Duck, Duck, Dead Duck; chapter four, part two

“How was your day, dear?”  My mother greeted me as I knocked on the back door again.  Even though there were fewer reporters out front, I still didn’t want to deal with them.  I never understood people who talked to the media in the midst of a horrible tragedy.  The only thing I’d say to those vultures was, ‘Get the hell out of my face before I kill you’—otherwise known as, ‘no comment’.

“It was ok,” I said slowly, slipping inside.  I didn’t tell her about my strange conversation with Tommy as it would just worry her.

“Your Auntie Zelda called.  She’s worried about you.”  Zelda was my mother’s sister and an inveterate brooder.

“Of course she is,” I said, slipping off my shoes.  “Auntie Zelda worries about the depletion in the ozone layer, the deforestation of the world, the extinction of exotic species, just to name a few.  I’d be surprised if she wasn’t worried about me.”

“You know your cousin, Frieda, is a cop.  She told Zelda that the consensus in the department is that you were the real target.”  My mom followed me as I walked into the living room and turned on the television.  Taking the remote from my hand, she turned it off.  I refrained from sighing at her heavy-handedness and reminded myself that I was lucky she had taken me in.

“So, tell me something I don’t know,” I replied, plopping down in the recliner.  I pushed back so the feet section of the chair kicked out.

“This is not a joke, Beezus,” my mother said impatiently, squatting next to the recliner.  I waited to see if she could find a Ramona comparison but highly doubted it.  Murder was out of the realm of the Quimby family.  “Remember when Ramona got her own room and was afraid to sleep in it because of the gorilla book?”  I nodded, knowing that she wouldn’t go on until I had responded.  “This is the opposite of that.  You’re insisting on sleeping in the room even though there’s a live gorilla waiting for you.”  I rolled my eyes.  Even for my mother, that was stretching.  “I know you use humor as your defense, but this is serious business.”

“I know it is, Mom,” I said, closing my eyes.  “I just can’t think about it too much without freaking out.”  Before either of us could say anything else, there was a rap on the sliding doors.  Mom went to let in Rafe who looked about as tired as I felt.  His countenance brightened when he saw that I was in one piece.  He hurried over to kiss me on the cheek after inquiring how I felt.

“I was just telling her that her cousin, Frieda, who’s a cop, told her mother that the cops in charge are convinced Beezus was the intended victim,” my mother told Rafe, though he hadn’t asked her any questions.  “One of Beezus’s coworkers told the cops that one of the staff had a grudge against Beezus, a pretty deep one.”  My mother and Rafe swung their heads my way, looking at me expectantly.  I shrugged, not knowing what she was talking about.  As far as I knew, my coworkers and I got along just fine.  “It has something to do with you getting better shifts or something like that?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said crossly.  “That’s just bullshit.  Sure, Antoinette was riled when Eddie gave me better shifts than he did her, but that’s only because she’s fu—having an affair with him.  She thought that entitled her to the better shifts.  Eddie quickly disabused her of that notion.”

“You sure there isn’t anything else?”  Rafe asked, sitting on the floor next to me.  I signaled him with my eyes I’d tell him later because I wasn’t about to bring up Tommy in front of my mother; I didn’t think Eddie’s strange behavior was enough to report.

“Oh, there was the brouhaha with Eddie’s nephew, but that wasn’t anything.”  The minute I divulged that information, I wished I could retrieve it again.  I hadn’t thought about Carlos since he was fired and told never to come back, but I had been involved in an incident precipitating his demise.  He hadn’t been happy about it, although I couldn’t see murder as an appropriate response.

“What happened, dear?”  My mother said, raising her eyebrow.  With a sigh, I reluctantly spill the beans.

