“That Stevenson girl sounds like a real piece of works,” my mother says, returning to the former subject with little preamble. “I think she stuck her nose where it didn’t belong. If your group is involved, you have to find out more about the other members.”
“Maybe I could run the names by you,” I suggest cautiously. Even though my mother is a fount of information, I don’t know what kind of confidentiality issues I’m running up against here. Then again, I’m not a therapist, and I’m certainly not talking about the group on television.
“Only if you want to.” My mother shifted on the couch to make herself comfortable.
I want to. I trust that my mother is not going to run around blabbing about the information, so I run the names by her. I only know the first names which makes it more difficult, but some of the names are quite unusual which should help. I give names, races, and a brief description of each woman. My mother doesn’t know Sharise, Jennifer, Maria or Leticia. I include Rosie’s sister since she has bearing on the case. She knows Tudd by sight and name, mostly because Stella knows her . It surprises me as Tudd is decidedly not Marin material. Turns out that Stella’s kids took judo from her. Tudd went to Stella’s home twice a week because Stella had a home gym and preferred to have the lessons there. It also surprises me to learn that Tudd taught judo, though I can’t say why. She doesn’t teach any more, not since the rape.
My mother tells me the gory details because I only know the basics. Tudd was walking home from work around eight o’clock—she’s a teacher in Marin County and stayed late for some reason—when two men dragged her into the bushes and raped her. One of them left a cufflink that was quite expensive. Stella’s impression was that Tudd knew at least one of her attackers, though no one was ever caught. That leads me to wonder if perhaps Mr. Stevenson had been one of the attackers and something Ashley said in group triggered recognition in Tudd. I grimace at my reasoning. Even if it were true, there would be no reason to kill Ashley rather than Mr. Stevenson. I say out loud that it was too bad the judo didn’t help, but my mother points out that it was two against one. Also, there was a knife involved, so Tudd really didn’t stand much of a chance.
I move to the last member of the group—Astarte. The minute I say her name, my mother’s face changes. Up until now, my mother’s looked as if she’s solving an intriguing problem. Now, there’s something else in her eyes, but I’m not quite sure what. I’m not surprised that my mother knows Astarte, but I am perplexed at her reaction. She leans back in the couch, sipping her tea. There is a set to her jaw that hadn’t been there a minute before. I open my mouth to say something, but shut it just as quickly. I’m not sure I want to know what my mother has to say about Astarte, but I know that I can’t stop the momentum. I nervously clear my throat and say her name again as my mother doesn’t seem inclined to talk. Still, she doesn’t say anything for several minutes. Finally, I break the silence by asking in a small voice if she knows Astarte even though I already know the answer.
“I know Astarte.” My mother’s tone is mild, but there is a thin edge to it. “More accurately, your father knew her.” I blink. Now that does surprise me. Astarte doesn’t seem like my father’s kind of person, but perhaps there was more to him than I knew. “He met her at a peace rally a year before he died.” My mother stops and folds her lips.
“Mom, what?” Suddenly, I’m not sure I want to hear this. I adore my father, and I have a sinking feeling that this story will not be edifying towards him.
“We were having a difficult time then,” my mother says quietly, her hands clenching at her side. “Your father was questioning what he was doing in life. He was having a midlife crisis at forty-five. He couldn’t buy a sports car like most guys, oh no.” She stops, but I can connect the dots. Even though I know what she’s saying, there’s no way I can believe it.
“He had an affair with her?” I ask, my voice rising. My father was devoted to my mother—any fool could say that. My mom must be mistaken.
“He slept with her once,” my mother says. Her eyes reflect the pain she still feels about the incidence. “That wasn’t what bothered me the most, though, Rainbow. It was his behavior leading up to the one-night stand. After rallies, he would take her out to coffee, telling me he’d meet me at home. Then he wouldn’t come home until three, four in the morning. They were just talking, he told me. Ten years younger and married, too, but that didn’t matter to either of them.”
“How come I didn’t know?” I whisper, my lower lip trembling. I can’t believe that my father had an affair. Why did my mother keep it from me for so long?
“You were at college. I didn’t think it was something you needed to know,” my mother says with a sigh. “Libby never knew, either, or at least she pretended not to know. Your father loved you and your sister just the same. Astarte had nothing to do with either of you.” She sips at her tea, finding it difficult to continue. “This went on for a couple of months until one day, he sat me down and said he wanted an open marriage. He said it was hypocritical of us to profess ourselves hippies if we didn’t have an open marriage.”
