Authors: Lora Roberts
I wouldn’t have blamed Molly for hitting me at that point. Then a noise from the doorway drew our attention. A girl stood there, her eyes scared, her whole body tense. She was loaded down with a bucket filled with spray bottles, another full of rags, and a dust mop tucked under her arm.
We stared at her, and slowly she began to back out of the door.
“Conchita!” Molly went over and took her arm, speaking a steady stream of urgent Spanish. Conchita’s reply was too subdued to hear, and in any case my Spanish is rudimentary. Molly drew her back into the room.
“This is my housekeeper, Conchita,” she said brightly. “She’s going to give things a good going-over and fix dinner. She’s a very good cook.”
Conchita shot her a look, much like one I’d seen on Amy’s face, and I realized the two were probably the same age.
“Does she speak English yet?” Dad’s face was wary. “I can’t do that Mexican bibble-babble.”
Molly raised her eyebrows at him. “She’s learning fast. She understands better than she talks right now. Tell her what you want, and she’ll probably know.” She made a restless movement with her hands. “I have a lot of things to attend to—meetings at school and my aerobics class. You have my cell-phone number if you need me.”
Rather pointedly, Molly had turned her back on me. She didn’t see Mom coming down the hall.
“Molly, honey.” Mom gave Molly a hug. “See, I’m on my feet today.”
“You should stay in bed until you’re better.” Molly returned the hug, giving Mom a critical once-over. “You look wobbly.”
“I’ve been up and down a couple of times today.” She looked at me standing in the archway. “Gracious, are you still here, Lizzie? What have you been up to?”
“Pottering around.” I retrieved my bag from the kitchen. “Looks like you won’t need my help anymore today.”
"That’s right,” Molly said, pulling Conchita forward. “I brought you Conchita, Mom. She’ll help you out and make dinner.”
Conchita set the buckets down and clutched at the cross she wore around her neck. Her gaze was fixed on the front porch, visible through the still-open door. She said something, her voice a little shaky. I made out the word “
"That’s ridiculous,” Molly said impatiently, glancing at her watch. “There’s no such thing.” She added a Spanish phrase.
Conchita shrank back. She picked up the buckets and went into the kitchen.
“Lizzie already did the bathroom.” Mom looked dubious. “I don’t think we need to trouble Conchita, Molly.”
“She’s paid for her trouble.” Molly shrugged, but a slight frown stayed between her eyebrows. “Look, I’ve gotta run.” She hesitated, glancing at Dad. “About that other matter—I’ll check into it.”
“What other matter?” Mom was instantly curious.
“Nothing to do with you, Mary.” Dad reached for the remote and turned up the volume on the TV. Helplessly, Mom shrugged.
“Go put your feet up, read a magazine,” Molly urged, giving Mom’s thin shoulders a squeeze. “Here, I brought you a People.” She pushed it into Mom’s hands. “I’ll walk you out, Liz.”
I went meekly after her toward the door.
“Wait. Lizzie, I didn’t thank you for your help.” Mom came after us, shutting the front door against the TV’s noise. “Will you—are you going to come back?”
“Do you want me to?” I looked at her, straight, but she couldn’t meet my gaze.
“If you want to come. It seems your Dad doesn’t mind.” It made me smile, such a backhanded invitation, but my eyes felt hot from unshed tears.
“I’ll come over tomorrow.”
“Well, okay. Molly, thanks for the magazine.” Mom went back inside, shutting the door on those three ill-assorted people.
Molly started in before we were down the front steps. “Just what do you think you’re doing anyway?”
“Hanging around, waiting for the police to finish their investigation. I thought I could help out, free you from the burden, but it looks like you’ve freed yourself.”
Her laugh was as brittle as the rest of her. “Right. I’m free all right, kid.”
Kid. She was nine years older than me, and had always been a complete mystery. I used to watch her get ready for dates, putting on lipstick that made her lips so pale they practically disappeared. She wielded a variety of brushes as skillfully as Dad used power tools—a special hairbrush to make her hair turn smoothly under, a tiny brush to outline her eyes. Standing intently before the mirror, she stroked eyeliner on in a shiny, seamless river that flowed along her lid just above the lashes, ending in an upward slash at the outer corner. She crimped her lashes, already mascaraed into a thick, dark curtain. When she sashayed into the living room, her skirt decorously knee-length, my dad would grunt approval, though the eyelashes earned her a narrow look. As soon as her date arrived and the door shut behind them, I would run into my room. My window was right beside the front porch. I could see her as she followed her boyfriend down the sidewalk, rolling her skirt up around her waist under her sweater, to shorten it a good three inches.
