Authors: Nita Prose
“When you say he made you, what do you mean exactly?” Charlotte asks.
Juan Manuel wrings his hands as he speaks. “I told Mr. Rodney, ‘I won’t do this. I can’t. I’d rather be deported than do this. This is wrong.’ But things got worse when I said that. He said he’d kill me. I said, ‘I don’t care. Kill me. This is no life.’ ” Juan Manuel pauses, looks down at his lap, then continues. “But in the end, Mr. Rodney found a way to make me do his bad business.”
Juan Manuel’s face tightens. I notice the dark rings around his eyes and the redness in them. We look the same, he and I—all of our sorrows on full display.
“What did Rodney do then?” Charlotte asks.
“He said if I don’t keep quiet and do his dirty work, he would kill my family back home. You don’t understand. He has bad friends. He knew my address in Mazatlán. He’s a bad man. Sometimes, when I was working late, I got so tired I’d fall asleep in my chair. I’d wake up, forget where I was. Mr. Rodney’s men, they would hit me, throw water at me to keep me awake. Sometimes they burned me with cigars to punish me.” He holds out his arm.
“Molly,” Juan Manuel says. “I made up lies about the dishwasher burning me; I’m sorry. It’s not the truth.” His voice catches and he dissolves into tears. “It’s wrong,” he says. “I know a grown man should not cry like a baby,” he says. He looks up at me. “Molly, when you came in the hotel room that day and saw me with Rodney and his men, I tried to tell you to run away, to go tell someone. I didn’t want them to get you like they got me. But they did. They found a way to get you too.”
Mr. Preston is shaking his head as Juan Manuel continues to sob. My own tears begin to fall.
Suddenly, I feel very tired, more tired than I’ve ever felt in my life. All I want is to get up from the sofa, pad down the hallway to my bedroom, wrap myself up in Gran’s lone-star quilt, and fall asleep forever. I think back to Gran in her last days. Is this what she felt near the end, drained of the will to carry on?
“Looks like we found our rat,” Mr. Preston says.
“Where there’s one, there are more,” Charlotte adds. She turns to Juan Manuel. “Was Rodney working for Mr. Black? Did you ever hear or see anything—anything at all—that might suggest Mr. Black was actually behind this drug operation?”
Juan Manuel wipes the tears from his face. “Mr. Rodney never said much about Mr. Black, but sometimes he took calls. He thinks I’m so stupid that I don’t understand English. But I heard everything. Mr. Rodney would sometimes come into the room late at night with lots and lots of money. He’d set up meetings to give money to Mr. Black. Like more money than I ever seen in my life. Like this.” He makes a gesture with his hands.
“Stacks of bills,” Charlotte said.
“Yes. New. Fresh.”
“There were bundles like that in Mr. Black’s safe the day I found him dead,” I say. “Perfect, clean stacks.”
Juan Manuel continues. “Once, Rodney was really upset because there wasn’t much money coming in that night. He went to meet Mr. Black and when he came back, he had a scar just like mine. But not on his arms. On his chest. That’s how I knew I wasn’t the only one getting punished.”
The pieces come together. I remember the V of Rodney’s crisp, white shirt and the strange round blemish marring his perfectly smooth chest.
“I’ve seen that scar,” I say.
“There’s another thing,” Juan Manuel says. “Mr. Rodney never talked
to me directly about Mr. Black. But I know he knows the wife. The new wife. Mrs. Giselle.”
“That’s not possible,” I say. “Rodney assured me he barely ever spoke to her.” But even as I say it, I realize I’m a fool.
“How do you know Rodney knows Giselle?” Charlotte asks.
Juan Manuel takes out his phone from his pocket and flicks through some photos until he finds the one he’s looking for. “Because I caught him,” he says. “How do you say in English
“In flagrante?” Mr. Preston offers.
“Like this,” he says, and turns his phone around to show us a picture.