I fight the urge to cover my ears with my hands. The last thing I want to hear is that my perfect father wasn’t so perfect. My mother gazes at me sympathetically, knowing that I’ve always been daddy’s girl. Nevertheless, I need to know the truth, even if it’s not pretty. My mother reluctantly agreed because he was right. Free love is a major tenet of the hippie outlook, and it would have been hypocritical for her to be jealous of his infatuation with Astarte, even if she was. Jealous, that is. So, with my mother’s permission, my father embarked on his affair with Astarte. It’s almost anticlimactic that my father was consumed by guilt after having sex with Astarte once and called it off right after. Serves him right, in my opinion, though I don’t say it to my mother. It’s clear that no matter what she says, she’s still not over his infidelity.
“I can’t believe Daddy did that,” I say, my trust in him shattered. It’s hard when an idol goes tumbling off a pedestal.
“He had his flaws like everyone else,” my mother says sadly. “We managed to put it behind us. We were planning our second honeymoon when he was killed.” My mother looks so sad, I wrap my arms around her. We sit that way in silence for a while. There isn’t much to say after that.
“What about Astarte?” I ask finally, pulling away slightly. “How did she take Daddy breaking things off?” I also wonder if Libby knows, but there’s no way I’m going to ask her.
She didn’t take it well at all. She started calling up in the middle of the night threatening my mother. Astarte would call my father at work imitating my mother’s voice to be put through. Fortunately, she’s not a good mimic, and my father would hang up immediately. Finally, my father had to threaten to get a restraining order on her before she backed off. Where was her husband during all this? Going slowly out of his mind. He knew about the affair because Astarte had told him, then told him there was nothing he could do about it. He killed himself a few months after the end of the whole sordid affair, unable to deal with his wife’s betrayal. This story is much different than the twaddle Astarte was spouting in group, which reminds me that Ashley knew Astarte’s husband killed himself.
I wonder how Ashley knew about it. My mother tells me that it was in the papers because Astarte was a therapist at the time. Her business fell off sharply, naturally, but she didn’t lose her license. The part about my dad was never reported, which is how my mother was able to keep it a secret from me. I still don’t see how Ashley found out about it because she would have been a little girl at the time, but there are always ways. Maybe she’s the kind of girl who liked to have information on others and did a little internet research on Astarte. I ask Mom if Astarte had been into New Age stuff when Mom knew her. No. Astarte called it a bunch of nonsense, though she took the name of a goddess. I nod my head knowingly. Something about Astarte’s manner hadn’t rung true, and I ponder the idea that she is putting on an act for some reason. To what purpose, though, I cannot say. My mom tells me that Astarte lives in Marin which I had assumed, anyway.
My head is spinning with the information. Astarte as a murderer? She could be the therapist that Ashley’s father had been seeing at the time of Ashley’s mother’s death. An affair with a client is enough to have your license revoked, not to mention fines and unwanted publicity. If Ashley somehow discovered that her father was having an affair with Astarte, maybe that’s the reason Astarte killed Ashley. I shake my head impatiently. It doesn’t fit. If Ashley knew her father was having an affair with Astarte, the whole therapy group would have known because Ashley had not been a discreet person and seemed incapable of keeping a secret. Ashley had shouted her belief that Astarte killed her husband; I don’t think Ashley would have kept her knowledge about her father’s affair with Astarte to herself.
I scold myself for jumping to conclusions. I have no evidence that Astarte slept with Mr. Stevenson and caution myself not to be wedded to that theory. Carol fits the role as therapist as well, though I don’t think she practices in Marin. I couldn’t say for sure, though. Jennifer positively hated Ashley, so she’s another strong candidate. By now, I’ve accepted the premise that Ashley’s death is the important one with Rosie’s been contingent on the first. It would be ideal if I could interview Mr. Stevenson to see what his thoughts are on the subject. I highly doubt I will be able to get anywhere near him, however, as why would he deign to talk to me? I am nobody of importance other than being recognizable as the woman who almost got herself killed by a lunatic murderer. What possible reason could I give for him to talk to me that would convince him it’s in his best interest to do so? I can’t think of one.
“She cornered me at Trader Joe’s once after the affair was over,” my mother says softly, still on the subject of Astarte. “She was wearing some crazy multicolored robe which draped magnificently from her. She looked like an African queen or something. She started telling me that I was a bad wife, that I never understood my husband or really listened to him. She said he was psychologically wounded and needed a healer, not a pothead. She drew quite a crowd, let me tell you. I had to call security to escort her out. She left screaming epithets at me. I felt sorry for her and didn’t press charges.” I can tell that my mother now regrets not doing so.
