“Rayne! The police!” Paris looks at me with wide eyes even though neither of us is a stranger to the police. During the last investigation, they talked to one of us at least every other day.
“Sergeant Grimes, Ms. Liang.” He is over six-feet tall, rangy with a buzz cut and muddy brown eyes. He is not prepossessing at all, except for the stare which all cops cultivate. “Detective Brady.” He nods at a shapely blond with a curvaceous figure not disguised at all by the black pantsuit she chooses to wear. Her light green eyes are fringed with blond eyelashes—a contrast that should be off-setting, but is seductive instead. Wire-rimmed glasses cover her eyes. She is carrying a pad of paper.
“What can I do for you?” I struggle to keep my voice matter-of-fact so he can’t read the panic on my face. What can I tell them that won’t make me sound phony, or, worst of all, guilty?
“May we come in?” The sergeant barges into the room, ignoring the fact that I haven’t answered his question yet. “We just have a few questions to ask you about the murder of Ashley Stevenson.” He pauses expectantly, waiting for me to fill in the blanks. Resigned, I usher him and Detective Brady into the living room. I gesture for them to sit, but they remain standing. So do I. “This won’t last long. I just have a few questions I have to ask you.” The sergeant’s voice is genial, as if he’s discussing different flavors of tea. “Please have your roommate leave.” Paris exits the room without saying a word. I know he’s huddled in his bedroom, straining to hear what is being said. “Ms. Liang, how did you know Ms. Stevenson?”
“We were in a group together,” I say firmly, hoping that will be the end of it. Of course it isn’t, and they persist in asking me questions. What kind of group? Group therapy; therapy group—take your pick. What was the group specifically for? For some reason, I am reluctant to answer this question. “Trauma healing,” I finally mumble, hoping they’ll let it go. Of course they don’t. How often does the group meet? Who is the leader? Who in the group didn’t like Ashley? I finally protest as the content of the meetings is confidential.
“Nothing is confidential in a homicide investigation, Ms. Liang,” Sergeant Grimes shoots back as he looms over me. Neither of us is sitting—he because he refused a seat; I because I won’t put myself at a further disadvantage by sitting down. The man is over six-feet tall, so he’s already a foot taller than me. The detective is discreetly scribbling away while the sergeant and I exchange glares. I wish the cop from the other case, Inspector Robinson, was in charge of this investigation, but I understand that it’s outside of her jurisdiction.
“Sergeant Grimes, why are you asking me about the group?” I stare at him as haughtily as I can. “I only went one time.”
“You were involved in another homicide investigation quite recently,” the sergeant explains, a smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Perhaps you weren’t as innocent in the last case as you make yourself out to be.”
“I almost got killed on the last case,” I say incredulously, losing my cool. I know I shouldn’t give him the satisfaction, but I can’t stop myself. “No thanks to the police! I certainly wouldn’t have endangered my life if I was involved, would I?”
“We only have your word you weren’t involved since the perp is dead, now don’t we?” The sergeant mouths the words very softly so I have to strain to hear him. At first, I think I’ve misheard. When I digest what he’s said, I am furious.
“If you’re going to be insulting, you can leave now and contact my lawyer in the morning.” I don’t have a lawyer, but I’m sure that I can get Lisa to recommend one.
“Now, Ms. Liang, there’s no need to drag lawyers into this. You and me, we’re just having a little talk.” His words are light, but his tone isn’t. His eyes are appraising me even as he’s spewing out soothing phrases. I don’t trust him, but I also don’t want to make a scene. I have learned from the last case that it’s better to aid the police than to be suspected by them.
“What do you want to know?” I suddenly sit, weary of the posturing. I had read somewhere that cops are being trained to be more sensitive and ‘peace officers’ rather than the bullying, power-hungry, fear-mongers they once were—obviously, Sergeant Grimes missed that memo.
“Drugs. Who’s your supplier?” I am taken aback by his phrasing.
“I don’t do drugs,” I say briefly. I am certainly not going to inform him about my occasional forays into 420. Or about that night in Tijuana.
“Who had motive to kill Ms. Stevenson?” The sergeant barks out the words while Detective Brady looks at me expectantly.