It’s Rodney and Giselle. They are kissing so passionately in a shadowy hallway of the hotel that they most certainly would not have noticed Juan Manuel taking the picture. My heart feels sore and heavy as I stare at the photo, registering the details—her hair swept across his shoulder, his hand on the small of her arched back. I fear my heart may stop altogether.
“Wow,” says Charlotte. “Can you send that to me?”
“Yes,” Juan Manuel says. They exchange numbers and he texts the photo to her. It takes only a few seconds for the vile proof to replicate on her phone.
Charlotte stands and paces the living room. “It’s becoming more and more clear that Giselle and Rodney had multiple reasons to want Mr. Black dead. But the only way we can prove Molly is innocent is by finding irrefutable proof that one or both of them killed Mr. Black.”
“It wasn’t Giselle,” I say. “She didn’t do it.”
Many skeptical eyes turn my way.
“Oh, Molly. How do you know that?” Charlotte asks.
“I do. I just do.”
Charlotte and Mr. Preston exchange that look again, the look of doubt.
Mr. Preston rises to his feet. “I have an idea,” he announces.
“Uh-oh,” Charlotte replies.
“Just hear me out,” he says. “It’s not going to be easy, and we’ll have to work as a team….”
“That’s a given,” says Charlotte.
“I like this team idea,” says Juan Manuel. “It’s not right, the way they treat us.”
“We’ll have to be conniving,” says Mr. Preston. “We’ll have to make a plan that’s ironclad.”
“A plan,” Charlotte says.
“Yes,” Mr. Preston answers. “A plan. To outsmart the fox.”
It took well over an hour to hash out the details. During that time, I said, “No” and “I can’t” so repeatedly that I sounded, as Gran used to say, like the Little Engine That Couldn’t.
“Yes, you can,” Mr. Preston told me over and over. “Would Columbo give up?”
“You’ve got this, Miss Molly,” Juan Manuel chimed in.
“If I didn’t think you could do this, I wouldn’t be suggesting it,” Charlotte reasoned.
We practiced and practiced. We ran through scenarios and I perfected my answers to all the questions they could come up with. We acted out the possible things that could go wrong. I had to get past the feeling of dissimulating, of not presenting my true thoughts, but Juan Manuel said something that eased my mind: “Sometimes, you must do one thing bad to do another thing good.” He’s right in so many ways, and I know so from experience.
We rehearsed with Juan Manuel playing opposite me, then with Mr. Preston playing opposite me. I had to forget they were my kind friends. I had to think of them as very bad eggs when in fact they are nothing of the sort. We hashed through details, noted key lines, and came up with contingency plans to deal with any eventuality.
And now we’re finished. Charlotte, Mr. Preston, and Juan Manuel are all smiling and sitting taller in their chairs as they stare at me. I can’t quite be sure, but I think I understand what I see in their faces—pride. They believe I can do this. If Gran were here, she’d say,
You can do it if you put your mind to it.
I’m feeling better after so much practice, calmer about the entire plan. I must say, I do feel a little like Columbo, with a team of crack investigators around me. Together, we’ve devised a trap that will hopefully result in Rodney being caught in flagrante again—but this time, in a different way entirely.
The first step begins immediately, with me texting him. We’ve strategized exactly what I’ll write. “I’m too nervous,” I say, once I type the message into my phone. “Can someone check it before I press Send?”
Juan Manuel, Mr. Preston, and Charlotte gather round me on the sofa, reading over my shoulder.
“It sounds good,” Juan Manuel says. “The way you speak, it’s so nice all the time. More people should talk like you, Molly.”
He smiles and I feel a tingle of warmth. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“I’d add the word ‘urgently’ to your text,” Mr. Preston suggests.
“Yes, that’s good,” says Charlotte. “Urgently.”
I adjust the message:
Rodney, we must meet: urgently. Mr. Black was MURDERED. I made revelations to the police of which you should be aware. I’m sincerely sorry!
“Okay?” I ask, looking for approval from all of them.