Carlos had been dirt—hitting on me and the other women with impunity since he was Eddie’s nephew.  He was hired in some sort of nebulous capacity—accountant or something like that.  He was one of those slimy guys who had been given his life on a silver platter, but mistakenly thought he had earned every penny.  He had indirect power, but not the kind he craved.  He would order around the workers like he was some hot shit, and most of us put up with it because we knew that Eddie would be pissed if we didn’t.

For my part, I mostly ignored the fucker.  Sure, he was annoying, but he was tangential to my life at FunLand.  Some of the other women complained that he wouldn’t leave them alone, but he never bothered me more than the perfunctory leer and stare.  As long as he limited himself to a few ogles a day, I didn’t give a shit about him.  I dismissed him as an idiot and left it at that.  I managed to pretend that he didn’t exist as I went on my merry little way, and for the most part, he did cease to exist for me.  I was perfectly happy to continue this façade if it meant peace in our dysfunctional park family.  Until I found the holes in the women’s bathroom.  Drilled holes, not noticeable if you didn’t just happen to see them as I did.  They were covered on the outside by thick hedges.

I could go through the song and dance of how I discovered who had drilled them, but that’s old hat.  What it boiled down to was that good old Carlos was a perv who got his rocks off by masturbating as he watched women going to the bathroom.  The soiled Kleenex littered on the ground near the holes contested to that fact.  When I discovered what he was up to, I went straight to Eddie who was inclined to hem and haw, saying boys will be boys and all that shit.  When I made it clear that I would call the cops about the travesty and have Eddie taken in as an accomplice or for sexual harassment or whatever else I could make stick, Eddie was forced to let Carlos go in a hurry.  This was a few weeks ago, and Carlos was pissed at me because Eddie made it perfectly clear that I was forcing him—Eddie—to fire Carlos.

“So now we have a boatload of reasons for someone trying to kill you,” Rafe said, frowning at me.  My mother’s face wasn’t any brighter as she glared at me as well.  “Is there anything else you’re holding back?”

“No,” I said, doing a little glaring of my own.  “Those reasons are horseshit and you know it.  No one would kill over that crap.”

“People kill over anything,” my mother said fiercely, still glaring at me.  “Will you please get it through your thick head that you’re in danger?”

“Ok, so I’m in danger,” I said through gritted teeth.  “That doesn’t mean I’m going to hide out for the rest of my life, always afraid to do anything.  I’m not a coward.”

“No one’s asking you to run, querida,” Rafe said softly.  “Just to use a little common sense.”  I swallowed the retort bubbling on my lips.  He’s just trying to help—there’s no point in my taking his head off.  Besides, my cell phone rang, cutting off a potential rejoinder.  Glancing at the display, I didn’t recognize the number but answered, anyway.

“Hello?”  I paced in the hallway as I waited for a reply.

“Is this Beatrice Chen?”  An unfamiliar female voice asked.

“Depends on who wants to know,” I replied.  I wasn’t about to give out my name to just anyone over the phone, especially not to any reporters.

“This is Marie Rodriguez, Linda’s mother,” the voice said, breaking as she pronounced the last two words.  For a minute, my mind was blank.  Who the hell was Linda?  I remembered that Linda was Lydia’s real name so I didn’t feel like a complete idiot when I answered.  I was confused, though, as I was sure Lydia had told me her mother was named Mrs. Wilkerson.  I filed it away for further consideration before speaking.

“Mrs. Rodriguez, I’m so sorry about your loss.  Lydia was a good person,” I said lamely, not knowing what to say to a grieving mother.

“I need to talk to you,” Mrs. Rodriguez said bluntly, not acknowledging my condolences.  “It’s about Linda, and it’s very important.  Can you come to my house?”

“Now?”  I bleated despite myself.  Once I made it home, I was loath to go out again unless it was an emergency.

“Now would be most appreciated,” Mrs. Rodriguez said firmly.  “It’s important.”

“Just tell me how to get there,” I said with a sigh.  I rummaged through my purse and managed to dredge up a pen and paper.  She gave me detailed directions to her home in North Oaks—a very posh suburb—along with her numbers.  I promised to get there as fast as possible, then hung up the phone.

