Chapter 23 – His Girl Friday

I finally feel rested by the time I wake up on Sunday.  I climb out of bed and almost step on Vader who shoots me an aggrieved look and runs out of the bedroom.  Oh well.  I tend to my health and wander into the kitchen.  After pouring myself some of the coffee that I find, I start making breakfast.  I am not far into the process when Zeke walks out of the computer room.

“Good morning, sleepyhead.  How do you feel this morning?”  He comes over and hugs me.  I don’t answer him until I have kissed him.

“I feel human again.  I was going to make some breakfast.  Have you eaten?  Do you want some?”

“No, I haven’t eaten and yes, you may cook for me.”  He grins at me as I bow to him.  “And I think Vader wouldn’t mind some of whatever you are making.”

We both look down at the dog, staring intently up at us.  Why do they only look intelligent when you have food (or the promise of it) in your hands?

After breakfast I call the hospital to see how Rhyssa is doing, but she’s asleep.  Zeke calls Rob to see how Josh is doing and gets the answering machine.  We decide to stop trying to reach people.  We spend the morning just puttering around the house.  I find some trade magazines and idly glance through them, seeing if there’s something I need or any new items that I think are worth carrying.

The doorbell rings in the midst of this bucolic scene.  Vader runs downstairs and stands at the door, barking.  Zeke goes down to answer it and I stand on the stairs.  He pulls the door open and there is a dark-haired woman standing there that I have never seen before.

“We’re closed today…”  Zeke starts to tell her.

“I know.  My name is Jane Harris.  I work—I worked for John Robert Schmidt and I am Rhyssa’s friend.  Can we talk?”

He glances back at me and I nod.  He steps out of her way and motions her to come in.  He moves his hand at me and I take that to mean I am to finish walking down the stairs.  I figure we are taking her into the conservatory.  I’m right, as he leads her towards the back of the house.

“Rhyssa tried to describe this place to me.”  Jane is looking all around.  “She did not do it justice.  This is amazing.”

“Thank you.  Mattie has the ideas and I get to make them happen.”  Zeke gestures to a chair and she sits down, perching on the edge.  We sit in the other chairs and wait to find out why she’s here.

“I went over to Rhyssa’s house and she wasn’t there.  The neighbor told me that an ambulance had been at the house yesterday, so I tried to call the hospital.  They wouldn’t tell me anything and I know that you all are good friends, so I was hoping you would tell me.  What has happened?”  She leans towards us, a worried expression on her face.

Zeke answers her.  “Rhyssa tried to commit suicide, unsuccessfully I might add.  She is in the hospital for observation, as part of their treatment plan for people who do that.  We went up to see her last evening.”

She gasps with genuine horror and concern.  “Oh no! Oh no!  Dear God, why?  Why did she try to kill herself?”

“I rather imagine it had something to do with John Robert.”  I supply the response this time.

Jane lowers her head and her hands clench and unclench in her lap.  I can tell that she is struggling to get her emotions under control, but the tears begin to drip.  Zeke hands her the box of tissues without a word.

After a moment or two, she snuffles and takes a deep breath.  She raises wet eyes to look at both of us.

“It’s my fault.  She was devastated when she found out that I have been… I had been, well…I had been, ummm, seeing…  Oh, hell, let me just say it straight out.”  Another deep breath.  “John Robert and I have been—intimate for over six months.  Until he died.”

We both nod.  She continues.

“He was so…persuasive.  I am ashamed to admit that I have a history of choosing men that are already married.  My husband was married when we started dating and he left her to marry me.  He ended up cheating on me and so I divorced him.  So I did not want anything to do with John Robert at first.  He just kept asking me out, kept giving me little presents, telling me how beautiful I was, how much he needed me.  Needed me, hah!

“I was stupid enough to believe him.  I eventually agreed to ‘just’ lunch and before I knew it, we were…we moved on to a more physical relationship.  He was…I was going to say he was a tender lover, but now that I think about it, ‘experienced’ is a better description.  He was very good at it and I let my body overrule my mind.  And my heart.”  She wipes away the tears that are still falling.

“Mr. Tisdale tried to warn me, I think.”  She sniffs.  “He said that John Robert could sell refrigerators to Eskimos and talk them into buying the cold water dispenser and the ice maker—and the matching freezer as well.  He made some comment about John Robert ‘always having a sales pitch going on’, even in the office—and then he mentioned that they had had a series of secretaries.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

“Did he say anything John Robert actually, um, being involved with the other women?  The other secretaries?”  Zeke asks quietly.

“No, just that he hoped I would stay because he didn’t think that they could ‘keep a good worker here’ since there had been so many over the years.”

She turns to me.  “I had no idea that he was sleeping with Rhyssa.  None at all.  So I was shocked when she suddenly starting screaming at me after I told her that I was—involved with him.”

