“Bob Cheng,” I murmur, typing his name into Google. I receive more results than I can do anything with, so I narrow it down by putting in his full name. ‘Robert Jin-wen Chen’ and the place of his employment, ‘MPowerment Marketing Firm’. That narrows the results considerably, more than I want to, so I delete the firm name. Then, I start sifting through the results. Bob has a sister, Wendy, who lives in San Francisco. I make a note and move on. Bob is on the board of three Christian charities, and he even plays Santa at his church’s Christmas party. I slap my hand on the couch in disgust. Nothing in here says anything other than he’s a pure saint, but I know there has to be more to him. I put the firm’s name back in the Google search and find out something interesting. Bob had been given a warning from his boss, Geoff, about two weeks ago for perennially leaving early. I remember that was the excuse he gave yesterday before he disappeared, a mythical doctor’s appointment.
I make a note of it and push forward. There’s another interesting tidbit about how he got passed over for a promotion six months ago. He was gunning to be the leader of his team; it’s what he worked for all his life. He thought he had a lock on it ,but then it was given to Geoff at the last moment. Bob lost his mind and stormed into HR, accusing them of racism and a whole slew of other unsavory things. He was put on probation, and Jasmine confided to me at the time that Bob was this close to quitting. The problem was, he’d been with the firm since he got his MBA, so if he jumped back in the job market, he wouldn’t have much to put on his resume. She managed to calm Bob down, and he was able to get back into his firm’s good graces. Before the last three months, he was a solid member of the team. Valued and respected.
I lean back and pet Onyx who is curled in my lap. Jet meeps at me, so I pet him, too. He’s at my side, and I give them both equal skritches. They snuggle against me, and I close my eyes for several minutes. I crack my back as I stretch it, and I wonder if I’m up for this. I just got done investigating Julianna’s death, and I’m still shaken up by it. I’m not sleeping, I’m rarely eating, and I’m looking over my shoulders wherever I go—online and in the real world. Whatever happened to Bob, I know it’s going to be emotionally messy, if not physically so. I straighten up and metaphorically suck it up. Jasmine is the main reason I’m alive, so this is the least I can do for her.
I go back to my research. I read articles for hours until my eyes glaze over, but I cannot find anything scandalous. The only thing close to it is a DUI thirty years ago when he was twenty-five. I do a quick check, and it was the month before he got married to Jasmine. I doubt it has anything to do with this, but I make a note of it, anyway. I also remember what Viv told me, and it seems that my brother-in-law has a drinking problem. I recall previous holidays in which he ordered enough alcohol for the table then drank most of it himself, one Christmas Eve in particular. To add insult to injury, I was covering the tab for that night. It cost me well over two hundred dollars. I’m still pissed about Bob assaulting Viv, but I can’t find any evidence of a similar event. People with a proclivity for alcohol tend to have anger issues as well. I look for any record of Jasmine taking unexplained trips to the hospital, but I don’t find any. That eases my mind somewhat, but she’s not the type to tell anyone about an unhappy situation. Not even me. Scratch that. Especially me. She would want to protect me as she’s always done.
Before I can think about it, I pick up my phone and call Jasmine. She doesn’t answer, so I leave a message asking her to call me back. Am I really going to ask her if Bob hit her? Yes, I am. I go back to my research, double and triple checking. The only other interesting tidbit I can find is that Bob belonged to a group called the Revolutionary Christians while he was in college at Macalester. From what I can tell, they were a super-conservative, orthodox, radical Christians who believed that they had to scorch the earth, literally, in order to prepare it for Jesus’s return. They were planning to burn down a wheat field in Northfield for the glory of Jesus. Fortunately for them, they had a flat tire on their way down, and by the time they got it fixed, three of the eight came to their senses and decided they didn’t want to be a martyr for Jesus. Foiled, the group returned to St. Paul and disbanded. I make a list of the names, then Google them. Two of them are dead, one currently resides in Ecuador, one is in Boston, two are in Cali, one in San Francisco and one in LA, and one stayed local in Plymouth. Mr. Donald Zhang. 66 years old. An executive with Amway. I grimace. My mom once fell prey to their bullshit scheme, and it was all she would talk about for two months—when she was sober. Mr. Donald Zhang has been married to his wife, Annie, for twenty-five years. She’s an English teacher at Armstrong Senior High, one of the best high schools in the country. They don’t have children, and with a little more digging, I discover that they couldn’t. There’s little else on them, so I move on. A minute later, my phone rings. It’s Jasmine.
