Plaster of Paris; chapter six, part two

“He’s a changeling,” I say, not exactly sure what it means but liking the sound of it.  “He’s a gift from the heavens.  It doesn’t matter who raised him because he basically came as he is.”

“I’m just so thankful he didn’t lose himself in such a joyless household.”  Lyle finishes one cigarette and reaches for the lighter when he catches the look I’m sending his way.  “What?”  He’s defensive, but knows exactly what I’m staring at him for.  “I’ll quit again when Paris wakes up.”  I don’t say anything.  I can’t, really, without sounding hypocritical., although my own tobacco usage is atypical.  I’ve never been a daily smoker, and it’s rare when I smoke more than two cigarettes on any given occasion.  I sigh and hand over the lighter.  Lyle slips out another cigarette and lights up.

This time, I leave him alone.  Instead, I turn the conversation to the blond as I inhale on my cigarette.  The blond is someone we need to focus on, and I am betting that Lyle’s friend, Marisol, can help us out.  Lyle corrects me yet again on his friend’s name, much to my delight.  I know perfectly well what her name is but it’s so ridiculous, I can’t help making fun of it.  I know, it’s like the pot calling the kettle black, but really!  Lyle wants to know why I think the blond is so important.  I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or if he really wants to know, but I answer him, anyway.  Sort of.  I say it’s just a hunch because I don’t want to tell him about my dream.  He’ll think I’m a nut if he doesn’t already.  I need him on my side because I always think better with two heads than with one.  I also want to take his mind off Mrs. Jenson, and thinking about possible suspects should do the trick.

To make it even sweeter for him, I tell him that I agree that there’s something odd about Ursula contacting Paris the same day he’s hit.  Lyle reminds me that she had made a point of saying her husband was out of town which sounds fishy to him.  I tell him what Mrs. Jenson told me about her own husband.  It’s not that far a drive from San Diego to San Francisco.  He could easily have driven up here to commit the crime if he missed a day of the hunting convention, and who would be the wiser?  It’s not as if someone would have been keeping track of his movements 24/7.  He certainly has the temperament to commit cold-blooded murder, turn around and finish attending a hunting convention and not turn a hair.  Mr. Jenson is definitely a top suspect on my list as far as means and opportunity.  When it comes to motive, however, he falls a little short.  I can’t see him taking out his wife’s only living child, but stranger things have happened.

Speaking of Mr. Jenson, he’s supposed to be done with the convention and in San Francisco as we speak.  I wonder where he is.  It’s a ten-hour drive, but I have no idea when exactly the convention ends.  I find it suspicious that he was in this part of the country at the same time Paris’s accident, but I have nothing to go on other than an innate dislike of the man.  Lyle points out that Mr. Jenson is driving here, it’ll take him awhile, and if Mr. Jenson is flying, he might not have been able to get a flight before morning.  Lyle is doubtful that Mr. Jenson had anything to do with Paris’s accident, but I’m not as sure.  Mr. Jenson approves of Paris’s lifestyle even less so than does Mrs. Jenson.  Perhaps the death of his daughter pushed him over the edge, and he couldn’t stand Paris being alive in the carnal flesh while his sainted daughter had died.  It’s a stretch, I admit, but people have been known to kill for lesser reasons.

I remind Lyle that we can’t forget the gym angle, although it’s at best a long shot.  I want to find the suspicious client, the one Paris was going to confront.  At least there’s a potential for conflict there, which is what’s sorely missing from the equation.  I decide that I’ll run by the gym after work tomorrow.  Today.  I order Lyle to talk to Marzipan to see what she knows.  He makes a face at my mangling of her name, but declines to hassle me about it again.  Instead, he asks who’s going to tackle Ursula and Mr. Jenson.  I assume correctly that Lyle doesn’t want to talk to Mr. Jenson and delegate Ursula to him.  I feel better.  I like having items I can check off my list so that at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  Lyle graciously allows me to dictate the plan of action.  He grounds out his cigarette even though there’s more than a half left.  He tosses the butt into the trash, but doesn’t move to go back inside.

