The Present, in the Garden Room
Painfully I laughed at his naïveté. "Michael, honestly I tried to tell my fears to a cop. The guy listened, then recommended I seek professional help. I hadn't brought the clippings at first figuring my rational discussion would be persuasive enough." I shook my head at my ignorance of how the world worked back then.
Michael looked at me, "Alanna, I take it this gets worse? Not counting your friends, Sheryle and Brad, it sounds like Jean Claude didn't have such good luck."
Mirthlessly I laughed, and began my tale on the morning following my newspaper clippings discovery courtesy of Randa.
In The Past
Randolph still wasn't home when I woke. The answering machine messages were back in the double-digit numbers. There was nothing on earth that could persuade me to hit the playback button. If Randolph had needed to get a hold of me he would've called me on my cell phone. I checked my cell automatically when I first woke up and I didn't have any messages. That alone was odd, but not too disturbing, as late I'd stayed out the night before at work.
I grabbed a piece of fruit and tossed back some vitamins with cold bottled water. Still tired and stressed I may have been, but suicidal I most definitely was not -- I never drank tap water in Los Angeles. There were two frames of thought on water. Some people thought bottled water was a foolish waste of money while others figured that city water was just toxin-filled liquid chemicals. Either way I preferred my water well filtered without extra flavors. I got dressed and decided to head out into the real world.
The paper hadn't been in my driveway and it was after seven, so I gave it up for a loss, figuring one of my less-than-honest neighbors had liberated it. I headed out to the traffic still feeling pretty shaky. Somehow I didn't feel like waiting around for a run-in with Randolph. All my late night reading had done little to make me happy; coupled with those odd phone calls, I wasn't willing to risk it. Once on the road I flipped on a local all news AM radio station on the drive to the nearest police station.
Forty-five minutes of trying to explain my fears to a police officer was futile. I never really got past the desk sergeant. He grudgingly found time to write down my name and take my cell phone number while answering a string of calls and helping other incoming people. Exasperated by the constant interruptions, I tried to stress the importance of what I thought was going on, but without the articles and based solely on 'hearsay' and 'circumstantial evidence at best' he told me he could see no reason to pursue this matter until I had something more 'concrete' and less 'hysterical'. Frustrated, I returned to catch the news again playing on in my car over the radio on my way to work.
Jean Claude had survived the night against all odds. He was up-graded from critical condition to serious condition but they were still hopeful but guarded about his chances. An in-depth report stated the beating he'd sustained damaged his ribs and caused internal injuries. He had a concussion and there was a possibility of some brain damage and memory loss, but the authorities were just pretty much speculating and wouldn't know for sure until he regained consciousness, if he ever did. Gasoline-soaked garments stuffed along the sound side of the bistro had started the fire ... I switched off the news report mid-sentence.
Pulling in the driveway at work, I was still unclear about what more I could do. My pastry chef was already baking breads and cakes for the day and the evening jobs. Shelly, an articulate woman, with two small children and very patient husband, loved her job. She also loved the challenge of raising the intellects of all around her. She figured most folks spoke sheer nonsense as far as she could determine. Shelly liked challenging my staff with things she had read or researched.
Because most of the baking needs were fixed days in advance Shelly had fairly flexible hours and was able to work around her children's day care and her husband's nine to five grind. She spent her mid-mornings and early afternoons reading and discussing world events, local news and a hodgepodge of topics she was interested in without having to resort to watching soap operas and eating bon-bons at home like so many of her neighbors, so she vehemently claimed. But early in the morning she fairly flew around the kitchen mixing, proofing, baking and creating tasty morsels. She did stop long enough to inquire if I was okay. Vaguely I mumbled something in reply and headed towards my office with a pot of tea in hand.
"Oh, Alanna, your package arrived all right. I set it inside the office, I hope that's okay," she waved a floury hand towards the backroom. She had keys to everything in the building but hesitated to use them. She always apologized when forced to go in my office while I was out. Rarely did I get any early deliveries; most of the deliveries arrived after two p.m. in my area. I figured the package was the new set of chef knives I'd special ordered from Germany.
Before I could go see if my new knives arrived, I gathered up my work to take back to my office. I set down the teapot with my cup to pick up my kitchen clipboard. It was on the countertop below the staff corkboard near my office. The various events on-going and the things I needed to approve were put onto the clipboard or pegged on the kitchen corkboard. After glancing to the corkboard I saw the squares with the names of my staff with pushpins holding piece of mail and notes to each other fairly full while my square was layered with even more invoices and bills.