“I still can’t believe Daddy did that,” I say, my heart crushed. My daddy was supposed to be perfect—not human. I need him to be a hero, but my mother’s story robs me of my illusion.
“Don’t judge him too harshly,” my mother says, correctly interpreting my look. “I forgave him long ago. Besides, his punishment was having that crazy woman stalk him for months after he broke it off. He never would have done it again.” Easy to say now that he’s no longer alive. As painful as the story is, though, I can’t see how it has any relevance to the current murders. It’s simply not something people kill over. “I don’t like it,” my mother says, finishing her tea. “I don’t like you being in a group with her, even if she doesn’t know who you are.” Her jaw is set. Even if she has forgiven my father for his transgression, she has never forgotten. My guess is that her goodwill towards my father does not extend towards Astarte.
“Have you seen Astarte since?”
“I run into her now and then,” my mother says evenly. “We are on some of the same committees. We greet each other civilly and make a point to avoid each other the rest of the time.”
My mother takes another hit off her pipe. She smokes every night, but usually one or two hits. She only smokes more when she’s stressed, like now. The painful memory of my father’s affair right before he died has affected her. I don’t begrudge her the marijuana, though I know very well what Libby would say if she were in my place. The last time my sister visited, she lectured Mom daily on the hazards of pot-smoking. Libby even went online and printed a bunch of articles about the effects of pot-smoking which she then handed to my mother and ordered her to read them. My mom had leafed through the pages to be polite before dumping them in the recycling bin. Next, Libby flushed the weed down the toilet. My mom bought more and found creative ways to hide it. Libby had left three days early in a huff because my mother refused to be reformed.
“I shouldn’t have told you,” my mother says regretfully. “I wasn’t telling you because it would help solve the murders—I just had to get it off my chest. Do you know I haven’t told anybody except your Aunt JoJo that story?” She sets down her pipe and stares at it moodily. “I’m glad your father and I reconciled before his death. It made it a lot easier to take.”
“The jerk,” I say, my voice trembling with anger. I have a hard time forgiving my father posthumously for the pain he inflicted on my mother. “How could he?”
“Rainbow, he wasn’t the only one,” my mother sighs. This is more than I want or need to know. I wave a hand to shut her off, but she’s determined to tell me the whole sordid story. “After you were born and before Liberty, I went a little nuts. There I was, twenty-one years old with a baby. I was still in college. I had never lived away from my parents. What did I know? Your father, being five years older, had more life experience. He was ready to settle down and be a father. He was born for it. I, on the other hand, doubted I would ever be a good mother to you.” My mother’s voice thickens as she talks. I move the bong out of range so she won’t toke up again. “I had an affair with a professor. I initiated it, and it ended badly.”
“What subject?” I ask, my mind reeling. Stupid question, but it’s not easy finding out in the same night that both my parents had had affairs.
“History,” she says. “It was my favorite subject. You were six months old, and I was antsy. I stayed after class for help one day and made a pass at him. We were together for three months before I called it quits.”
“Did Daddy know?” I can’t keep the censure out of my voice. What was she thinking? I feel a sliver of doubt about her love for me. Was having me so bad, it drove her to another man’s arms.
“I told him eventually,” my mother admits, staring longingly at the bong I have pushed to the other side of the coffee table. She is too lethargic to reach for it, and I’m certainly not going to make it easier for her. “He cried, but forgave me instantly. He was a sweet man, your father. I realized how lucky I was to have him—and you.”
“Why did you tell me that?” I ask, making a face. These are confidences best left for the confessional. “It can’t have any possible ramifications on the case at hand.”
“I saw your eyes when I revealed your father’s infidelity. I wanted to give you the bigger picture.” My mother slumps over, suddenly looking every bit her fifty years.
“It doesn’t make what he did right,” I argue. “Just because you did it.” Her words are filling my head until I can’t think. She had an affair. He had an affair. They were married over twenty years when he died and seemed like the most stable couple I knew. To find out they both cheated on each other is disheartening.
“Rainbow, nobody is perfect. This is what I mean when I say I worry about you. You expect too much from people. My eternal optimist.”
“I’m not an optimist!” I protest. “I’m a realist.” I’m appalled that she thinks I’m a Mary Sunshine skipping around chirping about peace and love.
