Authors: Nita Prose
All of my guests walk into the sitting room and stand awkwardly. What are they waiting for?
“Please,” I say. “Have a seat.”
Mr. Preston goes to the kitchen and comes back with two chairs, which he places across from the sofa.
“Would anyone like tea?” I ask.
“I’d murder for a cuppa,” Mr. Preston says.
“Poor choice of words. Apologies.”
“That’s quite all right, Mr. Preston,” I say. I turn to Detective Stark. “We all make mistakes from time to time, don’t we, Detective?”
Detective Stark appears very interested in her own stockinged feet. It must be unusual for her, to take off her boots on a work call, to have her tender tootsies so exposed.
“So,” I say. “What about that tea?”
“I will make it,” Juan Manuel replies. His eyes flit to the detective and then he makes a hasty retreat into the kitchen.
Mr. Preston offers Detective Stark a seat, and she obliges. Charlotte sits in her usual chair. I take my place on the sofa, with Mr. Preston beside me in the spot where Gran always sat, before.
“As you can imagine,” I say, “I’m most curious to know what has transpired in the last few hours. I would most expressly appreciate knowing if I remain accused of murder.”
I hear a spoon clatter against the tiled floor in the kitchen.
“Sorry!” Juan Manuel calls out.
“All charges against you are dropped,” Detective Stark says.
“All of them,” Charlotte repeats. “The detective wanted you to come
to the station so she could tell you in person, but I insisted she face you here instead.”
“Thank you,” I say to Charlotte.
She leans forward in her chair, looking right into my eyes. “You’re innocent, Molly. You understand? They know that now.”
I hear the words. They register in my head, but I don’t quite believe them. Words without action can be deceiving.
Mr. Preston gives my knee a little pat. “There, there. All’s well that ends well.” It’s exactly what Gran would have said, were she still alive.
“Molly,” Detective Stark says, “I’m here because we’re going to need your help. We received a call from Mr. Snow this afternoon urging us to come to the hotel immediately. He was tipping us off to new developments.”
Juan Manuel emerges from the kitchen, his face pale and drawn. He’s carrying Gran’s tea tray, which he sets on the table. He backs away then, several trolley-lengths from the detective.
Detective Stark doesn’t notice. She eyes the tray and chooses Gran’s cup, which bothers me no end, but never mind.
“Juan Manuel,” I say as I stand up. “Please take my seat.” I wish I had another chair to offer him, but alas, I do not.
“No, no,” he says. “Please, you sit, Molly. I stand.”
“Good idea,” Detective Stark says. “Less chance of her fainting again.”
I sit back down.
The detective adds some sugar to her tea, stirs, then continues. “When we entered the former Black suite today, the bartender of the Social Bar & Grill, Rodney Stiles, and two of his associates, were inside.”
“Two imposing gentlemen with an interesting array of facial tattoos?” I ask.
“Yes, you know them?”
“I thought they were guests of the hotel,” I say. “I was told they were Juan Manuel’s friends.” As soon as I say it, I regret it.
It’s as though Mr. Preston can read my mind, for he immediately says, “Don’t worry, Molly. The detective knows all about Rodney and
the blackmailing against Juan Manuel. And the…violent acts against him too.”
Juan Manuel is standing motionless just outside of the kitchen. I know what this feels like—to be discussed as if you’re not even there.
“Molly, can you tell the detective why you cleaned rooms for Rodney whenever he asked? Just tell the detective the truth,” Charlotte says.
I look to Juan Manuel. I won’t say another word without his consent. “It’s okay,” he says. “You can tell them.”
I then proceed to explain everything, how Rodney lied, that he told me Juan Manuel was his friend and that he was homeless, how he had me clean rooms without me realizing what it was I was wiping away, how he deceived me—and how he used Juan Manuel.
“I didn’t know what was actually going on in those rooms every night. I didn’t realize Juan Manuel was being violently assaulted. I thought I was helping a friend.”
“Why did you believe him, though?” Detective Stark asks. “Why did you believe Rodney when it was pretty obvious that drugs were involved?”
“What’s obvious for you, Detective, isn’t always obvious for everyone else. As my gran used to say, ‘We’re all the same in different ways.’ The truth is, I trusted Rodney. I trusted a bad egg.”
Juan Manuel remains statue-still outside of the kitchen.
“Rodney used me and Juan Manuel to make himself invisible,” I say. “I see that now.”