“Do it, Molly. Press Send,” Charlotte says.
I squeeze my eyes shut and press the button. I can hear the
of the message leaving my device.
When I open my eyes a few seconds later, three circles appear in a new text box below my sent message.
“Well, well, well,” says Mr. Preston. “Looks like our cretin is in a real hurry to respond.”
My phone trills as Rodney’s message appears:
Molly, WTF? Meet me in twenty minutes at the OG.
“OG?” Mr. Preston asks. “What’s that?”
“Original gangster?” Juan Manuel replies.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Charlotte asks.
Then it comes to me in a flash, and I figure it out. “The Olive Garden,” I say. “That’s where I’m to meet him. Shall I answer?”
“Tell him you’ll be there soon,” Charlotte says.
I try to type a response, but my hands are shaking too much.
“Do you want me to do it?” Charlotte asks.
“Yes, please,” I say.
I hand her the phone and we all watch over her shoulder as she types:
K. CU in 20 min.
She’s about to press Send when Juan Manuel stops her. “That doesn’t sound like Molly at all. She’d never write that.”
“Really?” Charlotte says. “What’s wrong with it?”
“You have to make it more pretty,” Juan Manuel offers. “Use respectful language. Maybe use the word ‘delightful.’ Molly uses this word a lot:
. So nice.”
Charlotte erases what she wrote and tries again:
This plan sounds delightful, even if the circumstances bringing us together are not. See you soon.
“Yes,” I say. “That’s what I’d say. That’s very good.”
“That’s my Miss Molly,” Juan Manuel adds.
. Charlotte sends the message and then hands me my phone.
“Molly,” says Mr. Preston, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “Are you ready? You know what to say to him, what to do?”
Three concerned faces await my response.
“I’m ready,” I reply.
“You can do this, Molly,” Charlotte says.
“We have faith in you,” Mr. Preston adds.
Juan Manuel gives me a thumbs-up.
They have all put their faith in me. They believe in me. The only one who isn’t sure is me.
You can do it if you put your mind to it.
I take a deep breath, put my phone in my pocket, and walk out the front door.
I’m at the Olive Garden eighteen minutes later, which is two minutes sooner than my ETA, mostly because I’m so nervous that I speed-walked the entire way. I’m sitting at our booth under the glow of the pendant light, only this time, it doesn’t feel like our booth at all. It will never be our booth ever again.
Rodney hasn’t arrived yet. As I wait, horrific visions loop in my mind—Mr. Black, his skin ashen and drawn, the photo of Rodney and Giselle, two slippery serpents entwined, Gran’s last few minutes of life. I don’t know why these things replay in my mind, but it’s doing nothing to quell my extreme jitters. How I’m going to get through this, I do not know. How will I act normally when the tension is already jangling the core of my being?
When I next look up, there he is, rushing into the restaurant, searching for me. His hair is tousled, the top two buttons of his shirt are open, revealing his exasperatingly smooth chest. I imagine taking the fork from my place setting and stabbing him with it, right there, where the V of his shirt frames his naked skin. But then I see his scar, and my dark desire evaporates.
“Molly,” he says as he slides into the booth across from me, “I made
an excuse to take off from work for a bit, but I don’t have much time. Let’s make this quick, okay? Tell me everything.”
A waitress comes to our table. “Welcome to the Olive Garden. Can I get you started with some free salad and bread?”
“We’re here for a quick drink,” Rodney replies. “A beer for me.”
I put a finger in the air. “Actually, salad and bread would be lovely. And I’ll also take an appetizer plate and a large pepperoni pizza, please. Oh, and some water? Very, very cold. With ice.” No Chardonnay for me today—I must remain clearheaded. Also, this is not a celebration, not in any way. “Thank you,” I say to the waitress.
Rodney runs his fingers through his hair and sighs.
“Thank you for coming,” I say once the waitress is gone. “It means the world to me that you’re always there when I need you. Such a reliable friend you are.” My face feels stiff and forced as I say this, but Rodney doesn’t seem to notice.
