Rosie stole things from her employers, just as I surmised. Usually silver or jewelry, but once in a while, she’d have a sheaf of papers and wouldn’t tell Derek what they were. When I open my mouth to interrupt, Derek hurries on over my questions. The last time he saw her, he tried to find out obliquely if she was still stealing things. She just laughed at him and said that was penny-ante compared to what she had going on now. When Derek asked what she meant, she explained her newest venture to him. Venture. He makes it sound like she was an entrepreneur or a small-business owner, not the blackmailer she really was. She regaled him with stories of her clientele without revealing their identities. She said one had killed her husband; one had embezzled some money; one didn’t have the credentials she said she did; one was running an apartment scam. Things like that.
I couldn’t believe he hadn’t gone to the police, and I tell him so in no uncertain terms. I mean, we’re talking about blackmail. Derek doesn’t see it that way. In his eyes, all her clients deserved it because they are all liars and cheats and thieves, not to mention a killer. I look at him in disgust. This is the same man who works with juvenile delinquents, trying to rehab them. Does his attitude mean that he thinks they deserve whatever happens to them? I don’t ask because he’s still talking. He says the fact that Rosie’s clients live in Marin is a blackmailable offense. By now, he’s slurring his words which means I should get as much information out of him as quickly as possible and save my indignation for later. Besides, I’m hoping at some point he’ll realize if he had stopped her from continuing her ‘venture’, she’d still be alive.
“What else?” I massage my forehead, feeling the stirrings of a headache.
“Um, well,” Derek stalls again, refusing to meet my eyes. Suddenly, I get it and heave a big sigh.
“Derek, I don’t care if you slept with her,” I say earnestly, though Greta might care. A lot. “As long as it has nothing to do with her death.”
“No! It’s just, um, well, we had both drank a bit, and um, I invited her back to my place, just to reminisce some more. One thing led to another.” I look at him in exasperation. That is the lamest excuse in my book. One thing doesn’t lead to another, not without help. I don’t debate his statement, however, as it isn’t the point.
“So, when exactly did this happen?”
“The day before she was killed,” Derek says glumly. “I can’t believe she’s dead! We spent all afternoon in my bed talking and having sex. She told me one of her clients would be upping her payment. She was in such a good mood. When she left, she told me she’d call me after the deal went through. To celebrate. I waited all the next night for that call.” A call that never came. I have a ton of questions, most of them irrelevant to the case. I also remember the day in question at work—Derek had called in sick after taking off to see the counselor at the other agency.
“Has the police talked to you yet?”
“They don’t know. Nobody saw the two of us together. I just pretended it never happened.” I can see why he doesn’t want to tell anyone; he could get in serious trouble on many fronts. However, we’re talking about the woman he professes to love. If I were in his shoes, I’d be talking to everyone telling everything I know to bring the killer to justice. Then again, I wouldn’t be in his fucking shoes in the first place.
“Why are you telling me this?” I finally ask the question that’s been bothering me the entire time we’ve talked. Derek doesn’t do something without a reason; I’m curious to find out what it is. I’m sure it’s not my dazzling smile or winning personality.
“I want you to find out who killed her,” Derek blurts out, his eyes flitting from side to side.
“She didn’t tell you about her last client?” I slip in the question quickly, hoping to catch him off-guard. “I mean, since you had this magical connection. I would think she would have told you what she saw having to do with Ashley’s murder.”
“Nope,” Derek says, shaking his head. “That’s the one thing she wouldn’t tell me, for my own good, she said.” And of course, he didn’t care enough to press because he was just trying to get into her pants. The more I hear, the more I want to take a shower.
“Why not just let it go?”
“She didn’t deserve to die like that. She wasn’t trash!” I maintain my silence. While I agree that Rosie didn’t deserve the ignominy of her death, she caused a lot of pain to people while she was alive. Then again, if she were to be believed, those people caused pain to other people, but does that mean they deserved to be blackmailed? The ethics of the situation are murky in my mind, but Derek has no such qualms. “They’re scum, Rayne, the people she’s blackmailing. They deserved to pay.”
“That’s for the courts to decide, not us,” I snap back. I don’t know why I think people in the social services are any more moral or ethical than the population in general, but I keep hoping. When I first started working in nonprofit agencies, I had the naïve conception that people enter the field because they want to help people in need. There are some of those, sure, but more so, there are egomaniacs who need the strokes of helping the less fortunate to feel good about themselves. There are also those who are wounded and hope to heal themselves by helping others. Then there are the white liberal guilt-ridden ones, mostly women, who need to prove they’re not racist or class-biased by working with the underprivileged.
“I want justice,” Derek says intensely, picking up his beer and tipping it back. Unfortunately for him, he had finished it already. There is another break in the conversation as he fetches himself two more beers. I raise an eyebrow. It’s not even five o’clock and by my calculations, he is on his fifth beer.
“Slow down there, tiger,” I say jokingly since concern doesn’t seem to have any effect on him. “If you’re trying to compete with me, you win.” I am still on my second drink and have no intentions of quaffing another one.