“No, you’re an optimist. You expect the best from people. That’s why you’re so disappointed when they let you down.” My mother nods her head sadly. “You get that from your father. He used to be so hurt when someone did something he perceived as a slight.” She broods for a minute more as I ease away from her. I don’t know what to say following her revelations. She senses my ambiguity and smiles a watery smile. “You will learn that no one is as simple as they appear.” I disagree, but keep my opinion to myself. I am too disgruntled to talk about it any more. I am glad my cell phone rings so I can interrupt the conversation.
“Hello?” I snatch up the phone without even checking the Caller ID.
“She’s dead,” Paris says flatly, his tone full of suppressed tears. “Her heart just stopped working. How can this be happening?” He breathes hard into the phone.
“Oh, Paris, I’m so sorry,” I say helplessly. “Do you want me to go? Just say the word, and I’m there.”
“No! Thanks, Rayne. I can’t have anyone see me this way.” Paris’s voice is tight, as if he’s using all his strength to keep his emotions under control.
“What about Lyle? He’d want to be there,” I say desperately. I don’t want Paris to be alone at a time like this, but I can’t really afford to go so soon after taking a month off from my job. I will if I have to, but it’s not an opportune time.
“No, I, I gotta go.” Paris abruptly clicks off, leaving me listening to a dial tone.
“What is it, Rainbow?” My mother asks with concern.
“Paris’s sister died. He doesn’t want anyone there,” I say numbly before the grief hits. The conversation with my mother about infidelity is pushed to the background. I have never met his baby sister, but it’s still too much to process. Tears stream down my face. “Why, Mom? Why is this happening? Why now?” Wisely, my mother doesn’t try to respond, but just hugs me. “I have to call Lyle.” I break free and reach for my phone. My mother stays me with a touch of her hand.
“If Paris doesn’t want him there, you should respect that,” my mother says softly. “It’s not your place to decide.”
“Lyle should know,” I say stubbornly, pulling away. My mother recognizes my tone and simply sighs. I dial Lyle’s number which Paris gave to me when they became serious.
“Hello?” His voice is laden with weariness; I feel guilty for adding to it.
“Lyle? It’s Rayne. Paris just called me.” I pause to think of the best way to phrase what needs to be said when he jumps in the gap.
“Thank God! He won’t talk to me. What’s going on?” His voice is energized merely by talking to me—I wish I had that effect on everyone.
“Oh my god! I have to get out there. My poor baby, all alone. I’d better get on the net and find the next flight out—”
“He doesn’t want either of us,” I cut in, feeling guilty as I do so. “He says he has to face this by himself.”
“Hell, no,” Lyle says immediately. “He may say that, but it’s not what he needs. He needs his loved ones, his real loved ones around him right now. I don’t know about you, but I’m going.”
“I can’t make it,” I say, explaining my situation. My boss had been extremely lenient on me the last month, but her patience is stretched thin. There’s no way I could get away with taking off again, not so closely on the heels of a month-long leave of absence.
“Then I’ll represent us both,” Lyle says grimly. I silently thank him for not making me feel even guiltier about not going.
“It’s not going to be easy,” I warn him. “His family is ultra-religious.”
“He needs me,” Lyle states in a voice so low, I have to strain to hear him. “I’m going. I’ll just have to clear it with my boss.” Lyle owns a novelty shop on the Mission, so that’s an attempt at a joke. Neither of us laugh.
“Keep me updated,” I choke, my voice suddenly giving out on me. I hang up and find myself in my mother’s arms again. She doesn’t say anything for a minute as she holds me. I feel as if I’m a child again, which is not a bad feeling.
“Poor Paris,” my mother finally says after I break free from her embrace. I dab my eyes with the back of my hand, not having a handkerchief handy. “And poor Mrs. Jenson. She’s had a hard life.”
“I guess so,” I say begrudgingly. “Doesn’t mean she has to take it out on Paris.”
“She’s doing what she thinks is best,” Mom says softly. “It’s not easy being a
parent and knowing when to back off.”
“You were pretty good at it, if I remember correctly.” I am not ready to excuse Mrs. Jenson for what I perceive as her mistreatment of Paris. Her behavior makes what my father and mother did seem, well, not as bad.
“It takes practice,” Mom says, smiling wanly. “Besides, I had your father around. He was the voice of reason whereas I was the one who wanted to come down hard sometimes.”
“Really?” I am surprised as I can’t remember the last time I saw my mother get really mad at either Libby or me.
“Yes. If it weren’t for your father, I would have said—or done—some things I would have regretted.” I take a minute to digest this information before shrugging. I realize that being a parent is not a picnic, but neither is being a child. At least, a parent usually has a say in the matter of becoming a parent—a child doesn’t have that luxury.