“I’m here for you, Molly. Just tell me what happened, okay?”
“Well,” I say as I conceal my shaking hands under the table, “after the detective took me to the station, she told me Mr. Black did not die naturally. She said he was asphyxiated.”
I wait for this to sink in.
“Whoa,” Rodney says. “And you’re the obvious suspect.”
“In fact, I’m not. They’re looking for someone else.” These are the exact words Charlotte instructed me to say.
I watch him carefully. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down. The waitress returns with bread, salad, and our drinks. I take a long sip of cold water and revel in Rodney’s growing discomfort. I do not touch the food at all. I’m far too nervous. Plus, it’s for later.
“Detective Stark said the persons of interest were most likely motivated by Mr. Black’s will. She thinks they maybe even discussed his will with him before they killed him. Poor Giselle. Do you know that Mr. Black didn’t leave her a thing? Not a single thing, the poor, poor woman.”
“What? The detective told you that? But that can’t be. I know for a fact it can’t be.”
“Do you? I thought you weren’t well acquainted with Giselle,” I say.
“I’m not,” he says. He appears to be sweating though it’s not unduly warm in here. “But I know people who know her well. Anyhow, this isn’t what they told me. So it’s…well, it’s a bit of a surprise.” He takes a gulp of beer and puts his elbows on the table.
“Rude,” I say.
“Your elbows on the table. This is a restaurant. That is a dinner table. Proper etiquette requires you to keep your elbows off it.”
He shakes his head but takes his offensive appendages off the table. Victory.
“Salad? Bread?” I offer.
“No,” he replies. “Let’s just get to the point. Didn’t Mr. Black leave Giselle the villa in the Caymans? Did the detective mention that?”
“Hmm,” I say. I pick up my napkin and grip it under the table between my perspiring hands. “I don’t recall anything about a villa. I think the detective said almost everything goes to the first Mrs. Black and the children.” Another tidbit doled out as planned.
“You’re telling me the police volunteered all of this information to you for no good reason?”
“What? Of course not,” I say. “Who would tell me anything? I’m just the maid. Detective Stark left me in a room by myself, and you know how it is. People forget I’m there. Or perhaps they think I’m too daft to understand? I overheard all of this at the station.”
“And weren’t the detectives concerned about the gun in your vacuum? I mean, I’m assuming that’s why they nabbed you, right?”
“Yes,” I say. “It seems Cheryl found the gun and alerted them. Interesting that she knew where to look. For someone so lazy, it’s hard to imagine her searching a dusty vacuum bag.”
Rodney’s face changes. “You’re not suggesting I told her, are you? Molly, you know I would never—”
“I’d never suggest that about you, Rodney. You’re blameless. An innocent,” I say. “Much like me.”
He nods. “Good. I’m glad there’s no misunderstanding here.” He
shakes his head the way a wet dog would when it comes out of the water. “So what did you tell the police when they asked about the gun?”
“I simply explained whose gun it was, and where I found it,” I reply. “That raised two eyebrows. Meaning I believe Detective Stark was surprised.”
“So you narced on Giselle, your
?” he asks. His elbows make an aggravating reappearance on the table.
“I would never betray a true friend,” I say. “But there’s something dreadful I have to tell you. It’s why I called you here.” Here it comes, the moment I’ve prepared for.
“What is it already?” he asks, barely able to keep the rage out of his voice.
“Oh, Rodney. You know how nervous I get in social situations, and I must say that being interrogated by detectives caused me much consternation, as I have very little experience in such matters. Perhaps you’re more accustomed to such ordeals?”
“Molly, get to the point.”
“Right,” I say, wringing my napkin in my hands. “Once the issue of Giselle’s gun was out of the bag—I suppose that’s both literal and figurative in this case—the detective said they would sweep the former Black suite yet again.” I bring my napkin to my eyes as I try to gauge his response to this.