“What about her father? I’m sure he had enemies,” I say helpfully. From the scowl on the sergeant’s face, it’s clear he’s not impressed by my answer. I am caught. I don’t want to rat out anyone in the group, but I don’t want the cops leaning on me any harder than is necessary, either.
“In the group, Ms. Liang.” There is no call for such sarcasm as is laden in the sergeant’s tone, but I charitably try to tell myself that he’s had a hard day. It doesn’t make me feel any better.
“Well, Ashley did insult a couple of the women,” I say, feeling like a traitor as I speak. I have no loyalty to those women, and yet, I hate just turning them over to the police. “She accused Astarte of driving her husband to kill himself.” I can’t read the expression on Sergeant Grimes’ face, but it’s not pleasant. I hasten to add, “Astarte agreed with her, so it’s not really a reason to kill.”
“Anything else?” The sergeant quickly neutralizes the expression on his face. It’s almost amusing to see him try to look anything other than mean.
“Um, Jennifer didn’t like Ashley because Ashley was very pro-abortion and Jennifer is Catholic.” I try to recall what each actually said, but I can’t remember. The sergeant snorts, which doesn’t exactly put me at ease.
“Ok, Ms. Liang. Let’s try this. Did you know Ms. Stevenson before the group?” The sergeant continues in this vein for a bit, convinced that I had been Ashley’s bosom buddy prior to the group. Discounting the facts that I am ten years older and that we have nothing in common, that’s a great hypothesis. It seems to be the sergeant’s pet theory, and he’s not willing to let go of it. I answer his questions, my mind elsewhere, until I hear the end of his question. “….from the lesbian community?”
“Pardon?” I am forced to ask him to repeat the question, though I rather not as it puts him one up.
“I said, isn’t it true you know Ms. Stevenson from the lesbian community?” The sergeant looks at me meaningfully before adding, “Or should I say, ‘queer community’ as you are bisexual?” He slightly emphasizes the last word as if it’s distasteful. I briefly wonder how someone as rigid and offensive as he had secured the job as sergeant in the oh-so-tolerant Marin County. I breath deeply before answering.
“Sergeant, let me tell you a thing or two about the ‘queer community’. First of all, it’s a myth. There’s no such animal. Queers are just as diverse as any other group. Second, as I’m sure you know, it is derogatory to use the term ‘queer’ unless you are part of the community. Since you presumably are not, please refrain from using it. Third, I see no reason to connect my sexuality with knowing Ashley.” I don’t even know how he knows about my sexuality, but it galls me that he thinks it has anything to Ashley’s murder. I fold my arms and stare ahead, not daring to look at the sergeant. After several seconds of explosive silence, I risk glancing up at him. His eyebrows are beetled, and he is glaring down at me.
“I am not here for a lesson in political correctness, Ms. Liang,” he spits, his face turning red. “Please answer the question.”
“What was it? I don’t remember as it was so long ago.” Ok, not too diplomatic on my part, but he’s pushed me past my limit.
“Isn’t it true that you and Ashley knew each other from the lesbian community? That you were lovers?” The sergeant peers at me, ready to see me crumble. Instead, I laugh out loud.
“Ashley? My lover?” I have to laugh; it’s a ridiculous thought. She is nothing like any girlfriend I’ve ever had. “First of all, that’s immoral as she’s a minor. Second of all, she wasn’t my type. Third of all, no, I did not know her before the meeting.” As usual, I have elaborated too much.
“What is your type, Ms. Liang? Perhaps one of the other women in the group?” The sergeant must be hurting for suspects if he has to conjure up a romantic triangle as motive for murder.
“That is none of your business and not relevant to this investigation.” I stare at Sergeant Grimes to make him realize that I’m not stupid. He drops that line of question in a hurry. After a few more desultory questions, he excuses himself, taking the detective with him. I am shaking from fatigue, tension, and fear as Paris hurries back into the room.
“Well?” He looks at me avidly, wanting to dish the dirt. I appreciate his enthusiasm, but I’m not up to it. I beg off, telling him that I have a headache and that I’ll tell him everything tomorrow. He is forced to be satisfied with that.
