My coworkers talk of Mariah’s death for the rest of the day. Obsessively. They are so consumed with it, they don’t realize that I’m not contributing anything to the conversations. I have several reasons for this. One, I still don’t want people to know my connection with the murders. Two, I’m disgusted with the avarice in their eyes as they babble about it. Three, I want to find out as much as I can which is better accomplished by listening than by talking. Four, it’s depressing. I also harbor a faint hope that by me not talking about it, others will follow my example. Fat chance. It’s all I hear about when I pass people huddled in conversation. Some of my coworkers are uncomfortable talking about it around me because of my past experiences with murder, but most pay me scant mind as they dish the dirt. Nothing will do but for them to dissect the latest murder from every angle until I’m ready to smack them all in the mouths.
Even the kids are talking about it and how whack it is to kill a shorty like that. They keep saying how someone that young couldn’t have dissed anybody bad enough to warrant death. It disturbs me that many of them believe death is a perfectly logical retaliation for disrespect, but it’s not my place to preach at them. They like me because I joke with them and give them a jovial hard time, but I don’t discipline them. I’m like the crazy aunt who brings cool presents from exotic places, but who disappears before the family can get too sick of her. The kids also like to try to wheedle treats out of me on the days I bring candy to the office. I usually let them; it’s why I bring the candy in the first place. No, the kids won’t be the reason I leave this job when I finally go.
“She was shot whereas her mother was strangled. I think that’s significant.” Alicia is talking in her solemn, counselor voice to Derek, one of the other counselors, in the hallway by her office. Alicia is one of those grandmotherly-looking woman, comfortably plump with gray hair worn up in a bun. The kids love being mothered by her so much, they keep returning even after they graduate. Not my idea of successful counseling, but nobody is paying me to have an opinion. Her office is down the hall approximately ten feet behind my desk, and she doesn’t bother to lower her voice. I’m an inanimate object to her; she sees no reason to dissimulate. “It denotes a great amount of rage towards the mother, thus the hands-on killing, whereas the daughter was more of a clinical kill.” I roll my eyes, hoping she doesn’t catch me. “He enjoyed killing the mother; he had to kill the daughter.” I pause. As much as I want to dismiss what she’s saying, she has a point. The contrast between the mother’s death and the daughter’s indicates differing motives for each. Rosie, strangled and dump in a dumpster like trash. Mariah, laid out respectfully with a rosary in her hand. Night and day.
“What about the first murder?” Derek asks skeptically. “How does that fit in your theory?” Derek has pushed for a significant raise every year he’s worked at the agency, legend has it. He’s been turned down every time, leaving him slightly bitter. Who can blame him? He’s been faithful to the agency for ten years and has had to watch the director pad his bank account while Derek’s has been depleted.
“I think it’s something completely different,” Alicia says pompously. “The police want the two deaths to be connected because it makes it easier for them. The latest death proves they’re not.” I don’t agree that it would be easier for the cops if the first two deaths are connected, but it’s possible there is no link between Ashley’s death and Rosie’s. Just because they’re in the same therapy group doesn’t mean the same person killed them both. It’s hard to believe, though, that this isn’t the case. The links between Rosie and Ashley run deeper than just group, and given Rosie’s emerging reputation, it makes perfect sense that she knew something about Ashley’s murder and instead of going to the police like she should have, she tried to blackmail the person in question.
“I wonder who’ll be next?” Alicia muses out loud. I can’t see Derek, but I assume he’s bored out of his mind. I am, and I’m only half-listening to Alicia.
“Can’t tell you. It better not be me, though.”
“Why would it be you?”
“I dated Rosie for a bit,” Derek confesses, lowering his voice. Fortunately, I have excellent hearing so I am able to catch every word. “What if it’s some maniac killing people who knew her?”
“You dated a maid!” Alicia shrieks—no problem hearing her. Nice mentality for someone working in the Mission. She lives in Noe Valley, however, so she’s come by her attitude honestly. “Really, Derek, what were you thinking? If I knew you were that hard up for a date, I’d have found you someone!” She brays in amusement at her own wit; she’s the only one laughing.
“She was a sweet person,” Derek says stiffly, not appreciating Alicia’s derogatory remarks. “I met her walking down Valencia, and it was mutual attraction at first sight.”
“You wanted to bone her, that’s what it was,” Alicia guffaws. She can be exceedingly ribald when the kids aren’t around. “Never had a Mexican mama before?” I do a slow burn. The only saving grace Alicia has is that she genuinely cares about the kids, and they about her. Of course, they’ve never heard her uttering racial slurs—she’s too canny for that.
“She was a lady,” Derek protests. “Whatever your preconceived notions about her are, you’re wrong.”
“If she’s so great, why did you break up with her?” Alicia snorts, clearly not convinced of Rosie’s stellar qualities. For a minute, I think Derek isn’t going to respond, but the temptation to talk about Rosie is too much. He ends up spilling his guts to Alicia, not my first choice of confidantes.