“Jane, I hate to ask this.  But were you aware that he was also having sex with Shelly Johnson?”

She looks blank.  “Who?  No, is that another one?”  She sighs.

“She is a member of the…um, group that John Robert belonged to.”

“Oh you mean the coven.”  My face must reflect my surprise that she knows this.  “I was aware that he was a High Priest.  I am not Pagan, but my cousin was into all of that, so I know a little bit about it.”

“Oh.  I hope you realize that Paganism is not about…well, getting laid.”

“I thought they used sex as a way to worship.”

Zeke takes this one and runs with it.  “Ah, not quite.  Many Pagans believe that there is only one rite, the Great Rite, which is the sacred union of the God and the Goddess.  At its most basic, that would qualify as sex, but it is supposed to be much, much more.  Most people who follow the Pagan path don’t even have actual sex within their rituals, but use symbolism, like putting the point of the ceremonial dagger into the chalice.  Trust me when I tell you that we do not have unrestrained, licentious orgies and then call it sacred worship.”

“Thank you for telling me that.  My cousin had indicated the same sort of thing, but John Robert…well, he told me that we could have sex even though he was married because his beliefs said that it was okay.  And that his wife believed the same way.”

“Well, they might have believed that way, but…it has been my experience that most Pagans do not.”  Zeke sighs.  “They tend to hold strong beliefs that anything you send out comes back at least threefold.  So if you use sex as a weapon or coerce others into participating…”

“It certainly came back on John Robert…since he’s dead.  And how’s come you know so much about Pagans?”

I can’t help it.  I laugh.  She stares at me and then looks over at Zeke to see him grinning as well.

“Jane, we are Pagans too.”  He leans over and pats her arm.  “I figured you knew that when you walked into the store.  We carry all kinds of Pagan things, and have a large Pagan clientele.”

“I guess I wasn’t thinking about it.  I mean, I know that you have stuff that Rhyssa likes to buy, but I didn’t think that the owners would also be…”

It’s my turn to lean towards her.  “Jane, not many Christians are comfortable with selling all the paraphernalia of a spiritual path that they think is evil.  So I would think that most stores like ours are run by Pagans.”

“I guess so.  I never thought about it.  I mean, I only found out about Rhyssa being Pagan when I moved here.  Do you really think that she tried to kill herself because of him?”

“I don’t know why she wanted to do something so final.  I know that your conversation with her the day before he died hit her hard.  I would guess that it was like a double betrayal on his part.  He was not only her…um, lover, but her spiritual leader and this would have really made it that much more difficult to know that he was just toying with her.”

Jane sighs, so deeply that it is almost a groan.  “He toyed with me.  I know that now.  I mean, if he was screwing three women and not a one of them his wife, he’s not in it for the spiritual uplifting.”

“Jane, I realize that he was important to you—“ She shakes her head in an emphatic negative reaction and Zeke amends his words.  “I mean, at one time he was important.  But the only sure thing I can say about that man is that he was selfish and greedy, always taking what he wanted and not caring who got hurt in the process.”

“Oh, I definitely agree with you.  Hindsight is always so much clearer.  I just don’t know how we could all be so stupid.  How I could be so stupid.”

I have no answer to that, no comfort for her.  Some of life’s lessons…are very hard, very hard indeed.

“Even after knowing that he was having sex with Rhyssa, I was still willing to be with him.  I even stayed after work on Monday because he asked me to.”

Zeke and I exchange significant looks.  He asks the obvious question.  “You were there the night he died?”

“Well, he was still alive when I left about seven o’clock.  We had a terrible fight because I confronted him about Rhyssa and he tried to hand me the “that’s part of my religion” stuff.  The whole time I’m trying to talk to him, he was waving his hands around and complaining how dry his mouth was.  It was like he wasn’t even listening to me.  He kept saying how beautiful the world was, how we needed to have sex in this beautiful world.”

She jumps when I grab a hold of her arm but I need the contact to maybe be able to receive the images these words create in her mind, the memories that she has of that night.  And I do.

Flickering images.  The large man, his voice hoarse, his hands fluttering.  He keeps leaning towards her, his eyes already showing dilated pupils.  The pictures fall past my mind’s eye like a series of photographs.  His skin flushed, he keeps grasping at her.

Things shift.  I can almost hear her voice, shrill and accusing.  He ignores her, caught up in the hallucinations which I know from this point in time are caused by the atropine.  The angle changes as she obviously stood up and then left the room.  One last view of him, sitting on the chair and wheezing.

I let go of her and sit back.  Zeke pushes a cup of tea into my hands and I drink it gratefully.  Jane rubs her arm and stares at us.

“What the hell was that all about?”  Her voice is strident and I can hear the fear in it.  I hope that I can explain it adequately for her.

