The moment Ru opened her front door Zane was assaulted by the overwhelming scent of bleach.
. “What the—” he said, drawing back. He viewed her through squinted eyes, standing there with her hair pulled back in a ponytail (the hair-do was in vain; most of it hung loose anyway, cascading wildly over her shoulders), face red with exertion as well as fumes. Yellow rubber gloves covered her hands, a bucket clutched in one and a sponge in the other. Her jeans were cuffed just below her knees, her The Killers concert t-shirt covered in white blotches.
. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked. “My eyes are bleeding.”
. “Oh, cut it out,” she sighed wearily. “My mom cleaned with straight bleach all the time. Bleach and ammonia. Our house always smelled like this.”
. “Ru, by any chance was your mother afflicted with Munchausen’s?”
. She gave him a fading look.
. “Anyway, pizza’s here.” He jabbed a thumb in the direction of his house.
. “Oh no,” she said, suddenly harried. “What time is it?”
. “It’s ten minutes past the time you were supposed to be over.”
. She slapped at him with the sponge. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
. He jumped back, looking down at his black Vince Camuto straight leg five-pocket stretch pants. “I better not have panda balls later.”
. “Shit.” She looked all around herself, as if like Cinderella her rags were going to magically turn into a hot pink velour Juicy Couture tracksuit, the bucket into a chilled carafe of merlot. “Um, any chance you can bring it over here?”
. “Nice try,” he said with a smirk. He turned to walk back to his house, calling over his shoulder, “If you’re not over in ten minutes I’m calling the Poison Control Center.”
. She arrived fifteen minutes later, in a black velour leopard-patterned Juicy hoodie (he knew her so well, he noticed with some pride and amusement) and black drawstring Victoria’s Secret pants. Her hair was wet, her face free of makeup, and her skin had that just showered redness to it that always made Zane think of her naked. She smelled great, too, some fruity Bath and Body Works concoction that hit a man’s olfactory sense as well as his desire to taste. It was his favorite incarnation of Ru: clean, fresh and ready to lounge on his couch. She’d been gone for almost a week, and he sincerely hoped their reunion wouldn’t be full of talk about Tate Pearson. Zane wasn’t really jealous of him, per se, but there was a limit to how many times one guy could hear another man’s name come out of the mouth of the girl he wanted to have himself.
. “So did you miss me?” he asked with a wide grin. They were settled on his couch, the pizza box on the coffee table, a diet Coke for her, Schweppes ginger ale for him. He’d break out the wine later, depending on the trajectory tonight advanced. He’d broken ties with the redhead (in deference to Ru, while in her presence he even thought of Patrice as the insignificantly labeled “redhead”) and was prepared to finally make a definitive move on the girl next door.
. “Ummm,” she contemplated, stretching a piece of cheese off her slice of pizza and popping it into her mouth once it snapped free. She stopped there, causing him to laugh.
. She giggled, nudging him with her foot. She was sitting on her hip, taking up three cushions of the sofa, leaving him confined to just one. Of course, he could have taken the loveseat or even the recliner, but he wanted to be close to her.
. He really didn’t want to hear about her time in Burbank and the many ways she comforted Tate, but it was the reason why she’d been away and it would be odd to disregard it. He supposed it was best to get it out of the way, leaving the rest of the night open to other possibilities.
. He settled for a generic, “So how did everything go out there?” and spent the next half hour or so listening in tandem between her and the dialogue on the television until it became difficult to understand if the words he was hearing were coming from Ru or Snow White or The Wicked Queen or some blonde everyone kept calling The Savior (he didn’t know which plot was more inane: the ridiculousness of Once Upon a Time, which Ru had insisted on watching—which she wasn’t even watching—or the next great Shonda Rhimes potboiler starring Ru Porter and Tate Pearson). He’d become so adept at filtering out the key points, nodding at what he thought the appropriate intervals, that he almost missed it when she blurted out, “So I slept with him.”
. He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right until he looked at her face and saw her staring back at him expectantly, wearing an expression of half shame, half guilt, but one hundred per cent euphoria.
. He swallowed his mouthful of pizza, wiped his mouth with a napkin and excused himself to the kitchen with, “I think now would be a good time for that wine.”