I had always regarded her as possessing some innate wisdom about how to be female. Beside her grace and assurance, I’d always felt awkward and lacking in charm.
“Do you wear miniskirts, now that they’re in again?”
"What?” The question put her off balance. “Of course not—never again.” She studied me as I leaned against the car. “At least, I have some interest in clothes. You never did, as I recall—just wore those jeans and work shirts constantly. Almost like a prison—”
“Yeah, a lot like a prison uniform.”
She looked at the ground for a moment. “I never felt so humiliated in my life,” she said quietly, “as I did when my baby sister went to jail. I can never forgive you for that.”
“Man, all you people really know how to hold grudges.” I studied those downcast eyes. Her makeup was much more subtle now, but she still wore a lot of it, still looked fashionable and with-it, the kind of mom kids don’t mind being seen with. “I’ve been working on overcoming mine.”
“Don’t you understand?” That well-manicured hand shot out and gripped my arm with amazing force. "They blamed me. Mom—Dad—even some of my own friends were asking how I could let that happen. Like I was supposed to be in charge of your life still, as if I hadn’t had you around my neck constantly from the moment you were born—”
“Come off it, Molly.” Her grip was harder to shake off this time. “You wrote me off just like the rest of them when I married Tony. The one time I came to you for help after he beat me, you told me to go back to him, that marriage was forever—”
“So it is,” she said fiercely. “You’re not the only one who didn’t get what she bargained for in marriage. You’re just the one who dragged her family’s name in the mud trying to get out of it. I would never do that, never.”
“You’re a Fahey now, not a Sullivan. It wasn’t even your name.”
Her hand dropped from my arm, and she sighed. “Denver isn’t really such a big place. There’s always someone who knows where you came from. I was slated to be PTA president that year. but after people started whispering that I was your sister, it evaporated. Now that I’m up for school board and this close to being elected—” her fingers measured an infinitesimal distance “—you do it again.”
I couldn’t help it. I started to laugh.
“Damn it, Liz!” Molly reached out to shake me again. “It’s funny to you that I had to work so hard to get accepted without a college degree or the advantages you threw away!”
I backed away from that angry hand and controlled myself.
“Sorry. It’s not really funny. You’re right. I blew my college education on a guy who regularly hammered on me. I went to jail, spent years hiding from him. And all the time you were being stigmatized by the PTA. Pardon me, Molly. I was so out of line.”
She folded her arms and gave me a cold, level look. “It all came out of your own bad decision. Take some responsibility, Liz. Stop blaming us for your problems. Everybody’s got problems, especially when it comes to marriage. At least when I married Bill, I knew there would be a comfortable future for us, for any kids we would have. You were just in a hormone haze. That’s no way to make a decision about a lifelong commitment.”
“What do you know about marital problems?” I gestured back at the house. “Live-in help, strapping boys—Mom showed me a picture of your house. Very fancy.”
“Bill and I worked hard for our success.”
“So if you made such good choices, so much better than mine, what’s the problem now?”
For once she looked unsure of herself. “None of your business
Silence settled between us. I waited for her to climb into the chrome-laden sport utility vehicle behind my bus, which I assumed was her upward mobile.
“Well, this is all beside the point. What I wanted to say was, if you drag Byron into your problems, I’ll see you put away again.” She said it casually, but I didn’t doubt the sincerity.
I wondered what had happened that morning to rile Biff, and if his mother knew. Somehow, I doubted that. Molly would have been a lot more pointed if she knew that Biff believed I’d told the police he was involved in Tony’s murder.
“Look, I barely met your son. As far as Dad’s gun goes, I know nothing except that the police want that gun and Dad doesn’t have it anymore.” I was getting tired of explaining myself. Obviously I couldn’t have taken it, since I was only in the house for half an hour, with Amy or Mom the whole time, before Tony was tossed on the porch.”
She winced. “Poor Tony.”
