“Bea? Oh, I’m so glad I caught you,” she sobbed, making it difficult for me to understand her. “Please, can you come over again? I-I really need to talk to you.”
“I was just going to dinner,” I protested feebly, knowing that I’d cave in the end. Something about an older person weeping on my phone did that to me. I wasn’t going to go down without a fight, however.
“Please, I’ll order something in for you. Do you like Thai? I know of a marvelous place.” She was begging me, and I couldn’t be that hardhearted. I agreed to meet her in half an hour and let her know that Rafe would be coming with me. She acquiesced.
“I take it there’s a change of plans,” Rafe said, watching my face. I didn’t say anything but simply nodded. He sighed as he led me to his car. “Where to?” He asked as we buckled up. I told him and predictably, he wasn’t happy. It seemed as if our lives were being taken over by this case. We drove to Mrs. Rodriguez’s in silence, neither of us in the mood to talk.
“Thank you for coming,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, opening the door at the first ring of the bell. She must have been on the other side of the door just waiting for us to show up. Her eyes were reddened and puffy, and it was hard to look at her without feeling like crying myself. “Come in, come in.” She ushered us into the living room again.
“I went over to Linda’s apartment today. I-I had to clean out her things. I found this.” She held out a slim book which looked like a journal—which it was. Since she was holding it out to me, I took it. I flipped through it, feeling a pang at the sight of Lydia’s handwriting. “Read the last entry,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, her voice tight. I flipped to the last page, Rafe reading over my shoulder. It was written a few days before Lydia died.
I don’t know who to tell. There’s no one I trust. I don’t even know if I can believe my eyes. Did I see what I think I saw? Or was I deceiving myself as usual? Maybe I could talk to Bea about it, but I don’t know. I think I have to have more evidence before I talk to anybody.
I feel so alone. I know Brian is worried about me because I won’t talk to him, but I can’t help it. I love him, but he is so trusting. He believes everything he’s told—especially if I’m the one who told him. He asked me if I was having difficulties at work and accepted my answer at face value. He knows a little about Tommy, but only what I told him. He didn’t even question my story! What would Brian say if I told him about Eddie’s money problems? He’d probably tell me to keep my nose out of it, knowing him. Well, that’s not me. I have to do what I have to do—besides, Brian’s the one who—. If only I could bring Bea into it, but I can’t. The best I can do is leave safeguards in case anything happens to me.
“Do you see?” Mrs. Rodriguez said, her eyes shining. “She left messages for you. It’s up to you to find them.” This was a sticky situation. I wanted to comfort her, to let her know that I had found something in the mouse head, but I had promised the detective I wouldn’t. I glanced at Rafe who shook his head minutely. I sighed, wondering what would happen if I broke my promise.
“I wouldn’t know where to look, Mrs. Rodriguez,” I said, trying to placate her. “I’m sure the cops are—”
“The police,” Mrs. Rodriguez spat, wrinkling her nose. “They haven’t got a clue.” She was about to say something more, but the doorbell rang. “That will be the food,” she said, hurrying to the front door. Rafe and I lagged behind, uncertain of whether she would need our help. We found her in the hallway with a tall, good-looking man in his early thirties. He had a sad dignity about him that was touching. She reached up to embrace him as he held out a plastic bag filled with cartons towards her.
“Brian, I’m glad you could come,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, turning back to Rafe and me. “Brian, this is Linda’s friend, Bea and her boyfriend, Rafe. Bea, Rafe, this is Linda’s boyfriend, Brian.”
Brian MacDougal. So he did exist. I looked him over carefully. He was about six-feet tall with luxurious brown curls. His green eyes looked weary, and yet, he seemed calm. He had a cleft in his chin and a tiny dimple in his left cheek when he smiled. He was dressed in jeans and a button down white shirt with Doc Martens on his feet. His eyes met mine frankly as he held out his hand to shake.
“Bea, I’ve heard so much about you,” he said, his voice a pleasant baritone. “Too bad we have to meet under these circumstances.” After shaking my hand, he extended his again to Rafe. “Nice to meet you, too, Rafe. I’m glad that the two of you can lend support to Marie in her times of trouble.” After such a lengthy statement, he shut up as if too exhausted to continue. He glanced at Mrs. Rodriguez before quickly looking away; Mrs. Rodriguez didn’t appear to notice.
“Let’s go in the dining room,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, leading us into a room done in different shades of brown. Everything about her place screamed taste and class—I preferred my digs with a bit more personality. Mrs. Rodriguez busied herself getting plates and the accoutrements necessary for eating. Once everything was on the table and we each had a drink in front of us, we ate. Mrs. Rodriguez thoughtfully allowed us to dig in before saying why she had gathered all of us together.