. He came back with the bottle and poured each of them a glass, stealing a glance at the television where some creepy guy covered in gold spray paint was giggling with maniacal glee as some girl in a long blue dress clutched at the bars covering a tiny little window she’d never be able to squeeze through anyway. They were silent until the commercial, at which time he swirled the wine in his glass, watching it go round and round. He drained it, smacked his lips dramatically and said to her, “And I thought you were saving yourself for me.”
. He’d reclaimed his square of the couch and she jabbed him with her foot, which she’d been doing all night. Only this time he grabbed onto it.
. She squealed, trying to yank it back, but he held on. Her smile remained but the expression behind it changed slightly, into something a little less sure of what she was smiling about. He felt her leg settle its weight into his hand and although he relaxed his grip she didn’t try to pull away again.
. He slowly crawled his hand up the inside of her velour pant leg, touching her bare calves, the back of her knee, his eyes locked onto hers. When he twisted his hand to caress the inside of her thigh she clamped her legs shut on him.
. “Careful there,” she said, and he chuckled.
. She opened her legs, and he removed his hand. He got up to clean the pizza box and plates from the coffee table while she rhapsodized on what the future might hold for the two of them. She and Tate, not she and Zane, as if his hand hadn’t just been ten seconds away from stealing home.
. “So what about you?” she called out, as if just realizing they’d been focused on her life all night. “How’s Patrice?”
. He sniffed out a caustic laugh, shaking his head. A little over a week ago she’d been feeling so territorial of him she’d refused to even say Patrice’s name. Now she was not only comfortable enough to bring her up, but so unaffected as to inquire whether or not he was screwing her on a regular basis.
. “I broke up with her,” he said, re-entering the living room.
. “Really?” she said, her interest clearly piqued. He walked to the table, picked up the bottle and refilled her glass.
. “Why?” she said after taking a sip, running her finger along the edge of the glass.
. He shrugged. “I couldn’t see it going anywhere.”
. “You mean you took it as far as you wanted to.” She made a blow-job gesture with her fist, her tongue poking the inside of her cheek.
. He laughed, taking a more generous seat on the couch; she pulled her legs in closer to herself to accommodate him.
. “Right. Yeah.” He picked up the remote, cueing up the Netflix browsing menu. “What do you feel like?”
. “Did she cry?”
. She was smiling mischievously, both the wine and her newly reclaimed sexuality causing her eyes to glint with devilishness.
. “No.” He took a gulp of wine. “But I think she called me a dick.”
. She giggled. “You? No.”
. She exaggerated that last word, causing him to ask, “What? Are you calling me a dick now?”
. “I’m just teasing you. Can’t I tease you?”
. “Are you dick teasing me?”
. This she found hysterical. She threw her head back and let out a raucous laugh. “Oh Zane,” she said, catching her breath. “You did miss me, didn’t you?”
. “Yes,” he said, putting his hand on her leg again. “I did. But you didn’t have a thought for me, now did you?”
. “Oh, come on now,” she said, sliding her feet dangerously close to his crotch. “You’re just horny. And drunk.”
. “I’m not drunk.”
. She laughed again, pulling herself into an upright position. She folded her legs in front of her, depositing her wine glass on the coffee table.
. “I know exactly what’s going on here. All those times I went to your ball games and out for a drink afterwards, and all the nights I spent over here alone with you on your couch: you never once made a move on me, even when I thought I was making it quite clear that I wanted you to. Well now that some other dog has buried his bone, so to speak, you suddenly want to play with it.”
. “Okay, back up a minute. Did you just say that you want me to make a move on you?”
. “Wanted,” she clarified.
. “So you don’t now?”
. She slapped his chest. “Stop that.”
. “You think you were making it clear? That you wanted me? How? By simply showing up? You never touched me, never said anything, never even gave me a look. You’re giving me more signals now, in my opinion.”
. She rolled her eyes, scoffing. “You want me to do everything? I’m the woman, Zane. All I have to do is show up. You’re the man. You lead the program and I either follow or go home. That’s how it works.”
. “Exactly. Maybe I was afraid you’d go home.”
. She spread her arms out wide, looking around the room. “I haven’t yet.”
. In one swift motion that she would later refer to as a pounce, he was on top of her, latching his mouth hungrily onto hers, sliding his hands up into her hair.