“What’s wrong?”  Rafe asked when I returned to the living room.  He and my mom were sitting on the couch and had obviously been in the middle of a conversation.  I told him about Lydia’s mother, and he insisted on going with me.  I protested, but my mother sided with him.  No way I could take on both of them at the same time.  We hopped in his Honda Accord and took off.

We didn’t talk on the way over.  I was thinking about what Lydia would have told her mother and how did her mother have my number?  I couldn’t imagine that Lydia talked about me all that much as we weren’t that close.  I thought about my short conversation with Mrs. Rodriguez, but there wasn’t much there.  I frowned as I recalled Lydia’s tales of her drunken mother.  The last thing I wanted to do was indulge the ranting of a wine-soaked brain.  She hadn’t sounded drunk over the phone, however, but perhaps she was covering it well.  If she’s been an alcoholic for some time, she must have practice hiding it.  I resolved to keep an open mind.

“Thank you for coming,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, opening the door wide.  I blinked in surprise at the lashes of graying blond hair that fell nearly to her waist, her cornflower blue eyes, and her impossibly peaches-and-cream complexion.  Not only did she not look Hispanic, she looked nothing like her daughter.  She also looked to be in her late forties which made her a young mom.  She must have been used to questioning stares because she said, “Linda took after her father.  Please, come in.”  She gestured gracefully, not appearing at all put out because I had brought Rafe with me.

I looked at her closely, finding it difficult to believe that this fragile lady with a soft voice and slender figure was Lydia’s mother.  Lydia had been bawdy, down to earth and slightly coarse in features.  I couldn’t discern a trace of Lydia in this elegant woman standing before me, a polite smile pasted on her face.  I introduced myself and Rafe, and we both mumbled condolences.  Rafe said something in Spanish, but Mrs. Rodriguez shook her head.  It was her husband who was Spanish, not her.  Even after being married to him for twenty years before they divorced did little to augment her Spanish skills.  She loved listening to him murmur to her in Spanish, however, even if she didn’t understand what he was saying.

“Would either of you like something to eat or drink?”  Mrs. Rodriguez said, carefully enunciating each word.  At first, I thought that might signify her drinking problem, but her eyes were clear and she didn’t stumble.  It seemed more likely that she was doing what she could not to fall apart, and clear diction helped.  Both Rafe and I shook our heads no to refreshments, so she led us to the living room.

The house was opulent without being ostentatious.  It was obvious, even to a philistine like me that a healthy dose of money had been poured into the furnishings.  Buttery soft suede for the couches; the walls done in subdued shades of red, orange and yellow; vases with Asian motifs on them; creamy white carpeting that was made for toe-sinking; delicate knick-knacks here and there and was that a Chagall on the wall?  It certainly looked like one.  I was flabbergasted as Lydia did not appear to come from money at all.  I wondered if reason Lydia changed her name and made up stories about her mother was because she wanted to distance herself from such wealth.  Then again, perhaps her mother was really an alcoholic who had managed not to drink for just one night.  Still, Mrs. Rodriguez did not have the countenance of a drunk.

“My daughter lies,” Mrs. Rodriguez said abruptly after sitting on a hard-backed chair facing the sofa.  Rafe and I had chosen the latter.  “Linda is wonderful about many things, but that is her major flaw.  She’s been doing it since she was a little girl, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if she knew the difference between truth and fiction.”  Mrs. Rodriguez paused to steady her voice.  There were tears in her eyes, but she seemed determined not to allow them to fall.

“Take your time, Mrs. Rodriguez,” Rafe said, his accent suddenly stronger.  “Maybe I could get you a glass of water?”