“This is good,” I said before Mrs. Rodriguez could begin. “Where did you get it from?” I hadn’t had good Thai food in some time, so I dug in appreciatively.
“There’s a small Thai café just up the block,” Mrs. Rodriguez said with a strained smile. She ate a few morsels of shrimp before setting down her fork. She cleared her throat to get our attention. Once she had it, she said, “I don’t think the police are doing enough to find my daughter’s murderer. I think the four of us can do a better job.” Sensing our disbelief—or at least, mine—she hurried on. “I’ve been thinking nonstop about things Linda told me this last week, and I think if we put our heads together, we can figure out where to investigate for clues.”
“Marie, we should leave it up to the police,” Brian said softly, wiping his lips with his napkin. I had the feeling it wasn’t the first time he’d said that to Mrs. Rodriguez, and it wouldn’t be the last, either. They glanced at each other and seemed to be communicating without words. “I’ve been thinking about what you’ve told me, and I can’t think of where Lydia would have hidden anything.” Now, my guilt increased for holding back information, but I knew I had to keep quiet about it.
“Those fools,” Mrs. Rodriguez cried, her voice anguished. “That detective implied that Linda had it coming to her, that she deserved to be killed. No, he’s not looking very hard for her killer, I’ll tell you that much.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean it,” Brian said soothingly, patting Mrs. Rodriguez’s hand. “It must be so difficult to have to see death all the time. I’m sure one would become hardened after a few years.”
“The last time Linda came home, she spent a great deal of time in her old room,” Mrs. Rodriguez said abruptly, apropos of nothing. “She was acting so strangely that day. She told me several times that she loved me no matter what which is not like her at all. I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t tell me. I wonder if she hid something in her room.” All of this was said in a flat tone as if it were too much of an effort for her to speak.
“Why did she change her name?” I asked, also out of the blue. It’s been bugging me for awhile, especially since Lydia seemed to have been less than truthful in many things.
“She didn’t want to be known as a minority,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, flashing a vaguely apologetic smile my way. “That’s why she chose to use my maiden name as her last name. As for Lydia,” here Mrs. Rodriguez shrugged. “She thought it sounded more urbane and less common than Linda.”
“It suited her,” Brian said softly, his eyes moist. I looked at him askance. I didn’t mind guys shedding a tear or two, but not in front of almost complete strangers.
“I think you should search her room,” Mrs. Rodriguez said firmly, looking at me. “Then I think you should search her apartment. You might be able to find something I’ve missed.”
“Mrs. Rodriguez—” I began, but she interrupted me.
“Marie, please.” I wondered why it hadn’t been ‘Marie’ last time, but I didn’t think about it too hard.
“Marie,” I acquiesced with a slight nod. “If you don’t mind my asking, why me? I mean, surely Lydia must have had a closer friend who would be more appropriate to ask.” Marie didn’t answer for a minute, looking down at her lap. She said something so softly, I couldn’t hear her. Apparently, Brian did because he answered instead.
“You have to understand, Bea,” he said earnestly. “Lydia was a fabulous girl, but she was—difficult to get to know. Other girls didn’t like her.”
“They were jealous,” Marie burst out, apparently regaining her strength. “She was so talented, so beautiful, so special.” The tears started rolling down her face again, but she made no attempt to stem them. Brian reached over and patted her hand again until she quieted down. Something about them reminded me of families—they had that easy familiarity with each other. Once Marie had control over herself again, she looked up at me with a pleading look in her eyes. “She talked about you all the time. She liked you a lot. Even if you did make a play for her boyfriend—before Brian.” I choked at that.
“I never did!” I said indignantly. Not only did it bother me that she lied about me; it offended me to think that she had spread rumors that I would stoop so low. I didn’t need to poach other people’s property, nor did I consider it sporting to do so. Ok, that one time with Aaron, but that was it.
“Oh, I should have known that was one of her tales,” Marie sighed, her shoulders sagging. She looked so defeated, I floundered for something reassuring to say.
“To be perfectly honest, Marie, we weren’t that close. We joked around at the park and had drinks after once in a while, but that was it.” Ok, that wasn’t very reassuring, but I didn’t know what else to say. Plus, I was still mad Lydia had lied about me hitting on her boyfriend before Brian. I had never even met her boyfriend, so how could I hit on him? I banished the thought and focused on the conversation.
“To Linda, that would constitute a close friend,” Marie said sadly, twisting her napkin in her lap. “She was lucky to have Brian.” She smiled wanly at Brian who smiled wanly right back at her. The two of them were in pretty sad condition. I know, I know, they had just lost a loved one, but it seemed to me that their dishrag personalities were endogenous and hadn’t sprung up from this recent tragedy.