“You’re right,” Detective Stark replies. “We’ve caught him, though. We found large quantities of benzodiazepine and cocaine in that suite. It was literally right in his hands.”
I think of Giselle’s “benz friends” in an unmarked bottle, most likely supplied by Rodney.
“We’ve charged him with several drug-related offenses, possession of an illegal firearm, and threatening an officer.”
“Threatening an officer?” I say.
“He pulled a handgun when the door of the suite opened. Same make and model as the one we found in your vacuum, Molly.”
It’s hard to imagine—Rodney in his white shirt with the sleeves rolled, pulling a gun rather than a pint of beer at the bar.
It’s Juan Manuel who notices what I do not. All eyes turn to him as he speaks. “You mentioned many charges. But you never mentioned murder.”
Detective Stark nods. “We have also charged Rodney with the first-degree murder of Mr. Black. But to be perfectly honest, we’re going to need your help to make that charge stick. There are still a few things we can’t figure out.”
“Such as?” Charlotte prompts.
“When we first went into the Black suite the day you found him dead, Molly, there were no traces of Rodney’s fingerprints anywhere in that whole suite. In fact, there were hardly any prints anywhere. And traces of your cleaning solution were found on Mr. Black’s neck.”
“Because I checked his pulse. Because—”
“Yes. We know, Molly. We know you didn’t kill him.”
It occurs to me then. “It’s my fault.”
Everyone looks my way.
“What could you possibly mean by that?” Mr. Preston asks.
“The fact that you couldn’t find Rodney’s prints anywhere. When I clean a room, I leave it in a state of perfection. If Rodney ever entered that room and left prints behind, I would have wiped them away without even knowing it. I’m a good maid. Maybe too good.”
“You may be right,” Detective Stark says. She smiles then, but not a full smile, not the kind that reaches the eyes. “We’re wondering if you know anything about Giselle Black’s whereabouts. After we arrested Rodney, we rushed to her hotel room, but she was already gone. Seems she saw us ambush the hotel and took off in a real hurry. She left a note on Regency Grand stationery.”
“What did it say?” I ask.
“It said, ‘Ask Molly the Maid. She’ll tell you. I didn’t do it. Rodney and Charles = BFFs.’ ”
“BFFs?” I say.
“Best friends forever,” Charlotte offers. “She’s saying Rodney and Charles were accomplices.”
“Yes,” says Juan Manuel. “They were accomplices.” All eyes turn his way. He continues to speak. “Rodney and Mr. Black talked a lot on the phone. Sometimes, they argued. About money. About shipments and territories and deals. Nobody thinks I hear anything, but I do.”
The detective turns her chair to face Juan Manuel. “We’d be very interested in taking your witness statement,” she says.
A look of alarm crosses Juan Manuel’s face.
“They’re not going to charge you,” Charlotte says. “Or deport you. They know you’re a victim of crime. And they need your help to try the perpetrator.”
“That’s right,” the detective says. “We understand that you were threatened and coerced to cooperate with Rodney, that you suffered…physical assault. And we know you had a work permit that ran out.”
“It didn’t just ‘run out,’ ” Juan Manuel says. “It ran into Rodney.”
Detective Stark cocks her head to one side. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Juan Manuel explains how Rodney put him in touch with an immigration lawyer, only to have his money disappear and his papers never materialize.
“This ‘lawyer.’ You have his name?”
Juan Manuel nods.
The detective shakes her head. “Looks like we have another case to pursue.”
Charlotte jumps in. “Juan Manuel, if you support us as a key witness in the case against Rodney, maybe we can also catch this so-called lawyer. Catch him before he does this to more people.”
“No one else should go through this,” Juan Manuel says.
“That’s right. And Juan Manuel,” Charlotte says. “My partner García handles immigration law in our firm. If you want, I can introduce you to him, see if he can get your work permit reinstated.”
“I would like to talk to him, yes,” Juan Manuel says. “I have many
concerns—Mr. Snow, for one thing. He knows what I did. He knows I stayed quiet when I should have talked. He will fire me for sure.”
“He won’t,” Mr. Preston says. “He needs you now more than ever.”
“We all do,” Detective Stark adds. “We need you to corroborate that Rodney and Mr. Black were running a cartel through the hotel, that they were using and abusing you. With your help, we might also be able to figure out what pushed Rodney to commit murder. He maintains he’s innocent on that charge. Admits to the drug charges, but not to murder. Not yet.”