“Hey, Sis. Thanks for calling me back.”
“No problem. What have you found?”
“Not much. I have to ask you something, though.” I swallow hard, gather my nerve, and spit the words out. “Did Bob ever hit you?”
“What? No!” Jasmine’s tone is horrified, and I’m pretty sure she’s telling the truth. “Megan. He has a problem with alcohol. A big problem. I’ve nagged him to get help, but the only thing he’d agree to do was talk to Reverend Yang.”
“When was that?” I ask, taking notes as I listen.
“Four months ago? I think that was it.” Jasmine pauses, then adds, “I don’t think it was helping. Whenever Bob was home, he was drinking. Oh, sure. Slowly, sipping, so it wouldn’t appear as if he were actually drinking. It was just one beer, Jasmine. I work hard, don’t I deserve it? Only, one beer would turn into two, which became five or six by the end of the night. When he came home late, he’d head straight for the beer. He’d drink it as we argued. I’d leave by the time he hit beer number three.”
“I’m sorry, Jasmine,” I say, my heart heavy. “You deserve better than that.”
“I haven’t been a saint, either,” Jasmine says, her voice a whisper.
“What, you forgot to polish the silver one week?” I laugh. My sister is as close to flawless as a person can get. I don’t mean she doesn’t have her issues, but they’re minor.
“You don’t know me as well as you think you do,” Jasmine says harshly. I blink in surprise because she doesn’t talk to me that way. “I’ve done things I’m not proud of. I just wanted to tell you that so you know it’s not one-sided.”
“OK. Still. Dealing with an alcoholic isn’t easy. I know from experience.” My first girlfriend was a barely-functioning alcoholic who had plenty of mental issues and tried to deal with them by drowning them with alcohol. She was also incredibly hot and amazing in bed, but we barely lasted three months.
“I’m going to read him the riot act when he gets home, Megan.” I can hear the fear in Jasmine’s voice, and I will do anything to erase it. “Call me if you find out anything else.”
“Will do.” I check my computer clock. I had called into work today, and I’m feeling guilty about it. I took three days off after Julianna was murdered, and a few days after Rembrandt was attacked. My supervisor, Cara, is sympathetic, but I don’t want to take advantage. I need to go back tomorrow, come hell or high water. This afternoon, though, I’m going to go to taiji to take the edge off. I take a quick shower since I skipped it earlier, get dressed, grab my weapons bag, and split.
“Hey, Megan. How’re you doing?” Lydia asks, her voice gentle. Too gentle. Ever since my stalker came after me, Lydia’s been treating me as if I have a terminal illness. I’m not happy about it, but I don’t know how to tell her. She’s doing it out of concern for me, so I feel like a shit that I resent it. But, resent it, I do. I push it back as best I can and focus on my breathing.
“I’m doing OK. Not sleeping much. Not eating much. But other than that. Cat therapy does help, though. So does taiji.” I try to smile, but it’s wobbly on the edges.
“It’s good something is working! It sounds like a pretty normal reaction. You just have to take it day by day. Hour by hour if need be.” Lydia smiles reassuringly at me, which, irrationally, irritates me even more. She has her sandy blond hair pulled up in a bun as usual, her horned-rimmed glasses slipping down her nose. Her green eyes are staring at me with sympathy.