“Such a good boy, but no thank you,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, smiling wanly before her lips started wobbling again.  “You remind me of my Linda in some ways.”  She sighed heavily before continuing.  “She called me once a week, every Sunday without fail.  Never more, never less.  The day before she—well, the day before, she called me in a panic.  She was nearly hysterical, and I had to calm her down before I could understand her.”  Mrs. Rodriguez paused again, but neither Rafe nor I interrupted.  Mrs. Rodriguez swallowed hard before blurting out, “She saw something at FunLand that she shouldn’t have.  She wouldn’t tell me what.  Whatever it was, though, was enough to make her afraid.”  Mrs. Rodriguez paused again, a funny look on her face.

“What is it, Mrs. Rodriguez?”  I asked softly, not wanting to add to her burden.  I could tell by the conflicted look on her face that she didn’t want to say anything negative about her daughter.

“I didn’t believe her,” Mrs. Rodriguez said, expelling her breath in a long sigh.  “She had lied to me so many times before, I thought she was just trying to get attention.”  She buried her face in her hands, her shoulders sagging.  “God forgive me because I certainly can’t.”

“Mrs. Rodriguez, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Rafe said, leaning forward.  His tone was gentle and his eyes sympathetic.  “When someone lies to you over and over again, it’s only natural to be wary of what she is saying.  It doesn’t mean you love her any less.”

“I should have listened harder!”  Mrs. Rodriguez moaned, lifting her face from her hands.  The tears started to fall, staining her cheeks.  “I had an important meeting the next day, so I only listened with half an ear.  Why didn’t I pay more attention?”

“You couldn’t know,” Rafe said, patting Mrs. Rodriguez’s hand.  I allowed him to take the lead as he’s a natural at comforting women.

“Bea, may I call you Bea?”  Mrs. Rodriguez didn’t wait for me to answer before continuing.  “She said that if anything were to, were to…”  Her voice faltered, and I waited impatiently for her to regain control.  “Happen to her, I should talk to you.  She left something behind, you see.  She said you would know where to find it.”

“She said what?”  I looked at Mrs. Rodriguez uncomprehendingly.  As I said, Lydia and I weren’t exactly best of friends, so I had no idea where she would hide anything of importance.

“She said you would know, that you had the head for it.”  Mrs. Rodriguez looked at me expectantly.  I hated to disappoint her, but I was lost.  “Oh dear, I was sure you’d know exactly what she meant.”  Mrs. Rodriguez’s face fell and she looked so crestfallen, I felt compelled to cheer her up.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Mrs. Rodriguez,” I said impulsively.  “I’ll ask around at work and also give it some thought.  See what I can come up with.  It’s the least I can do for Lydia.”

“Would you?”  A smile broke out across Mrs. Rodriguez’s face.  “I’d appreciate that so much.”  She scribbled her numbers on a piece of paper and handed it to me.  By the look on Rafe’s face, he didn’t appreciate it quite so much, but at least he had the diplomacy to wait until we left before voicing his displeasure.

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”  Rafe asked as soon as we were in the car.  The fact that he didn’t raise his voice tipped me off to how pissed he truly was.

“What?  That poor woman just lost her daughter.  The least I can do is talk to a few people.”  I closed my eyes as Rafe squealed the tires pulling away from the curb.  It was draining being in the same room with Mrs. Rodriguez, and I was ready to go to bed.

“Bet, don’t be stupid.  Despite what Mrs. Rodriguez believes, I do not think Lydia was the intended victim.  I still think you were the one the killer was after.”

“Then I should be perfectly safe asking a few questions about Lydia, shouldn’t I?”  I asked sweetly, grinning at an infuriated Rafe.  Rafe ground his teeth, but there wasn’t much he could say in response.  We rode the rest of the way to my parents’ house in icy silence.

When we got there, we were heartened to realize that all the reporters had left.  The murder of a amusement park employee wasn’t hot news, especially not when the affairs of the rich and famous—not to mention reality couples—needed to be reported on.  “I don’t like it,” Rafe informed me as we entered my parents’ house.