Sighing I thanked Shelly for holding down the fort and headed back to my desk, laden with the clipboard and a stack of bills and a small green envelope. Often I received thank you notes from hostesses following especially trying occasions of presumable festivity. Figuring this was such a note I set down my clipboard and tea and lifted up the thicker than expected envelope. Puzzled, I opened it and found there was a book of burnt matches from Jean Claude's bistro taped inside the small card inside the envelope.
Stunned, I looked at the matches, horrified by my immediate thoughts of Randolph. This had to have been what Randa had been warning me about. What else could she have meant?
Absentmindedly I opened up the package on my desk. The clear tape was easily sliced through with the box cutter at hand. I was still wondering about the green envelope and the eerie and disturbing contents. My screams brought all the kitchen staff to my side.
The box didn't contain steak knives but rather the bloodied corpse of a small fur-matted rat. A note was pinned to the body with a long-stemmed red rose crushed to fit the space left inside the box. Revolted I stepped away and began scrubbing my hands in the bathroom inside my office. One of the early prep cooks pulled me outside and I sat down while arrangements were made for the police to visit. Shelly had placed the necessary calls to the produce distributors on my to-do list along with other assorted vendors needed to run my catering business. She sifted through my remaining unopened mail while on hold with the police. Finally Shelly was able to reach someone who'd take her seriously about the rat box.
She'd found the opened green envelope with the inserted the matchbook and she started getting more aggressive with the responding police. Shelly was a smart woman and didn't take no for an answer. She kept taking down names of whom she was talking with and asked their badge numbers and their supervisor's names while they pawned her off quickly to someone higher up. She had listened to the radio earlier while preparing her breads and cakes and heard the newscast regarding the bistro on the matchbook. Finally she was put in contact with the officer in charge of that case.
All of this was going on behind me, filtered through a fog of numbness. Soon I felt frozen solid. Janice, one of the office secretaries, arrived and placed a thick cardigan over my shoulders claiming I was in shock. When the phone rang right in front of me, I just watched while she picked it up and began to relate what had occurred. She handed it to me saying, "Oh, Alanna, it's Randolph."
I grasped the phone to my face and grunted.
"Darling, how horrible, Janice just told me. I don't mean to bring you more bad news but we lost Randa last night," his tone was unremarkably even. It took a second for his words to sink in and then I was confused.
"What? She disappeared? When?" I truly wasn't grasping any of this.
"Honey, actually she died. She's been ill, a long time. An inoperable brain tumor. I didn't say anything to you because she was quite adamant about being treated normally. She had just started exhibiting signs of dementia and obsessive-compulsive behavior in the past few weeks. That's why I wasn't home last night. She went quickly, but the doctor said that could be expected in such cases. She'll be interred today and the services will be held later today at Forest Lawn. So if you're feeling up to it, please, call the house and I'll come down and pick you up. Oh and are you all right?" I didn't hear anything in his voice in the least broken or upset. Mostly it was like hearing a script being read through for the first time. The pauses didn't make sense and weren't of any natural rhythm, but more theatrical and as if for an audience.
I was as far from all right as I could be at the moment -- confused, angry and most of all very scared. Nope, not in the neighborhood of 'fine' or 'all right' in the least, so I cut short any further conversation saying to Randolph that the police had arrived. I figured that was the noise I was hearing outside in the main kitchen. A voice I didn't recognize -- and since I didn't see my staff letting strangers into conduct business given how my nerves were shot, I concluded it was the police.
So much had happened in the past few hours I was stunned to think it was only the day before that I'd been having lunch with Randa. She was, for whatever reason, being buried in less than eight hours. Tension and pain throbbed throughout my brain.
Because I had already started a statement, with the disbelieving desk sergeant earlier in the day, I introduced myself saying I thought there might be another report on file concerning me. Then I waited while the man introduced himself as a Sergeant Cornell. Sergeant then called over to the precinct I had visited to verify what I had said and what -- if anything -- had been done with that particular paperwork. Once he finished listening to the other office he made some grunts and notes on his form. Then I was introduced to the true meaning of police work -- paperwork. Sergeant Cornell finished up by asking if I had any copies of the alleged newspaper articles. After I explained to the officer they were at my home still. He listened to my story again then put on some gloves and opened up the note that had been pinned to the dead rodent.
When I saw the blood blotched against the white paper in a weird parody of a Rorschach test, I shuddered at the swirling images. The patterns rushed before my eyes as he read the note aloud, "Rats, I missed you yesterday."