night.” Her eyes shine as she elaborates. “There are three of them. A girl fairy named Aurora. She has beautiful auburn curls that waft down her back. She’s only a foot tall, and has two wee wings that flutter like crazy to keep her in the air. She waves a wand in the air, and the wand sprinkles glitter dust as she waves.” She pauses to moisten her lips with her lemonade. I take a healthy swig of mine as well. “Then there’s a boy fairy named Uriah. He has dark silky hair that always falls into his eyes. His wings are as big as he is. He’s the serious one.” Up until now, her voice has been matter-of-fact. When she reaches the last fairy, her tone shifts to something approaching awe. “The third fairy is a girl fairy with blond hair down to her little bottom. Her wings are just the right size for her little body. She never talks, but just stares at me with the bluest eyes you’ve ever seen. That’s why I don’t get much sleep, Missy, because I stare into those eyes for hours every night.” I sigh and set down my glass. No wonder no one but that one paper talked to Mrs. Curtis. She’s nuts. Certifiable. And yet, she sounded perfectly lucid when talking about the events next door. I decide to probe a bit more.