. He was fully prepared to go only as long and far as she would allow, almost painfully aware with each touch and kiss that she would eventually stop him. When he unzipped her hoodie and buried his face inside the flimsy white lycra top beneath to seal his lips over one of her peaked breasts, he was certain that was the moment she would tap out. But a deep moan escaped her throat and she arched her back, mashing her breast against his face.
. The entire affair was over in less than five minutes, with much grabbing, sweating and grunting, on both their parts, he took note.
. They watched a movie afterwards, some Ben Affleck psychological thriller, both occupying the middle couch cushion, Ru snuggled up to him, her head on his chest as he ran his fingers through her hair. They finished the wine, and she helped him clean up before he walked her home.
. “Should I escort you upstairs?” he asked outside her door.
. “Not necessary,” she said, and for a moment he feared what they had done earlier was an act never to be repeated let alone perfected. But then she kissed him and said, “We need to do this again sometime.”
. She closed her door and left him standing on the landing, wondering if it would be too presumptuous to knock on her door in fifteen minutes and inquire if it was yet sometime.
* * * * * *
Ru checked her phone after washing her face in preparation for bed, turning down the blankets and sitting half-cross legged on the side of the queen mattress she favored when sleeping.
. She wasn’t surprised to see a text from Zane: dinner 2morrow, ur pick, which made her smile. It was the missed call and subsequent voice message, however, that set her heart quickening. Tate.
. “Hey, I hope I’m not calling too late. I just have, uh, there’s something I want to ask you, to talk about with you. Nothing’s wrong or anything, just—okay. Call me back. All right. Bye.”
. It was only ten-thirty. His call came in at ten twenty-eight. Damn, but she’d just missed him! Was that good? Should she make him wait a little, call after eleven? Should she wait longer, maybe call him back tomorrow? He seemed to think it was no big deal that he’d missed her. Even less of a deal that she’d left him Thursday and in the three days since he’d failed to even text to ask how her flight was, or if she got home safely.
. She listened to his message twice more, then sat on her bed thinking about the two men she’d slept with over the span of less than a week. What had she done? She’d made it to forty with only ever having two lovers and then in a matter of five days had doubled the number. She told herself she’d loved and wanted Tate forever, deserved him; that was why she’d slept with him. What about Zane? Why had she slept with him? On his couch? That was a real slutty move. If she thought her behavior borderline shameless when she’d taken advantage of a grieving widower, what label then for her behavior upon screwing her next door neighbor on his couch three days later? Did she even love either one of them? Did she have to? She always believed she’d loved the first two men who’d shared her bed; what had that gotten her? Matching gold stars on her soul?
. Yes, my crotch is so sacred, I only show it to men I love.
. Was she really one of those righteous women? Less than a week ago she had been. Now she was the jet-setting whore who flew across the country for dick. Now she was the neighborhood slut who went next door for a booty call. Now she was the horny bitch who couldn’t think about her two current lovers without opening up her bedside table and whipping out her bullet.
. After coming twice—one for each of her two men—she watched a few episodes of Three’s Company on Logo in her darkened bedroom and texted Zane (I can’t stop thinking about u), then called Tate. It was still before ten, pacific time and she had a feeling she wouldn’t be able to get to sleep unless she spoke to him.
. “Hey, Ru,” he picked up and she marveled at how just his voice caressing her name could quicken her pulse, even mere hours after she’d been underneath another man.
. “Hey,” she practically purred, stretching out languorously along the mattress, her limbs quickly folding back into themselves as he asked, “Are you in bed?”
. “Mm-hmm,” she admitted with a nervous giggle, as if he’d witnessed the self-pleasuring that had gone on it less than two hours ago.
. “What are you still doing awake?”
. “I don’t know. Just watching TV. I was going to wait to call you tomorrow, but you sounded like you had something on your mind.”
. “Oh. Yeah. It’s nothing, really. Your bff Roina Hathaway gave me a printout of my Facebook friends and wanted me to go through them, make some notations for her. There were a couple I couldn’t really recall, and one of them we have in common.”
. “Oh?” Ru was slightly confused. What information could she possibly offer him about his Facebook friends, especially ones he himself couldn’t even recall?