“Don’t like what?”  I asked absentmindedly, still thinking about Lydia’s words to her mother.

“Pay attention to me, Bet,” Rafe said, pounding the wall in frustration.  “Someone is trying to kill you, and you’re acting like it’s no big deal.”

“Rafe, I would be terrified out of my mind if I actually believed someone was after me.  I think the killer got who he was after.”  I shoved my thoughts to the background and focused on the conversation.  I didn’t want Rafe to feel as if I were dismissing his worries, but I had a difficult time taking them seriously.  Sure, there were people who didn’t like me, but it was ludicrous to think that anyone actually wanted me dead.

“Just promise me you’ll be careful,” Rafe said with a small sigh.  “You have a tendency to barge ahead without thinking, querida.  Try to use your head first, ok?”

“I will,” I said fervently.

That night, I stayed awake long after kicking Rafe out of bed and into the guest room.  I had let him sleep with me last night, but hadn’t slept very well, so it was to the guest room with him.  I tried not to squirm, but I was feeling restless.  Despite what I had told Rafe, there was more to the story with Shannon and Aaron than I had revealed.  I had given Rafe the general outline, but I hadn’t filled him in on the crazy, ranting emails Shannon sent to me from time to time—each crazier than the last.  More vitriolic, too.  Aaron was now dating someone else, but Shannon appeared to hold no ill-will towards this other woman—all her venom was saved for me.  Since breaking up with Aaron, she had tried to slit her wrist twice, lost her job in Human Resources, and was being threatened with eviction from her apartment.  Every time she emailed, my heart would sink.  I dreaded receiving them, but I felt compelled to read them.  I did feel guilty for my affair with Aaron even though I wasn’t the first woman he’d fooled around with behind Shannon’s back.

What I didn’t tell Rafe or Liza or anyone else was that Shannon had emailed me the night before the shooting saying that she was going to take care of me once and for all.  She wrote how everything bad that had happened to her was my fault and that I had to pay.  It was banal, unimaginative, and unconvincing.  I had dismissed it as more crazy talk, but what if she really meant it?  I knew I had to tell the cops, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it.  My impulse was to stay away from the boys and girls in blue—not to offer them information.  But if I were the target, then Shannon would definitely be number one on the list.  I sighed, turned over and resolved to call the cops tomorrow.

I thought that would be enough to let me fall asleep, but my conscience was bothering me.  Even though Rafe hadn’t wanted to talk about my fling with Aaron, I knew it had to be bothering him.  I’d be bothered—no, pissed—if he had done the same thing to me and didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me about it.  I tried to imagine myself in his shoes, and I felt like I’d been socked in the gut.  Even though he had been sweet about it, it had to be eating away at him.  He’s not a typical Latino with all that machismo, but he did have his pride.  I can’t imagine how he felt when he found those silk briefs that Aaron liked to wear.  I wondered if he had left them at my place on purpose, to mark his territory, so to speak.  It would have been like him in an alpha male sort of way.  I got up and went into the guest room, watching Rafe as he slept.  He must have sensed me because he opened an eye.

“What’s wrong, querida?”  Rafe asked sleepily, struggling to wake up.  “Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“I’m sorry, Rafe,” I blurted out without thinking, sitting next to him on the bed.  “I don’t know what the hell got into me.”

“What?  What are you talking about?”  Rafe propped himself up on his elbow so he could look directly at me.  “Sorry because you aren’t sleeping?”

“Sorry about Aaron,” I said, staring directly in his eyes.  “Sorry that I didn’t tell you.  Sorry that you had to find out the hard way.”

“It’s over and behind us, querida,” Rafe said, his face hardening.  “No need to talk about it any more.”  He rolled over onto his other side, and by the rigid set of his shoulders, I could tell it was futile to say anything else.  I pressed against him, kissing his back as I hugged him.  I didn’t say anything, but I silently apologized once again before returning to my bedroom.

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