“Stop nagging me!” Derek explodes. He is lightly sweating and his skin is starting to flush. “I can’t believe she’s dead! You’ve got to do something about it!” Even though I am doing something about it, it grates my nerves that he just assumes he has the right to tell me what to do.
“What do I get out of it, Derek?” I lift an eyebrow to radiate my displeasure.
“What do you mean what do you get out of it?” Incredulity creases his forehead. He is not as attractive when he’s grimacing. “You get the satisfaction of knowing you’re put my mind at ease. Isn’t that enough?” I marvel at his assumption that he’s entitled to my help. It must be a male thing—or more specifically, a white male thing.
“Listen to me carefully, Derek,” I say briskly. “If I’m going to help you, and that’s a big if, I need to know everything, do you hear me?” I don’t think it necessary to tell him that I am already on the case as I want to pry all the information from him that I possibly can.
“I’ve told you everything, Rayne,” Derek says, leaning forward and staring in my eyes. He must think it’s charming, but I find it irritating. I am thoroughly fed up and about to leave his drunken ass. It also doesn’t help his cause that he reeks of alcohol. “Rosie had clients who paid her money on a regular basis in exchange for her not revealing what she knew. She hit the mother lode and was killed for what she knew.” He picks up his beer and finishes it in one swallow. His eyelids are beginning to droop. I know he’s not telling me everything, but I don’t see the point in questioning him any further. He’s done talking for this go-round. He’s looking at me speculatively.
“What?” I snap. He’s getting on my nerves.
“You’re pretty,” he says, slurring his words. He reaches across the table to touch my hair. “Such beautiful hair.” I jerk my head out of his reach and stand up.
“Good night, Derek,” I say crisply. “Don’t drive home.” I stride out of the bar before his muddled brain can even register that I’ve left. It’s only five o’clock, so I head back home to relax before group. As I approach the door, I hear noise inside. I freeze, wondering if I should call the cops. I distinctly hear voices in the kitchen. I strain to hear what they are saying, but I can’t. I hear laughing, though, and decide to chance it. I grab my cell phone in one hand and press nine, one and unlock the door with the other. I don’t make a sound as I move towards the voices.
“Surprise!” Paris shrieks, racing over to grab me. A minute later, Lyle is joining the group hug.
I give them a scolding for scaring me to death, but I’m tickled to see them, especially Paris. I click off my cell phone and stuff it back into my purse. I look closely at Paris to gauge how he is. There are bags under his eyes and his cheeks are hollow but other than that, he looks like the same Paris he’s always been. Lyle looks tired, but calm. He gazes at Paris with deep affection. Paris offers the glib explanation that he and his mother were fighting all the time, so Lyle and he decided it was best to leave a day early. Something about his tone strikes me as false. I accuse Paris of coming home because of me, and the sheepish look on his face is enough to verify my hunch. I berate him for leaving his mother in the lurch, even though it’s so damn good to see him. Paris says his mother is in Douglas’s able hands and that he was missing the Bay Area too much to stay in Memphis any longer. I’m about to respond when I realize that there are good smells emanating from the pots on the stove.
I inhale deeply, then a thought hits me. I ask if my mother called him, and he admits that she did. Lyle chimes in that she was worried about me being alone. I curse her reflexively. I love my mother, but I hate it when she meddles. I suppose she told them that I nearly got run over with a car, I say. By the looks on their faces, it’s clear that my mother didn’t tell them. When Paris can talk, his voice is steely as he suggest that I tell them about it. I downplay the incident, making it seem less scary than it actually was. Paris asks what else I haven’t told him, and there’s anger in his voice. I cringe before sitting down and telling him everything. Both Paris and Lyle are looking at me in bemusement as I spin my tale. Pairs is no longer angry but merely concerned.
“The murderer is in your group?” Paris frowns, neglecting his cooking in the meantime. “You know this for sure? Then I assume you’re not going.” A silence greets his words. “You cannot be serious.” He turns to Lyle who is looking thunderstruck as well. “Please tell me she’s not serious.”
“She sounds pretty serious to me,” Lyle replies with a straight face. That must be his best way of dealing with Paris when he gets like this. Mine is to sweet-talk him, but I’m not in the mood.
“She’s crazy,” Paris says conversationally. “She hasn’t recovered from the last case yet, and she’s putting herself on the line again. She must think she’s Jessica Fletcher or something.”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not here,” I say grimly as my cell phone rings. “Yes?” I snap, my patience short.
“Rayne? It’s Leticia. I have those names for you.” She pauses, then says. “I’m only going to give you the pertinent ones, ok?”
“Maria Sanchez and Astarte Thomas. I hope this helps. Good luck tonight.”
“Thank you,” I say with a smile. Two names. One of them is the murderer. Maria had been pretty forthcoming about Rosie trying to blackmail her for buying coke, but maybe Rosie had been blackmailing her for something else—something worse. As for Astarte, I have a hunch her husband’s death wasn’t as clear-cut as I once thought.