Before I get the chance, Zeke takes her hand and begins to talk.  “Jane, I know that a lot of what Pagans can do is…ridiculed in the rest of the world.  But there are many gifts that each of us is granted and Pagans embrace these gifts, actively use them.  Mattie is very psychic.”

He pauses and seeks the best words to describe it.  “She can picture in her mind the pictures you hold in yours.  She can’t control you through her mind, or make you do things, she is like…well, like a television set that receives a signal.”

I can see Jane processing the words, trying to understand what he is saying.  The television example has been used before and the one we both like the best.  It is highly accurate and a very non-threatening way to present something that is often perceived as dangerous.

She apparently reaches a decision because she shifts until she is facing me.

“Did you…see?”

“Yes.  But what I saw was the last time you saw him.  It was significant enough that that is what you were thinking of.”

“Ye-e-es.”  She sags into the chair, a sad and weary woman.  “I can’t even remember how wonderful I thought it all was, how much I did enjoy being with him before that night.”

“I am so sorry.  It is hard to have reality run over your life.”  Zeke nods his agreement at my statement.

“That’s exactly what happened.  I had a fantasy life, thinking he would leave his wife, we’d marry—and this time I would get it right and he wouldn’t leave me for another woman like my first husband.  I’m getting older, but I’m sure as hell not getting smarter.”

“I think you are.  You’ve already identified reality.  It may not be nice, but it’s all we have.”  I shrug.

She nods.  “Do you think that I can visit Rhyssa?”

“I really don’t know.  Depends on whether the police will let you in.”

“Police?  Why does it matter about the police?”

“She was also at the office that night and she ummm…tampered with the body.  They have had a guard on her until such time as they decide whether to charge her with any crime—and I think to make sure that she doesn’t succeed with another suicide attempt in case…”  I falter, not quite sure how to say it.

“You mean, in case she is the murderer.”  Jane states it bluntly.  I nod.

The three of us sit in silence and think about this possibility.  After a few moments, Jane gives a little sigh and stands up.

“I’m sorry to have imposed on you all, and I do appreciate all that you have told me.  I don’t know what Rhyssa was thinking of…  I will try to see her, but if I can’t, please let her know that I am concerned about her and I hope that she will…feel better soon.  I don’t know if she will want to hear it, but I am sorry about all of this.

“Thank you both.  I guess I need to head out.”

She steps towards the doorway and we both rise and follow her.  Zeke lets her out and then locks up behind her.  I wait for him and we both return upstairs followed by Vader who has watched all of this from beneath my chair.  I am ready for lunch.

By mid-afternoon, I am tired of puttering about aimlessly.  The house is clean and the dishes are done; stock has been ordered and I am not going to dust the entire store again.  I can tell that Zeke is just as restless as I am from the long periods of silence from the computer room.  When he’s got stuff going on, the keyboard clicks and clatters, but there isn’t a lot of action from in there, either.

Vader keeps going between us, sitting at my feet for a while and then disappearing to bother his alpha male for a while.  I finally follow him into the back room and stand there, hands on hips.

“Let’s go out.  We can walk or we can ride, but let’s get out of the house.”

“Sounds good to me.  Which do you prefer?  Walk or ride?”

Vader perks on the magic word…”ride” is his most favorite word of all and this decides us.  He dances around us while we put on shoes and coats and is positively quivering with excitement by the time I can get his leash out.  We all climb in the car and Zeke starts it up.

“Where to?”

“Absolutely no idea.  Point it thataway (I gesture down the road, away from town) and engage, Number one.”

“And who made you the captain of this ship?”  But he puts it in gear and we head out.

The weather is clear and crisp.  The dog is thrilled to be riding in his chariot while the humans who so clearly serve him take him out of his normal surroundings to survey new things and enjoy new smells.  He perches up on my lap and intently stares at all the passing scenery.  Zeke and I ride in companionable silence, enjoying the change in view.  We only speak to comment about the places going past or to read the signs.

The afternoon goes by fast enough that we are far from home when we decide it’s time for dinner.  Even though we’re headed back towards the house, we agree to find a restaurant for the meal.  Of course having made this decision, all the myriads of eateries that were passing by only a moment ago have all disappeared.  I finally spy a sign for a mom-and-pop diner and Zeke pulls into the parking lot.

I remind Vader that he cannot tear up the car and expect any more rides and he promises to be good and guard the car while we go in to eat.  I will bring him something from the menu, but I won’t pay more for his dinner than I pay for mine.  I don’t spoil him that bad!

The hostess, obviously a daughter home from college, seats us in the back corner and we peruse our choices.  The waitress, another daughter but younger and looking frazzled, brings us each a glass of water and we order.

While we wait for our meal, I become aware of a low but intense conversation on the other side of the seat divider.  I only catch the tone, but there is a man and a woman in heated discussion and the sound of it is not happy.  I look over at Zeke and can tell that he is also able to hear it.