“Yes. That’s all we can do.” I smile back, but I’m sure my teeth resemble fangs. My classmates filter in, and I chat with them the best I can. It’s surreal to be talking with them about the weather or the election or their lives when all I can think about is that my best friend is dead and that Rembrandt lost an eye. How can the sun be shining? How can these people laugh as if nothing’s happened? A fury washes over me, a fury so intense, it nearly blows me over. I go outside abruptly because I need to get a grip on my reaction. It’s not good to practice taiji through a haze of anger, but it’s one of the few emotions I seem to be having these days. People like to talk about the five stages of grief, but I don’t find them to be helpful. A week ago, when I couldn’t sleep, I researched the concept and discovered that it wasn’t developed in response to how people grieve the death of a loved one. Kübler-Ross was studying terminal ill people and their reactions to their upcoming deaths. Once I read that, it made so much more sense to me. Currently, I seem to be stuck on unbridled rage. I take a few slow, smooth breaths and return inside.
“Megan! Hi!” It’s Betty Bowser, a bright pink smile painted on her perfectly-formed lips. She’s wearing a hot pink sweat suit with a matching pink headband holding back her blond curls. She calls it her signature look, and it’s clear she’s relieving her teenage years, though she hasn’t seen them in quite some time.
“Hey, Betty. How are you doing?” I nod my head at Betty.
“Just great! I think I’m really getting a hang of this taiji thing.” Betty beams, bouncing on her toes.
“Good, good. Glad to hear it.” I walk back to my seat, and Betty follows me.
“Maybe you can tutor me on Cloud Hands? You do it so well.” Betty titters, covering her mouth with her hand. She really works the ingénue angle, much to her detriment.
“We’ll see. Lydia might have other things for us to do.” I bite my lip so I won’t say anything mean. She can’t help being an airheaded cheerleader type, so I should try to be charitable.
“I hope she doesn’t want to move on much further. I’m in over my head!” Betty laughs, and I roll my eyes. She had just told me she’s getting the hang of things, and now, she’s saying she’s in over her head. I can’t take anything she says seriously.
“You should let her know. She’ll slow down if you need her to. She’s really a good teacher.”
“Oh, I know she is!” Betty giggles again. Man, it’s getting old. “It’s just that sometimes, I don’t understand what she’s saying. It’s like she’s speaking Chinese!” I do a slow burn, but I manage to keep my temper in check. Just barely. “Your explanations are much easier to understand.”
“I gotta go to the bathroom. Excuse me.” I get up and walk away from her before I can say something I’ll really regret. For whatever reason, she has taken a shine to me, and I wish she would stop it. I know how hero worship ends up—with the idol getting smashed. I make use of the facilities since I’m there, then slowly return to class. I may have to talk to Lydia about Betty again because I come to taiji to relax, not to be irritated and pestered. I push the door open and walk inside. Lydia has everyone lined up, and I join my classmates. She takes us through the warmups before having us do the six postures meditation. Then, she has us do the first section of the Solo Form, slowly and smoothly, before giving us a ten minute break.
“Wow, I love this.” Alistair Clark, another classmate sits down next to me. He’s a kid from Nebraska, studying philosophy at the U. He looks like a farmer’s son with his blond hair, blue eyes, and sunny smile, but he also dabbles in dark magic. I know this because he mistakenly thought I’d share his interest, so the first time we talked, he expounded enthusiastically for ten minutes about the brilliance of what he called his namesake, Aleister Crowley. I listened and nodded politely, but it’s not really my thing. “I’m so glad I found Lydia.” His eyes shine, and I hide a smile. I’ve seen this before from the young guys and Lydia. She looks like an earth mother, but she has a nice body, so she’s an ideal woman to have a crush on. “I feel like I was sleepwalking through my life before I met her.”
“She’s a good teacher, and taiji can change your life.” I glance at my phone, but there’s nothing important on it.
