The family meeting had been productive. They were all in agreement that their little investigation had unearthed some important facts. Even though at the moment, the significance of those facts escaped them. Like the outer pieces of a puzzle, they still needed to fill in the details in order to get the big picture.
Joshua had requested that Richard ask his friend Summer to run the plate on the van from the warehouse, which Rachel swore had carted off a dead body. Richard didn’t feel comfortable asking for such a big favor from a friend he hadn’t been in touch with for several years, prior to his current visit home. It seemed like too big of an imposition.
Given Richard’s recent run-ins with Officer Hodges, the last thing he wanted to do was get Summer in the middle of something which might jeopardize her job. She had worked hard to move up the ranks and become a detective. Undoubtedly, some of the good old boys at the precinct still believed that a woman of color shouldn’t be allowed to climb that high. He presumed that they would like nothing more than to see her stripped of her rank in some humiliating way.
Officer Hodges was working hard to drum up evidence against Richard. Seemingly, in his suspicious eyes, anyone helping Richard would become guilty by association. Richard felt the need to pull back on his sleuthing, lest he inadvertently give Officer Hodges an excuse to arrest him again. Without powerful allies, anything could happen to him inside that precinct. To that end, he recommended the services of one of the retired officers, who had gone on to become a private detective.
Everyone but Rachel loved the idea. She wanted to keep digging. The brothers attempted to reason with her, but Rachel was like a dog with a bone. She wouldn’t let it go. Reverend Mother’s sharp reminder of the need for her to attend to the shambles of her personal life had finally brought her vigorous arguing to a reluctant halt.
Richard had to root around in his old desk drawers for a long time, before he finally found the dog-eared business card stamped with the contact information for George Holt Investigations. Reading the name conjured up memories of the tall, thin salt and pepper haired man. Richard remembered him as being somber and taciturn. He decided that his first contact with his old colleague should be via phone, rather than a face-to-face meeting. It would be less awkward that way. They had been more like acquaintances than friends. However, Richard had always respected the man’s work ethic.
The call was pleasant yet brief. The two men reminisced about their time on the force for a few moments, and then Richard dealt with the inevitable question about what he had done since leaving the force by saying vaguely that he worked in New York but had returned home to help take care of his mother. He quickly steered the conversation to the reason for his call. George was so pleased that Richard wanted to hire him, that he stopped asking personal questions. He eagerly agreed to run the plates on the van and see what he could dig up on Nicole.
Richard was hanging up the phone, when he heard Reverend Mother scream. His heart leapt into overdrive. A hundred violent scenarios played out in his mind, as he charged down the stairs with Joshua at his heels. Surely no one had broken into their home in broad daylight. The brothers found their mother in her bedroom, standing precariously on a chair and staring at the floor with a horror-stricken look on her face. Rachel was pulling on her arm and shouting at her.
“Get down mama. There’s nothing there. Get down!”
Richard saw that Rachel’s tugging was pulling their mother off-balance. He moved in and quickly separated them, taking his sister out into the living room while Joshua coaxed Reverend Mother down off of the chair. Rachel sank down onto the couch with a frightened look on her face. Richard stood in front of her with his arms crossed.
“What happened in there Rachel?”
“I…don’t really know. One minute we were just talking and the next thing I know, mama started screaming and pointed at something in the corner. There was nothing there, but she refused to believe me. To tell you the truth, I don’t even think she heard me. It was like she was in some sort of a trance.”
“That’s weird. I wonder what’s going on with her.”
“I hate to say it, but maybe she’s right about Nicole injecting her with something. It’s the only thing that makes sense. If Nicole did that to her, then what did she do to me? How do I know she didn’t use a contaminated needle to draw my blood or inject me with something?”
Richard had never seen his sister so afraid. He comforted her as best he could, gently chastising her for allowing their mother’s paranoia infect her. Richard coaxed a smile out of her. Rachel agreed that her fears were illogical. His cell phone began ringing and she urged him to answer, assuring him that what amounted to a panic attack had passed. He took the call and Rachel went upstairs to the bathroom.
She switched on the overhead light and gazed at her reflection in the mirror. Rachel had always been blessed with clear skin. Shortly after her trip to Nicole’s house, the rash on her arm had begun spreading up the side of her neck and onto her face. It appeared to be spawning blemishes on other areas of her face. Soon, she would no longer be able to conceal the growing eruptions withlong sleeves and makeup. An indescribable feeling of dread swept through her. Her looks were all she had going for her.
Rachel had turned things over in her mind dozens of times. Nothing about her routine had changed. In fact, she was taking better care of herself than she had in years. Rachel had been clean for a week. Thanks to Reverend Mother’s great cooking, Rachel was even approaching a healthy weight. She was trying so hard to get her life back on track. It wasn’t easy, but taking it one day at a time seemed to be working. Rachel’s amateur sleuthing had helped distract her from obsessing over her problems.
Her skin was acting up, just when she was starting to feel some modicum of control over her life. None of the face masks, creams, ointments or astringents were having any effect. They only seemed to further irritate her inflamed skin. Applying a liberal coating of makeup everyday wasn’t helping things either. The unfairness of it all left a bitter taste in her mouth. Full of impotent anger, Rachel felt the impulse to drown out her feelings with alcohol. One little drink would help alleviate the weight of the heavy emotions and troublesome thoughts.
The idea of having to face her mother’s disappointment was the only thing that stopped her from giving in to temptation. This is all Nicole’s fault! It had to be her doing. I’ve never done anything to that woman. If anything, I tried to help her and this was my repayment? Spurred on by rage, Rachel stormed across the hall to her room and dug the cellphone out of her purse. Nicole answered on the third ring and Rachel cut her off.
“What the hell did you do to me you bitch?”
“Don’t play dumb with me Nicole. I know you injected me with something.”
Rachel was unprepared for Nicole’s deep throaty chuckle. A sudden chill ran through her. Nicole didn’t attempt to deny the allegation. All of Rachel’s anger suddenly drained away.
“So you finally figured it out did you,” Nicole purred.
“What the hell did you inject me with? If I go to the doctor and he finds some disease, I’m coming for you!”
“Go ahead, he won’t find anything.”
“I don’t understand. If you didn’t inject me with something…”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. What you need to do is worry about getting on my good side. If you do what I ask, then I’ll clear up your little problem.”
“You mean, you can give me the antidote?”
“Something like that.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Oh, not much. I just want you to keep tabs on your brother and report back to me.”
“My brother…who Joshua?”
“Now who’s playing dumb? You know I’m talking about Richard. He’s the one poking his nose in where it doesn’t belong.”
“I don’t know if I can spy on him. Somehow, that just seems wrong.”
“You had no problem ratting out your family, when they pissed you off. Don’t get all high and mighty with me now.”
“I was drunk. I would never have done that if I were sober.”
“You don’t really think I believe that load of…”
“I’m telling you the truth. I love my family and I don’t think I could intentionally betray their trust.”
“Whatever. Look, you think about it and get back to me. I would advise you not to take too long though, or there may be scarring.”
Nicole began to chuckle unpleasantly and Rachel slammed the phone down.