I am about to ignore the whole thing when I hear shocking words.

“Dorie, why didn’t you tell the police that Sara made that cake?”

I don’t recognize the man’s voice, but how many other Dories and Saras can there be?  And then comes an even bigger shock.  I can actually hear her reply.

“I didn’t want them to think that Sara was trying to kill her own father.”

Zeke is just as astounded as I am, but at least he’s thinking slightly clearer.

“Go to the bathroom,” he whispers to me.  I stare at him.  “You have to go past the table to get to the ladies room.”

Ahhhhhh.  I stand and head to the back of the diner.  As I pass the table, I can see from the corner of my eye that it is indeed Dorie Schmidt and a man that I do not know but who has his hand on her thigh with such familiarity that I suspect this is not the first time he has put it there.  It’s a little…intimate…for being solicitous in her time of grief.

I am already past her before my identity registers and I can even hear her gasp.  I have never known her to be as audible as she has just been—twice!

I go into the single stalled bathroom—thank goodness, it gives me a chance to assimilate what I’ve just seen—and wait several minutes before unnecessarily flushing the toilet and then I wash my hands.  When I walk back out, all I see is Dorie’s back going out the front door and the man paying at the counter, denying any problem but clearly leaving as quickly as possible.

Zeke has pulled out his pen and is making notes on a napkin.  He has even sketched the man’s face, but only from the side.  I sit back down and he glances up.

“Amazing who one runs into, out in the country, isn’t it?  I wonder who he is?”

I pull out the utensils I have lifted from their table…and hand them to Zeke.  “Try these for some idea?”

He grins at me and takes them.  He very carefully handles them one at a time, setting each one down as he is done with it.

“Well, we know the bear is real.”  He lays a fork down.

“What do you mean?”

“The bear in your dreams…it’s that man, whoever he is.  He protects the doe…and has for some time.”

He jots down some words on his napkin and then folds it up and puts it into his pocket just as the waitress brings our food.

She sets our plates down and is bemused by the extra silverware but she doesn’t ask and we don’t tell.  We eat and talk about other things but the sighting of the stricken widow with a male who is not a relative looms in our thoughts.

Vader is pleased to get a hamburger and manages to eat it before Zeke can pull out of the parking lot.  The ride home is very quiet as we are both thinking about John Robert and his death…and Dorie.

Zeke wakes me Monday morning with the news that we are going to visit the local constabulary.  This comes as no surprise to me but I do insist on breakfast before leaving the house.  We take the Devil’s Spawn with us and walk the few blocks to the station.

Zeke called Paul and let him know that we were on our way, but he is not in his office when we arrive so we are shown into it to await his return.  I amuse myself by noting all the Pagan symbols he has managed to put around the room while still making it look official and professional.  I have counted over twenty when he walks in, looking haggard and drawn.

“Good morning.  Sorry I wasn’t here.  Duty calls.”

And it was not nice, I can get that much off of him.  The picture that then appears in my head makes me want to throw up and I have to consciously block it.  Paul looks up at me and I must be green because he grimaces.

“I’m sorry.  I know that I broadcast and I forgot you would get it.  You going to be okay?”

I nod and swallow.  He moves behind the desk and the slight increase in distance from him helps me calm down.

Zeke reaches out to hold my hand and the contact completes the easing of my nausea.  I take a deep breath and look at Paul.

“So what can I do for you all this morning?”  He steeples his fingers and looks over his clasped hands at us.

Zeke reaches into his pocket and pulls out his napkin from dinner last night.  He refers to it as he tells Paul first about our visit from Jane and then our outing.

“So Jane saw John Robert about seven the night he died. And Mattie, you saw that she was looking at him as he was actually having symptoms?”

“Oh yes.  I don’t know how much longer it took for him to die, but he was already showing enough effects that I would guess it was already too late to do anything about it.  I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never seen or treated atropine poisoning.”

“And both of you could stand up in a court of law and testify that you saw Dorie Schmidt in that restaurant?”

Zeke answers.  “Oh it was most definitely her.  Amazingly vocal, but definitely her.  She had more presence than I have ever seen.”

“This is your sketch of the man?”

“I only saw him from the side as he all but ran out of the place.  Big guy, stocky rather than fat, sleek.  Had on jeans but his shirt was designer, expensive looking.  He was wearing boots and a parka.  About our age, maybe a little older.”

Paul rummages through his files and pulls out a picture.  “Could this be him?”

We both look at the photo and nod our heads.

“That looks just like him.  If it’s not him, he has a twin.”  I continue to hold it, gazing into the face of the man who had put his hand on Dorie’s thigh with such…ease.

“That’s Barry Tisdale, John Robert’s business partner.”

We all stare at each other.  Finally, Zeke says what we’re all thinking.

“So…how long has Dorie been having an affair with John Robert’s partner and did they kill him?”

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