“How do you deal with it?”  Lyle asks moodily, not looking at me.

“Deal with what?”  I am confused by his question.  If he means dealing with Paris being unconscious, it’s a little thing called denial.

“The whole murder thing,” Lyle responds.  “This isn’t the first time you’ve been involved with a murder case.  How can you stand it?”

“This is the first time I’ve really cared about the victim—who isn’t dead, need I remind you,” I say fiercely.  “The other times, I was just in the wrong place at the very wrong time.  This time,” I shrug, stomping out my cigarette as well.  I toss the butt into the trash and sigh.  “It’s Paris.  No matter how much I try to distance myself or to not think about it, I can’t get away from it.  It’s Paris lying there in that hospital bed in a coma, and who knows when he’s coming out of it?”  Despite my best intentions, my voice wobbles and tears spring to my eyes.  In the dark, Lyle slips his arm around me.  We stand side by side, not saying anything.  “This is the first time it’s been personal.  I’m going to kill whoever did this.”  As soon as the words slip from my mouth, I recognize the truth of them.  In the other cases, I pursued the killer for nebulous or unsavory reasons.  This time, it is revenge, pure and simple.  I want someone to pay for what he or she did to Paris.

“You don’t mean that,” Lyle says wearily.  “I know what you do mean, however, because I feel the same way.”  For a minute, we stand there just leaning on each other.  It’s amazing how close we’ve grown in the time since Paris got hurt.  I devoutly hope Lyle had nothing to do with Paris ending up in a coma in the hospital.

“We should go back up,” I finally say.  We trudge back to the waiting room that is beginning to feel like home.  My mother and Mrs. Jenson are deep in conversation.

“…always laughing,” Mrs. Jenson is saying, smiling tremulously.  “He never could stay still.”

“Rainbow was different,” my mom replies, smiling herself.  “She would sit still for hours, just looking at things around her.  Her sister used to pinch her on the arm to see if she was still breathing.”

“No, she did that to torment me,” I retort, a smile pasted on my own face.  My sister is a sore spot with me.

“I used to spray my sisters with the hose every time we were watering the lawn,” Lyle offers.  Soon, we are all swapping childhood stories.  We don’t even notice the person creeping up to us until he’s almost on top of us.

“Excuse me.  Are you Mrs. Jenson?”  The man is thin with a hooked nose and hooded eyes.  He is staring at Mrs. Jenson with undisguised rapture.

“Yes.  How may I help you?”  Mrs. Jenson says courteously.  It’s almost four-thirty in the morning, and this woman is the paragon of graciousness.

“Teddy Burnett, from the Chron.”  He holds his hand out to shake and not knowing better, Mrs. Jenson shakes his hand.  “May I ask you a few questions?”  Teddy smiles engagingly, suddenly becoming oddly attractive despite his obvious flaws.

“Uh, Catherine?”  I say in a low voice.  I don’t want to upset her or make a scene, but I think I ought to warn her.  “He’s a reporter.  Just to let you know.”

“A reporter?”  Mrs. Jenson looks confused.  “What would a reporter want with me?”

“I just want to ask you a few questions about your son,” Teddy says easily, leaning against the wall.  His dark brown hair is ruffled, and he looks as if he’s slept in his clothes.  “There’s a rumor that he was involved with some shady characters.  Do you think that lead to his accident?”

“What?”  Mrs. Jenson stares at Teddy, not understanding what he’s saying.

“Maybe he dumped a trick who took exception to being used.”  Teddy’s tone is smooth, in contrast to his ugly questions.

“Ok, that’s enough.”  Lyle, who has yet to sit down, darkens as he takes a few steps towards Teddy.  The latter is four inches shorter and a good fifty pounds lighter than Lyle, but holds his ground.