The next day at my work, everyone is buzzing about the untimely death of the Godiva princess. I have no idea why they didn’t talk about it yesterday, but I don’t bother asking anybody. I tune them out, not wanting to hear anything. I keep my mouth shut about knowing the victim. After the last investigation, people are wary of me. This would only make them more so. For a bunch of social workers, they sure are squeamish about a few sordid details. They don’t like to look at the dark side of life when they’re not working, which is why most of them haven’t spoken to me after I returned to work. It hurts. I expected one or two to blow me off, but not the majority. Esperanza tries to console me by saying, “They’ll come around. They are just pansy-assed wusses who don’t know what is good for them. They are not bad people, though, Rayne. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt.” It is too late for that, however. I will never forget how the math teacher looked at me through her mascara-crusted eyes and said heavily, “Who knows how unhinged your mind became after that attempt on your life? Having you around may be damaging to the children.” It’s no coincidence that she has resented me from the minute I entered the agency partly because I know more about math than she does, and partly because I reject everything stereotypically feminine which is her métier.
“Rayne! Did you read the paper?” Quinn comes bouncing over to my desk—a habit she’s reacquired since I returned to work. She is bothering me once or twice a day, and I wish she would stop it. This time, she’s waving a newspaper in her hand. I woke up late so I hadn’t had time to read the paper this morning. “That girl who was murdered? She wasn’t raped. She was a virgin when she died!” Quinn trumpets the news as if she’s a herald. It nauseates me to see the look of avarice on her face
“So the report of her with her pants around her knees?”
“Staged. Maybe to make it look like she was raped. Isn’t that diabolical?” Quinn asks admiringly. I forbade to point out that if someone went to so much trouble to make it appear Ashley was raped, he or she would have made sure there were some sperm samples floating around and that Ashley wasn’t a virgin. Although by the way she talked, one could certainly surmise that she had been around the block a few times. That’s the trouble with assumptions—they’re made with the understanding that the person speaking is a reasonable person. Obviously, Ashley felt the need to project a certain persona—one that may have contributed to her demise.
“That’s rotten,” I say fiercely, tossing the paper into the trash. Usually, I recycle but today, I can’t force myself to do it. “As if killing her wasn’t bad enough. The psycho had to take away her reputation, too. What kind of sicko would do such a thing?” I sigh, turning back to my work. I don’t want to talk about it any more; certainly, not with Quinn who is more of a nuisance than a friend.
“Anyway, the police are exploring the possibility that someone who had a grudge against her father did it to her. The godfather of chocolate.” Quinn giggles. To her, it’s just a lark—I bet she’s one of those people who slows down on the highway to stare at an accident. I keep my eyes focused on my computer, hoping she’ll go away. Unfortunately, she’s not taking the hint. “They’re also looking into some group she was a part of. For trauma or something like that.” Quinn wrinkles up her nose as she imparts that information.
“So?” I ask the question mildly because I might be misinterpreting her look.
“Well, geez, a kid that age in therapy? Give me a break! What a racket. Nobody younger than eighteen really needs therapy, especially not group therapy.” Quinn is the program coordinator for the kids which means she has no involvement in the treatment part of the agency, but I would still expect her to be more understanding given the population she works with.
“Have you ever read the case files for the kids you’re helping?” I ask, my voice rising slightly. I haven’t read them per se, but I have to organize the files, so I can’t help seeing some of the details from time to time. One girl’s father held a loaded shotgun to her head after she wet her bed one night and told her he would kill her if she ever did it again. She was seven.
“No, that’s none of my business. I just line up activities for them like going to the museum or bringing in a speaker. I don’t really know much about their backgrounds. All I know is that they’re thugs.” She laughs, indicating it’s a joke. I am not amused. The kids like to talk to me on their way to wherever they’re going, and I like them for the most part. People ask how I can work with kids like these, and I always tell them, ‘Given what they’ve gone through, I’m surprised they’ve turned out as well as they have.’ Of course, I’ve never tried to teach or counsel them, but they’re really just kids in most aspects. The main difference is that they’ve seen and done things other kids their age haven’t. Do they commit crimes? Absolutely. Are most of them going to spend a good portion of their life in jail? Most likely. Are they evil? No. I like the kids—now ask me about my coworkers.
“They are not thugs,” I say carefully. This is not a conversation I should have to be having with someone who works in this agency. “They have screwed-up lives and don’t make the best decisions in the world, but they are not thugs.”