“Earth to Miss Thang,” Paris shouts, waving his arms at me. “What was that about? You playing detective again?”
“Leticia calling me back with two names that fit Rosie’s client list.” Damn. Now I am doing it—calling them clients instead of blackmail victims. “I’m almost there, guys!” Understandably, neither of them are as enthusiastic as I am about it.
“What do you plan on doing about it?” Paris asks in a snippy tone as he turns down the heat on his latest creation. “Oh, by the way, we can eat.” He plates three plates of fettuccine alfredo and sets them on the table. One bite, and I am his love slave forever.
We talk more about my strategy. I inform them that I’m going to put out a few feelers at group tonight, and Lyle counters by saying that I’m offering myself as bait. Paris orders me not to do so, which only sets me off. I am tired of men trying to dictate what I can and can’t do. I appreciate that Paris is worried about me, but I’m not going to allow him to forbid me from doing what I need to do. Lyle wants to know if I’ve told Inspector Robinson everything I’ve told them, and I brush off the question. I don’t want to tell her until after I have hard evidence, but the boys aren’t so easily dissuaded. Paris asks what I’m waiting for? My death? He orders me to call the cops before leaving the kitchen, Lyle hot on his heels. Paris pauses to get the last word in.
“Call the cops, Rayne. Don’t be stupid. It’s not a game.” With that, he’s out the door, and his dog, Toto, too. It hurts that he called me stupid, but I think about what he said. I come to the conclusion that he’s right. I have been acting as if it is some kind of game that I can possibly win. I have to tell the cops and get them on my side. Reluctantly, I pull out my cell and call the inspector
“Inspector Robinson.” Her voice is flat—a sign of despair and of exhaustion. I quickly fill her in on what’s been happening since the last time I talked to her. There is a heavy pause after I’m done recounting. Just as I think I should say something, she speaks. “That’s quite a lot of information, Ms. Liang. You will be going to the meeting tonight, won’t you?” It is more of an order than a question. After I mumble yes, she continues. “We’ll have someone outside the building just to be assured of no funny business. He or she will be in an unmarked car.”
“What should I do during the meeting?” I ask. I have a vague plan but am curious to see if she has anything concrete for me.
“Just listen. Someone may drop something unintentionally. As long as people talk, they give themselves away.” I am disappointed by her reply because I want to do more than just listen. A germ of an idea crosses my mind I don’t bother to tell the inspector about it because I’m sure she’ll veto it if I do. Better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.
“Sorry about that,” Paris says as he returns to the kitchen. His eyes are red, but he’s calm. Lyle follows a step behind, shooting daggers at me the entire time. “I just worry about you.”
I tell him that I called Inspector Robinson like he wanted me to and that she wants me to go. I hasten to reassure him that they’ll have someone right outside the building. He issues these orders: he wants me to call the minute I make it to the agency, the minute I leave the agency, and any other time the spirit moves me. I bite my tongue as I start to clear the dishes as he’s not finished pontificating. When he wraps up his spiel, I assure him that I don’t want to die. I learned that during the last attack of the crazy. I’ll avoid being alone with the two possible suspects, so I won’t be in any danger. He reminds me that he’s just lost his baby sister and couldn’t stand to lose me, too. I grab his hand and squeeze, not saying a word. I want to promise that nothing will happen to me, but I know the futility of such a promise.
“I want to check the news before I go,” I say instead, slicing a hunk of chocolate cake and heading for the living room. Paris and Lyle are right behind me. The first face I see is Carol’s, and she has her serious therapist look on.
“A child’s death is sobering in a way an adult’s isn’t,” she begins, staring directly into the camera. “My heart goes out to Leticia and her husband. I think they might benefit from some grief counseling.”
“What would you suggest?” The thin, pouty, African American reporter asks deferentially.
“A group such as the one I lead at A Ray of Hope,” Carol says immediately. “Or individual counseling. Even reading a book on grief can be therapeutic. They have many options. One reason I’m writing a book on group therapy is because it’s an underutilized tool in the psychology business, one that can be immensely helpful for the participants.”
“I can’t believe her!” I explode, my nerves jangling. “She’s still hawking her damn book!”
“It’s certainly bad taste,” Lyle says, wrinkling his nose. “Using a dead child to promote yourself. Some therapist!”
“I don’t know,” Paris says thoughtfully, his arm draped around Lyle. They are on the couch, and they look like a matched set. “She’s right as far as not enough people knowing the options. Anything she can do to get it out there is a good thing.”
“Sure, options,” I say, making a face at Carol who is still talking. “But this? This is exploitation.”
“A little overzealous, perhaps,” Paris admits. “Her motive is a good one, though.”
“I am hoping to finish my book by the end of this year. I already have a publisher for it.” Carol smiles widely, showing off her teeth. I snap off the television in disgust. Checking my watch, I see it’s six-thirty.
“I better get ready.” I dash to my room to change. Black pants and a white blouse. I brush my hair until it shines, and I’m ready to go. When I reach the living room to say goodbye, both Paris and Lyle are waiting with their shoes on.