“I’m just doing my job,” Teddy says self-righteously.  “Does this accident signal open season on queers or is it a personal attack against Mr. Frantz?  The public has the right to know.”

“My son is in a coma,” Mrs. Jenson says frigidly, drawing herself up regally.  “He might die, young man.  What business is that of the public?”  She glares at him with my mother joining in.  Teddy wilts visibly, but gamely tries again.

“I told you.  If this is a queer-bashing thing, then the public needs to know that.”  His tone isn’t as conciliatory as it had been earlier; he is getting flustered by the counterattack.  He must be new to reporting or else he wouldn’t be so easily rattled.

“It’s four-thirty in the morning,” Lyle says in a low voice.  “This woman is trying to cope with a terrible tragedy.  Don’t you have any decency?”  I sigh at their naivety.  Reporters wouldn’t get anywhere if they had any decency.  I may not like them, but I don’t share the same animosity towards them that others do.

“Do you smoke, Mr. Burnett?”  I ask suddenly.

“Call me Teddy,” he replies.  “Um, yes, I do.”  He sounds shamefaced about it, which living in a society that frowns heavily upon smoking will do to a man.

“Come walk with me,” I say, linking my arm through his.  He is startled, but isn’t about to object to having an attractive woman dangling from his arm.  We stroll through the hospital halls and towards the front door.  Several times, he tries to start a conversation, but I divert his attention.  It’s only when we step outside that I allow him to talk.

“Excuse me for asking, but who are you?”  His eyes are puzzled as he tries to fit me into Paris’s family structure.

“Do you have a cigarette I can bum off you?”  I don’t like to smoke this much in a day, but it’s for a good cause.  He pulls out a pack of Marlboro Reds and hands one over.  A minute later, he lights my cigarette for me.  As he’s lighting one for himself, I answer.  “I am Paris’s best friend.”

“Right!  Ms. Long, or something like that.”  I wince at the mangling of my name.  He really is a neophyte.

“Ms. Liang,” I pronounce carefully before spelling it for him.  He whips out his notebook and jots down my name.  There is just enough artificial light for him to discern his notebook.  Barely.

“Are you going to talk to me, or did you drag me out here to shoo me away?”  Teddy’s tone is shrewd despite his earlier ‘aw-shucks’ manner.

“Nope.  I dragged you out here to have a cigarette with you and to let you interview me.  I’m not promising I’ll answer, but you have a better chance with me than with any of the others.”  I suck on my cigarette, aware that I might have let myself in for something I’d rather not do.

“Right.”  Teddy pauses to collect his thoughts.

I give him a nice little interview with blandishments meant to appease, but not to answer.  I let it slip that in my opinion, it’s not a queer-bashing incident, so the community can rest a little easier.  I talk about the general character of Paris and how beloved he is.  I mention how tragic it is that drivers don’t always watch where they’re going.  I wax poetic about how highly optimistic I am that Paris will wake up soon, then make a full recovery.  While I’m careful not to out-and-out lie, I manage to convey the impression that it was nothing more than an unfortunate accident.  I mention nothing about the tape or my previous run-ins with murder cases.  Teddy is so green, he doesn’t pick up that I’m telling him a carefully-edited version of the truth.  He must not recognize me from my earlier fame, either, which is a relief to me.  When we conclude, we are fast friends.  I send him away after he gives me his numbers, and I promise to call him if anything comes up.  I have a feeling he isn’t going to last long at the Chronicle if he’s satisfied with the pabulum that I fed him.

“Is he gone?”  Mrs. Jenson asks, her face looking drawn.  She had been resting her head against the wall behind her, but she quickly sits up as I approach.

“Yeah, he’s gone,” I say, drooping a little.  I don’t like obfuscating the truth, but sometimes it’s necessary.  “He won’t be bothering you any more, but there may be others.  So far, it hasn’t been a big news item, but that could change.”  I sink into a seat, too tired to stand any longer.

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