“Oh, Rayne! You can be so naïve!” Quinn laughs, oblivious to my growing anger. There are no kids around as they are all in class, but I wish she would lower her voice, anyway. “This is nothing more than a holding place for most of these kids. We’re doing nothing other than staving off the inevitable.”
“If you really feel that way, why are you working here?” My head is throbbing. How did we get from Ashley to this conversation? I just want her to go away so I can work in peace.
“It’s a job,” she says simply, dropping the gaiety. “Plus, I like the kids. I’m just more realistic about them than you are.” I let it go. There’s no reason to continue the conversation, and if I don’t talk, she may get bored and wander off. She doesn’t take the hint, however, and perches on the side of my desk to chat. “We should have coffee sometime.” She’s making those disturbing cow eyes at me. I wonder if she and the boyfriend have had a fight, or if this is just her monthly ‘I have to try to convince myself I’m a lesbian’ thing. Whatever it is, I don’t want any part of it.
We have been over this territory many times. I do not want to have coffee with her. I do not want to listen to her blather about how she’s really a dyke even though she has a live-in boyfriend. I don’t enjoy her company and would rather sit in my apartment staring at the walls than have coffee with her. I also do not want to watch her stick her fingers down her throat ever again which is something she does frequently. In short, I have no interest in doing anything with her outside the agency ever again. Of course, I do not phrase it that way, but she gets my point. She is duly insulted and flounces away in a huff. I stop working to watch as I’ve never actually seen someone flounce. It’s quite the performance. I turn back to my computer so I can finish my work. The day flies by in a flurry of ‘has to be done now’ work. I feel a real sense of accomplishment when four o’clock rolls around.
Paris is waiting for me when I get home. He hands me a glass of chilled orange juice which I sip gratefully. He waves me into the kitchen and motions for me to sit while he mans the stove. I don’t know what he’s cooking, but it smells wonderful. My stomach seems to think so, too, as it growls loudly. I worked so hard today, I only manage to eat half a tuna salad sandwich for lunch. Paris sets out a plate of crudities to take the edge off my hunger. I sit in silence for a few minutes so I can appreciate the artistry that is Paris. It would be easier for both of us if we could just fall in love with each other. However, there are many reasons we are not compatible. He is a morning person; I am a night owl. He is an upbeat, cheerful person while I’m moody and cynical. We both have the pathological need to be right, and neither is very quick to apologize. The biggest reason we are not compatible, however, is because Paris prefers men for long-term relationships while I prefer women.
We talk about the murder, of course. The police think Ashley’s death has something to do with the group while I’m hoping it has something to do with her father. Paris is skeptical that the CEO of a chocolate company would make the kind of enemies who bump off family members as a warning. I inform him that Ashley hadn’t been raped according to Quinn, and Paris wonders how Quinn would know information like that so quickly. I tell him it was in the papers that Ashley was a virgin which speeds up the process considerably. Also, the fact that she is who she is doesn’t hurt, either. Paris muses out loud about why her body was left at the school. He thinks its might be symbolic. I lean towards convenience myself. I sigh as I realize that our conversation is leading nowhere.
“Don’t fret, love,” Paris says soothingly, his back still to me. “Even if it does have something to do with your group, it’s not related to you at all. You’ve only been there once.” He has a good point. It’s not as if I’m knee-deep in the intrigue this time. I relax marginally, but am disinclined to talk about it any more. We talk about desultory things until dinner is finally served. Paris has made a gumbo, Creole style. Cornbread, red beans and rice, collard greens with little pieces of pork. To finish it off, sweet potato pie. I shovel in the food as if I haven’t eaten in weeks, although my intake is improving daily, stopping periodically to ensure it’s staying down. It is. Paris eats at a more measured pace, taking pleasure in watching me enjoy my food. Poor Paris. He has had the odious duty of watching over me this past month, and it’s taken its toll on him. We eat in companionable silence.
“I don’t think I’m going back to the group,” I say, after polishing off a fair share of each dish. I even find room for a second piece of sweet potato pie. I will pay for this indulgence later, but I am thoroughly enjoying myself now.
“No reason not to,” Paris mumbles around a mouthful of greens. I quirk an eyebrow, but restrain myself from pointing out that a murder in the group is an excellent reason not to go. “Unless they find a connection, I think you should be safe.” Perhaps he’s right. I have nearly a week to think about it, anyway.