Juan Manuel is quiet for a moment. Then he says, “I will help you if I can.”
“Thank you,” Detective Stark says. “And Molly, is there anything else you can tell us about Giselle? Do you have any idea where she could be?”
“She’ll appear, when she’s ready,” I say.
“Let’s hope,” Detective Stark says.
I imagine Giselle on a faraway white-sand beach, clicking through news feeds on her phone and learning of Rodney’s arrest. She’ll find out that I’m no longer a suspect. What will she do then? Will she reach out to the police? Or will she put it all behind her? Will she grift her way into another rich man’s wallet or will she actually grow and change?
I have never been a very good judge of character. I see the truth too late. It’s like Juan Manuel said: sometimes, you have to do one thing bad to do another thing good. Perhaps this time, Giselle will do one thing good. Or perhaps not.
“What happens now?” I ask. “For Juan Manuel? For me?”
“Well,” Detective Stark says. “You’re free. All charges are dropped.”
“But am I still fired?” I ask. The very thought of it makes me feel like I’m falling off a cliff to my doom.
“No, Molly,” Mr. Preston says. “You won’t lose your job. In fact, Mr. Snow will talk to you and to Juan Manuel about that himself.”
“Really?” I say. “He won’t fire either of us?”
“He said you’re both model workers and that you exemplify what it means to be Regency Grand employees,” Mr. Preston says.
“But what about the trial?” I ask.
“That won’t be for a long while,” Charlotte replies. “We’ll prepare for it, and that will take many months. But hopefully, by working with Detective Stark and her team, we’ll be able to put Rodney behind bars for a long time.”
“That seems appropriate,” I say. “He’s a liar, an abuser, and a cheat.”
“He’s also a murderer,” Mr. Preston adds.
I say nothing.
“Detective,” Charlotte says, “I’m sensing my client is tired. It’s been quite a day for her, given that this morning she was wrongly accused of murder and now she’s having tea in her living room with her accuser. Was there anything else you wanted to say to her?”
Detective Stark clears her throat. “Just that I, uh, regret that you were…detained.”
“That’s very kind of you, Detective,” I say. “I hope you’ve learned an important lesson.”
The detective shifts in her chair as if she’s seated on a sharp pin. “I’m sorry?” she says.
“Perhaps you jumped to some conclusions about me. You expected certain reactions that you consider normal, and when you didn’t see those reactions, you assumed I was guilty. You made an A-S-S out of U and Me.”
“That’s one way to put it,” she says.
“My gran always said that to live is to learn. Maybe next time you’ll avoid assumptions.”
“We’re all the same in different ways,” Juan Manuel adds.
“Huh,” she says. “I suppose.”
With that she stands, thanks us for our time, puts on her boots, and leaves.
Once the door clicks shut behind her, I slide the rusty dead bolt across it and breathe a huge sigh of relief.
I turn around and instead of emptiness, in my living room I see the faces of my three friends. They are all smiling, the kind of smiles that reach their eyes. For the first time in my life, I think I understand what a
true friend is. It isn’t just someone who likes you; it’s someone willing to take action on your behalf.
“Well?” Mr. Preston says. “That detective just ate so much humble pie I think she might explode. How does it feel, Molly?”
I’m relieved beyond measure, but there’s more to it than that. “I…I’m not quite certain what I did to deserve this,” I say.
“You didn’t deserve any of it,” Charlotte says. “You’re innocent.”
“I don’t mean the crimes. I mean the kindness the three of you have shown me, for no good reason.”
“There’s always a reason for kindness,” Juan Manuel says.
“You’re right,” Mr. Preston says. “And you know who used to say that to me all the time?”
“No,” I say.
“Your good ol’ gran.”
“She never did tell me how you two knew each other,” I say.
“No, I expect she didn’t,” he replies. He takes a deep breath. “We were engaged, once upon a time.”
?” Charlotte says.
“That’s right, I had a life before you, my dear, a life you know very little about.”
“I can’t believe this,” Charlotte says. “I’m learning this only now?”
“So what happened?” Juan Manuel asks. He settles himself into the detective’s empty chair.
“Your grandmother, Flora, she was a wonderful lady, Molly. She was kind and sensitive. She was so different from other girls her age, and I was completely besotted. I proposed to her when we were both sixteen, and she said yes. But her parents wouldn’t allow it. They were well-to-do, you know. She was miles above my station, yet she never acted that way.”