“Go on,” he says.
“I said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that! Juan Manuel is staying in that suite.’ And the detective asked, ‘Who’s Juan Manuel?’ And so I told them. Oh, Rodney, I probably shouldn’t have. I told them how Juan Manuel is your friend and how you’ve been helping him because he has no work permit and—”
“You mentioned me to the detective?”
“Yes,” I say. “And I told them about the overnight bags and the cleaning up after Juan Manuel and your friends, and how good and kind you’ve all been—”
“They’re his friends, not mine.”
“Well, whoever they are, they sure do drag a lot of mess into rooms.
But don’t worry, I made sure to let the detective know what a good man you are, even if your friends are a little…dusty.”
He takes his head in his hands. “Oh, Molly. What have you done?”
“I told the truth,” I say. “But I realize I have caused a bit of an issue for Juan Manuel. What if he’s still in the Black suite when they check it again? I’d hate for him to get in any kind of trouble. You’d hate that, too, wouldn’t you, Rodney?”
He nods vigorously. “I would. Yeah. I mean, we’ve got to make sure he’s not in there when they check. And we’ve got to clean that room out, fast, before the police arrive. You know, so there are no traces of Juan Manuel.”
“Of course,” I say. “My thoughts exactly.” I smile at Rodney, but inside I’m pouring a full kettle of boiling water onto his dirty, lying face.
“So you’ll do it?” he asks.
“Do what?” I reply.
“Sneak in and clean the suite. Now. Before the cops get there. You’re the only one besides Chernobyl and Snow who has access. If Mr. Snow catches Juan Manuel there—or worse, if the police do—he’ll be deported.”
“But I’m not supposed to be going to work today. Mr. Snow says I’m ‘a person of interest’ to the police, so—”
“Please, Molly! This is important.” He reaches out and grabs my hand. I want to wrench mine away, but I know I must not move.
We have faith in you.
I hear it in my head, but it’s not Gran’s voice this time. It’s Mr. Preston’s. Then Charlotte’s. Then Juan Manuel’s.
I keep my hand steady under his, my gaze neutral. “You know,” I say, “I’m not allowed to enter the hotel, but that doesn’t mean
can’t enter. What if I quickly sneak into the hotel, grab the right room key, and give it to you? You can then use my trolley and clean up the room yourself! Wouldn’t that be something—you cleaning up your own mess?—I mean, Juan Manuel’s mess.”
His eyes are darting all over the place. The sheen on his forehead is condensing into droplets.
After a few moments, he says, “Okay. All right. You get me the suite key, I clean the room.”
“The suite key
,” I say, but he fails to register my cleverness.
The waitress arrives at our table with the pepperoni pizza and the appetizer plate.
“Would you mind boxing that up, please?” I ask.
“Sure,” she says. “Was there something wrong with the bread and salad? You didn’t even touch them.”
“Oh no,” I say. “It’s all delightful. It’s just that we’re in a bit of a rush.”
“Of course,” she says. “I’ll box everything.” She gestures to a colleague, and the two of them take care of the food.
“He’ll have the bill, please,” I say, pointing to Rodney.
His mouth drops open, but he doesn’t say anything, not so much as a word.
Our waitress retrieves the bill from her apron and hands it to him. He pulls out a crisp, fresh $100 bill from his wallet, passes it to her, and says, “Keep the change.” He stands abruptly. “I better run, Molly. I should get back to the hotel and do this right away.”
“Of course,” I say. “I’ll take all this food home. Then I’ll text you as soon as I make it to the hotel. Oh, and Rodney?”
“What?” he asks.
“It really is a shame that you don’t like jigsaw puzzles.”
“Because,” I say, “I don’t think you quite know the pleasure one feels when suddenly, all the pieces come together.”
He looks at me, his lip curled. It’s so clear, the meaning of the look. I’m an idiot. A fool. And I’m too daft to even know it.
That’s the expression that’s smeared all over his vulgar, lying face.