“It certainly has!” Alistair is literally bouncing in his seat, and I want to tell him to chill out. “I can’t believe it’s only been three months!”
“Time certainly does fly.” I know that honeymoon feeling very well. The first six months or so, everything is wonderful and fantastic and holy shit this feels so good! I don’t tell him that the feeling will fade into frustration, dullness, and plateaus. There are long stretches in which you don’t feel as if you’re making any progress or learning anything new. Once in a while, there are flashes of brilliances, but there are also setbacks. Currently, I have three or four refinements I’m working on, and I feel as if I’ve hit a brick wall.
“I do as much of the form as I can every morning. It’s not much, but it makes me feel better.” Alistair is almost glowing, and I can’t help but feel good for him.
“OK, class.” Lydia claps her hands, and we all come to attention. “We’re going to do a single drill now—Cloud Hands.” Betty shoots me a nasty glance, but I’m not bothered. I didn’t do anything wrong, and I certainly didn’t tell Lydia about Betty’s aversion to Cloud Hands. Besides, doing a posture as a single-posture drill is one of the best ways to learn it. We line up, and I can see the scowl on Betty’s face. This is my least-favorite posture in the form, so I concentrate extra hard to get it right. By the time we’re done, I feel marginally better about it. After class, Lydia and I talk for a couple minutes before I leave.
Once I get home, Onyx leaps into my arms. She and Jet are all over me as if I’ve been gone for days. I feed them treats before going to take a quick shower. Then, I go back to the kitchen to make myself a sandwich and eat an orange. Citrus is good for lactic buildup, so I eat an orange every day. Once I’m satiated, I go into the living room and check my internet world. I’m stridently avoiding election news because the thought of Trump as president makes me hyperventilate. I decide to focus on Bob again to see if I can learn anything new. There’s nothing to find, however. On impulse, I call his daughter, Coral, the only one who lives locally in Minneapolis.
“Hey, Auntie! How’re you doing? I bet you’re calling about Dad, aren’t you?” Coral’s voice filters over the phone, and it’s soothing like maple syrup. She’s a high school counselor and damn good at her job. I check my computer clock. It’s five, so she must be done for the day.
“Yes, I am. Your mom is panicking because he didn’t come home last night.” I grab a cigarette and my mug and go outside. I light up my cigarette as I wait for Coral’s answer.
“Dad’s been acting weird for several months. You know he dotes on my babies. They come over for dinner every week, and yet, he’s missed several times in the past few months.” Coral’s voice is sad because she’s a daddy’s girl and has never felt his distance the way his sons have. “When I ask him about it, he says it’s work.” She hesitates and adds, “I went to his work after my work last week. He wasn’t there. I asked Geoff not to tell him.”
“What time was that?”
“Four-thirty. He had told Mom he was working until eight or nine.” Coral is sniffling, and I want to comfort her the way I did when she’d fall down and scrape her knee.
“What do you think he’s doing?” If I had a hard time asking Jasmine about the possibility of Bob having an affair, I’m finding it impossible to ask Coral.
“I don’t think he’s having an affair. I mean, I know that’s usually what’s happening in cases like this, but Dad really loves Mom.” Coral’s voice is sincere, and I can’t disagree. No matter his flaws, Bob loves Jasmine. But, people do cheat on the people they love.
“I don’t think he is, either, but I can’t rule it out.” I crush out my cig, throw it in my mug, then go back inside. I flush the butt down the toilet before returning to the couch. I nudge Onyx and Jet to the side before snuggling my fat ass between them.
“Look. I think we need to talk. Can you come over for dinner? I’ll call Mom.” I’m silent for a minute. I really don’t like leaving once I get home, and I cancelled my date with Rembrandt already, but this is important.
“I’ll be over in fifteen. You still live in Seward, right?”
“Yes.” We hang up, and I stand up, careful not to disturb the cats. They’re both sleeping heavily, so I tiptoe out. I’m on the road in two minutes and reach Coral’s in record time.