“Marie, what can we do to help?” Rafe asked, his voice gentle.
“I really would like it if you and Bea would check Linda’s room,” Marie said, her voice tremulous. “And her apartment. I went into the latter, but—I couldn’t stand it.” Both she and Brian looked at us pleadingly. With a small sigh, I nodded. Something in me didn’t want to go through Lydia’s stuff now that she was dead, but I couldn’t say no. Not to a grieving mother and boyfriend. I cursed myself for being a patsy. After dinner, Rafe and I went to Lydia’s room to see what we might find.
“I hate this,” I grumbled to Rafe once we were out of earshot. Rafe didn’t answer, but started looking through Lydia’s things. Or rather, Linda’s thing as this was pre-Lydia. Rafe was desultory in his search, looking here and there. There was a perplexed look on his face which I didn’t understand. “What’s up?” I asked, looking concerned. Rafe was an affable guy who rarely looked as he did now.
“Do you get the feeling we’re being set up?” He asked, pulling out a drawer from Lydia’s old dresser. There’s nothing in it, so he moved onto the next one.
“By whom? By Marie?” I asked, my voice incredulous. “Why would she do that?”
“Why would she ask us to help her?” He countered, pulling out the third drawer. From it, he pulled out a music box that tinkled the theme to Love Story as a tiny ballerina twirled slowly on her toes. “I don’t buy that she can’t come up here. She’s not that fragile.” It surprised me to hear his diagnosis of Marie as I thought he’d been taken by her. “And what’s with the ‘call me Marie’ bit? Like we’re warm and cozy all of a sudden. I don’t trust her.”
“Then why did you agree to this?” I asked indignantly, peering under the bed.
“Because maybe we can actually find something,” Rafe grinned, squinting to look behind the vanity mirror.
“I thought you wanted to keep out of it,” I protested, moving to the closet. It contained outdated clothing and had a musky smell which made me wrinkle my nose. I wondered if these clothes had been here since Lydia moved out; I had a hunch they had.
“Marie wants us in it,” Rafe countered. “I wonder why?” He lifted the top shelf of the music box to see what was underneath. “Well, well, well. What’s this?” He pulled out a sheet of paper which was obviously new. He unfolded it and started reading, his forehead creased into a frown. I went over so I could read over his shoulder.
If you are reading this, most likely I’m dead. I’m hoping this is Bea because I couldn’t deal with it if it were my mother. If I t is Mom, then I’m sorry, Mom, for every lie I told you. I’m sorry for all the grief and for the time when I was younger and I stole your favorite lipstick so you couldn’t go on that date. Bea, if this is you, remember July 7th. That’s the only hint I can give you. I trust that it’ll be enough. Thanks for being such a good friend. Tie one on for me, will ya? Lydia.
“What’s July 7th?” Rafe asked, frowning at me, handing the note over. “Wasn’t that the day before she died?”
“Yes, it was,” I said slowly, rereading the note. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why she had told me to remember July 7th, so I folded the note and placed it in my pocket. I’d think about it later. For now, Rafe and I finished searching the room, but found nothing. I made to go back downstairs, but Rafe stopped me.
“What are we going to do about the note?” He asked, catching me by the arm.
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused. “Figure out what Lydia was trying to say, obviously.”
“I meant, are we going to tell them?” He inclined his head.
I was torn. On the one hand, Marie and Brian deserved to know what the note said. On the other hand, Rafe had the feeling that one or both of them were hiding something from us or were using us in some way. If that were the case, then it’d be better not to mention the note. I went back and forth about it in my mind, coming up with pros and cons for both sides. I asked Rafe what he thought, and it was his opinion that we should keep the note to ourselves for now. Since I was not seriously inclined either way, I agreed. At least until we’d had time to search the apartment as well and perhaps figure out what, if anything, they were up to.
With that agreement, we went back downstairs where Marie and Brian broke off their conversation in mid-sentence. It was clear that they had been talking about us, but none of us brought it up. Instead, I reported that we had searched Lydia’s room thoroughly but hadn’t come up with anything. Marie couldn’t hide the disappointed look on her face, but Brian kept his face blank. Marie asked if we were sure we had looked everywhere, and Rafe answered that we were fairly sure. He was smooth, I had to give him that. He said that perhaps we would know more after searching Lydia’s apartment, so it would be best if we got to it. Marie didn’t protest; she merely asked Brian to show us the way as she couldn’t deal with it. Brian looked as if he wanted to object, but didn’t. We followed him to her apartment.