Derek fell for her hard. He asked her out right there on the street, and to his amazement, she said yes. They went out to dinner that night at We B because Rosie adored sushi, then they went back to Derek’s apartment. In the course of the evening, he found out that she was a housecleaner in Marin, that she had two kids, aged twelve and five, that she liked to go dancing until the wee hours of the morning, that she couldn’t cook worth a damn though she was the best housecleaner you could ever hope to find. In return, he told her about growing up in Iowa with seven brothers and sisters, working the fields filled with corn. He told her about his first true love as well as about his job. They talked for hours, never running out of things to say. They spent every minute together that they could. Derek met her kids, Michael, the older one and Mariah, the younger. He grew to love the kids, and they him. There was talk of marriage.
Then, one night in April, or maybe it was May of the past year, Michael was killed by gangbangers who mistook him for a wannabe because he was wearing red. Rosie flipped at losing her son, refusing to see Derek any more. At first, he tried to contact her. He call her cell phone and her land-line, leaving long, impassioned messages of love. He emailed her every day. He faxed her; he sent her telegrams. He even went over to her house periodically. Every time, he’d be confronted with a shut door and complete silence behind the impassive door. He’d knock until his knuckles started to bleed and punch the doorbell until he couldn’t stand to hear the high-pitch squeal one more time. After months of this, he finally gave up. He still loved her, but he knew that she had to make the next move. She never did.
“Did you ever try again more recently?” Alicia asks, her voice subdued. Even she isn’t crass enough to razz Derek in the midst of his grief. It’s clear that he hasn’t gotten over Rosie nor that he ever gave up on her getting in touch with him again. I definitely need to talk to Derek, but not with Alicia around.
“No,” Derek says softly. “I started dating someone three months ago. I’m happy.” What he leaves unsaid, however, is that he would have left the new girlfriend in a heartbeat if Rosie had wanted him back. It’s obvious. I’m sure finding out you’re ex-lover has been murdered is difficult to swallow, no matter how you try to cope with it. When Derek speaks again, it’s in a much different tone. “Well, I better get back to work.”
“Yeah, me, too.” Alicia’s voice has lost its bounce which pleases me no end. She is entirely too sure of herself and needs to be taken down a notch now and then. Besides, I have no doubt that she will be back to her obnoxious self by the end of the day if not within the hour. I have even less doubt that Derek’s sad story will be spread throughout the agency like wildfire, which is the reason I don’t tell any of my colleagues anything personal. Derek knows better, but he must have wanted to get it off his chest. He rounds the corner, lost in his thoughts.
“Hey, Derek,” I say casually, not giving myself time to think. I have to approach him cautiously, but quickly. “I was wondering if you’d like to have a drink with me after work?” It’s not until I issue the invitation that I think about how it sounds. “I’m not asking you on a date,” I add hastily. “I just wanted to talk to you about Rosie.”
“Not interested.” A look of disgust crosses Derek’s face. Again, I realize how I appear, especially after his encounter with Alicia.
“It’s not prurient interest,” I reassure him. “It’s, well, it’s complicated, and I’d rather not say here.” Derek stares hard at me; I manage not to squirm. “The walls have ears. You know how it is around here.” He does, indeed, and slowly nods his head. “Great! I’ll see you after work!”
The rest of the day crawls by. Quinn stops by my desk periodically just to chat. I `am polite to her, but nothing more. She mentions casually that she’s meeting her friend, Jessica, for dinner tomorrow and perhaps I’d like to go. She thinks we would hit it off. I hesitate and ask if I can let her know tomorrow. She’s not happy with that response, but grudgingly nods. I am inundated with work, especially from Alicia who has a bad habit of letting things pile up until the day before a deadline then dumping it on my desk in panic. No matter how many times I request that she give me her paperwork a week before a deadline, she repeats her past performance and makes my life a living hell. I stood up to her once and had the director of the agency lecture me about teamwork and my attitude problem. It did no good to explain the situation as he clearly did not care. Ever since, I’ve accepted Alicia’s paperwork whenever she so deigned to hand it over to me. It irks me every time—another reason to get out of this place.
“Ready?” Derek asks as he approaches my desk. It’s four o’clock—time to call it quits. I appraise Derek slowly, noticing for the first time that he’s handsome for a man in his forties. He is almost six feet and has the build of a basketball player. His hair is mahogany with gray flecks. His green eyes are warm, and his lips are usually smiling. He has the habit of leaning his head to the side and training his eyes on yours when you’re talking, which makes you feel as if there is no one he would rather be listening to. It’s heady stuff, and I can understand why he has no difficulties with the ladies.
“All set.” I smile at him as he helps me into my coat. “Where would you like to go?”
“How about the Casanova Lounge? They’re not very busy this time of day.” We walk in companionable silence, neither feeling particularly compelled to talk. True to his prediction, the bar is nearly empty when we enter. After ordering our drinks, we find a table in the corner.
“My ears are bleeding,” I laugh as we sit. I like the Casanova, but the music can be a bit overwhelming at times in its volume. Derek smiles politely. We both sip our drinks, the silence between us lengthening.