The words were muttered, but I caught them. “Poor Tony? So you had a soft spot for him, did you? Is that why you wouldn’t help me out?”
She flushed. “Not a soft spot, but he wasn’t the monster you made him out to be. There are two sides to everything, Liz, and your behavior frustrated him so much.”
I had heard similar sentiments from Maud. I didn’t care any more for them when they came from my sister.
“So, had you been seeing him all along?”
“Certainly not,” she said, affronted. “I wasn’t ‘seeing’ him to begin with. I simply ran into him every so often. We had lunch a couple of times.”
I remembered that when Molly lied, her earlobes turned red. They were glowing rosily now.
“Had you seen him lately? Do you know what he was doing to make a living?”
“Really, Liz.” She backed away. “I don’t have to answer these questions.”
I followed her, until she was pressed against the shiny flank of her vehicle. “You’ve already made it clear that you’d have no hesitation about getting me jailed. Why should I feel differently about you? Let me tell you, Molly, I feel threatened. And I think the police would be interested to know that you were buddies with Tony.”
“We weren’t buddies.” The words burst out. “I did use him, and we had lunch once in a while. That’s all.”
“Use him? How?”
“I mean, used his placement service.” She took a tissue out of her wallet-on-a-string and dabbed at her eyes. “You’re really upsetting me, Liz. It’s true that Tony worked under the table to avoid taxes. A lot of people do that. There was nothing wrong with it.”
“Wrong with what? What did he do?”
“He helped people hire domestic workers and such.” She gestured toward the house. “He found my last three housekeepers, including Conchita. It’s a good deal for her as well as me.” Her voice was defensive. “I treat her well, and make an effort to teach her English, give her time off for ESL classes and everything. I’ve gotten all the materials together for her so she can work toward being a permanent resident.”
“So Tony was dealing in wetbacks.”
“Shh, Liz. That’s such a derogatory term.” She actually glanced around to check if anyone could hear me. “They really hate to be called that. Besides, she has a green card. I insisted on that.”
“How did Tony get hold of her?”
“I don’t know. He found people on a corner somewhere, I guess.” She shrugged her indifference, but her face was uneasy. “This has nothing whatever to do with his death. How could it?”
“I don’t know.” I didn’t follow her when she scuttled around to climb into her vehicle. But I did know that Officer Eva would find it very interesting.
I didn’t want to go looking for Eva at the police station. I’d already decided O’Malley wasn’t on my side, and now that I knew who probably had Dad’s missing gun, I wanted even less to encounter him. Despite what I’d said to Molly, I had no desire to get Sullivans or Faheys in unnecessary trouble. But certainly, given the family solidarity Molly showed, I wasn’t taking the rap for any hulking young nephew who came along.
I drove slowly past the police station, but I couldn’t recognize Eva’s cruiser from anyone else’s. I decided to go back to Andy’s and call from there, hoping to escape O’Malley somehow.
The way led past Amy’s high school. Judging by the crowds of bizarrely dressed young people milling around, school was just letting out. I remembered how much battling had gone on over the first slackenings in the dress code during my high school days—what a big deal it was when girls were allowed to wear shorts or jeans, just as boys were. Now there seemed to be no limits on dress, other than not being naked. The kids showed an incredible range of tribal costumes.
Amy was in a cluster of people of hair color, as I had started terming them during the summer. She saw me, gave a big wave, and hustled over, dragging Kimberly with her.
“Hi, Aunt Liz. Are you picking me up?”
“If you want a ride.”
“Can we give Kimberly a ride, too?” Her companion looked up through a fringe of green-tipped black spikes—and those were just her eyelashes.
“Sure. Hop in.”
They hopped in, with Amy making much of Barker and introducing him to her friend. “What a cool dog,” Kimberly enthused. “I totally feel that you, like, belong together.”
Amy giggled. “I could bleach my hair and put some black spots on, to match him.”
Kimberly gave this serious consideration. “Not bleach, Amy. It, like, totally wrecks your follicles. You can strip it instead, but I don’t know.” She picked up a lock of Amy’s persimmon-colored hair. “Some damage there already.”
“Right.” Amy blew upward through her bangs, causing them, for a moment, to stand along her hairline like gaudy sentinels. “I’m thinking maybe I’ll let it all grow out. I’ve kinda forgotten what color it was to start with.”