“So, how do you know Rosie and why do you want to talk about her?” Derek dispenses with small talk and zeroes in on the matter at hand. He is fiddling with his beer glass and not looking me in the eye. I hesitate before answering. I don’t know how much I want to reveal to him, not because I think he’s the murderer, but because he’s a coworker. Ever since Ashley was killed, I’ve been keeping a low profile and not letting anyone at work know that I knew the victims personally. I wonder if I can trust Derek to keep it to himself, then decide I have no choice.
“I am in the same group that Rosie was in,” I say briefly, hoping I wouldn’t have to elaborate. By the look on Derek’s face, I can surmise he knows exactly to which group I’m referring.
“Hm. This is the first I’ve heard of it,” he says neutrally, but I know what he’s implying.
“I didn’t want people at work to know because of the last case I was involved in,” I explain. “I was tired of being scrutinized, and I know they would have done the same thing if they knew I was tangentially involved in this murder case.” Derek digests this information silently. He sips his Bud slowly.
“Why tell me?” He asks, finally looking directly at me. His eyes are a mixture of curiosity and wariness.
“I overheard your conversation with Alicia,” I admit. “I was wondering if you’ve talked to the police about your relationship with Rosie.” It is the wrong thing to say as he immediately becomes defensive.
“Why would I do that?” He leans back and folds his arms across his chest. “I haven’t seen her since we broke up.” He does that male thing of looking down his nose at me, which is grating.
“Did you know she was blackmailing her clients?” I ask bluntly. His attitude is rubbing me the wrong way, so I decide to shake him up.
“What? Rosie? No way!” Now he’s glaring at me as if I’ve made up the sordid story specifically to hurt him. “She wasn’t that kind of woman. It’s obvious you didn’t know her very well or you’d never say something like that!”
“Derek, it’s been proven. I’m not going to argue with you about it. Suffice to say, you didn’t know.” I wait for him to calm his ruffled feathers before asking the next question. “Did Rosie seem to live above her means?”
“Damn it, Rayne! You’re just asking the same question in a different way! I’m not going to stay here and listen to you drag her name through the mud!” Derek stands up, but I grab him by the arm.
“Sit down,” I say sharply, then modulate my voice. “Please.” He reluctantly does, then waits for me to talk. I look at Derek thoughtfully, deciding which tactic to try next. It’s clear that he idolizes Rosie and any suggestion of flaws will not be tolerated. “Why don’t you just tell me what you know about her?” That seems safe enough.
Derek brightens immediately and launches into a tribute to the fallen lady. He talks about how she was born in the barrio and pulled herself out by her proverbial bootstraps. She worked as a housecleaner in Marin because they paid well and because it enabled her to set her own hours so she could spend time with her children. Her babies were the most important thing in her life. She adored them, and they her. She once told Derek that she would do anything for them so they wouldn’t have to scrape and save the way she had to growing up. I can tell by the look on his face that the same thought has occurred to him as me—neither child will get to grow up at all, let alone be well-off. Derek continues his paean. Rosie was against abortion because of her religion—Catholic, of course—and because of her personal love for children and had quit working for one family when she discovered the mother had had an abortion.
“How can she do that,” she fumed to Derek that night, though she was not one to lose her temper easily. “Throw away a baby like it was nothing!” She also was a firm believer in the sanctity of marriage, though that seemed a tad hypocritical as she never married the father of either of her children. Derek recites her moral convictions as evidence that she would never blackmail anyone, but I see it in the opposite light. Someone who is so rigidly against ‘sins’ such as abortion wouldn’t feel much remorse making such a person pay. It’s the same with Quinn’s friend, Jessica, who had an affair. That probably went against Rosie’s moral code as well, so she wouldn’t feel guilty about asking for money to keep quiet. Besides, I have knowledge that he doesn’t—Rosie stopped believing in God after her son was killed.
“I kept hoping she’d come back to me,” Derek says sadly, winding up his eulogy. He has tears in his eyes as he drains the rest of his drink. “I need something stronger. You?” I shake my head and watch as he makes his way to the bar. I watch a brassy blond sitting at the bar flirt with Derek as he orders his drink. He smiles at her, but it’s rather perfunctory. I wonder what his girlfriend is like and if she’s aware of his strong feelings for his ex-girlfriend. His dead ex-girlfriend. I keep my face neutral as Derek returns.
“I’m sorry for jumping on you,” he says as he sits down again. “I just don’t want her memory to be tainted by unsubstantiated rumors.” I refrain from telling him that the rumors can be substantiated because it would serve no purpose. If he wants to remember Rosie as a person worthy of canonization, it is no concern of mine.
I manage to maneuver the conversation to Mariah. Derek’s eyes light up as he talks about the girl. He sounds exactly like a doting father as he raves about her attributes. She had a sereneness surrounding her that was rarely seen in someone three times her age. She always managed to find the bright side of things without being Pollyannaish about it. She didn’t care what people thought of her because she was comfortable in her own skin. Precocious, but not a brat about it. I am reluctant to break into the tribute, but I need hard information, not a glowing recommendation. I ask what Mariah would have done if she knew something about her mother’s death, and Derek told me she would have prayed before talking to her aunt about it. I refrain from sighing because he hasn’t given me anything useful. Then again, I don’t know what I expected from him as he hasn’t recently been a part of Rosie’s life.