. “I thought maybe something might spark some recognition, you know, considering that whole weird chop chop thing,” he expounded, as if he not only had the ability to peek into her bedroom but also into her thoughts.
. “Right,” she said slowly. “Well, the chop chop person used your wife’s name.”
. “Yeah,” he said. “This one’s name is Sherry. Sherry Ramp.”
. He paused as if expecting a response.
. “Oh,” she said. “Um, Sherry Ramp?”
. “Yeah. Who is she?”
. Ru’s brow furrowed. “Um, I don’t know. Doesn’t sound familiar. You say we have her in common?”
. “Yeah. Next to her name is a police notation that she created her profile on September ninth, which was the day you first came to Burbank. You know, the night we had dinner and, um—”
. He’d mistaken her silence as a lack of recall, but she didn’t need any prodding to remember the night they almost ummed in the backseat of his car.
. “Yes,” she said.
. “Well, Sherry created her profile that day, requested me, then pulled her profile the day Elaine was murdered.”
. A wave of nausea rolled its way up through Ru’s belly, settling to tingle in the back of her throat.
. “They think this Sherry Ramp murdered Elaine?”
. “I don’t know. They won’t share with me much about the case. You know, they ask for information, they don’t really give it.”
. “I guess they feel it might compromise the investigation.”
. “Yeah. Especially if they think I have anything to do with it.”
. “Oh, Tate, you don’t think they suspect you, do you?”
. She could hear his weary shrug. “I don’t know. Like I said, they keep everything so quiet. And they’re so stone-faced when they talk to me. Unreadable. There’s certainly no sympathy there.”
. “Well, as long as there’s no contempt.”
. “Yeah, well.”
. The line went silent for a moment, and she wished she was there to comfort him. Just place a hand on his shoulder, bring his head to her breast and soothe him with soft kisses.
. “Anyway, when I called and told them I didn’t know anyone named Sherry Ramp, and couldn’t find anything on her—you know, was she a client or a girlfriend of a colleague, a parent of one of my daughters’ friends or a teacher—I figured they would call you and ask if you knew her.”
. “No,” she said, her mouth pasty and in much need of a bottle of Fiji. “No one’s called.”
. “I know it probably doesn’t look good that I would accept her friendship, considering I have no idea who the fuck she is and she may have something to do with my wife’s murder a month after I’m making out in a car with you, but sometimes in my line of work I meet people and just accept friend requests based on that. I don’t know what was going on that week, who I met, any new clients. I mean, I’m assuming she looked normal considering I accepted her friendship and at the time she didn’t prompt me to think anything was strange. Maybe I wasn’t thinking clearly that week, I don’t know.”
. Ru listened to him ramble, trying to make sense of his actions, wondering if what he’d done with her in the backseat of his car had left his wife not only vulnerable to being the victim of her husband’s possible affair, but wide open to a murdering psychopath. Was he even being completely honest with Ru? Perhaps he was concealing a lifestyle that entertained several women like Sherry Ramp, women who crossed his path, slid across his backseat, and then out of his life. Had this one been determined to not be so easily removed?
. “Do you have her profile picture?” Ru asked. “Maybe I could look at her,” she offered, even though she suspected it would yield nothing.
. “No,” he said. “The police won’t give it to me, and I don’t really remember her or what she looked like. I even tried looking her up online. A few women with that name, no one who could be my Sherry Ramp.”
. After another brief silence she asked, “Do you think Sherry Ramp is also my Elaine Pearson?”
. “I don’t know. I mean, if she is, then what? The murderer is somehow linked to both of us? Why? Who would even know that we had dinner on September ninth? I mean, who would give a shit, other than Elaine? And I doubt she did this to herself. You and I haven’t spoken to each other in twenty years. What are the odds that someone murders my wife, friends me, and antagonizes you, all in the same time frame? It’s all just coincidence? It can’t be. Right? It’s got something to do with us, right?”
. Then he said the words he’d been dancing around, the words she hoped he wouldn’t speak.
. “It’s got something to do with you, Ru. Sherry Ramp knows you. And you’ve got to figure out who she is.”
. Long after they’d hung up she was haunted by the things he’d said. The burden he’d placed on her and the accusing tone he’d used to do it kept her awake long enough to witness the rising of the sun. More than that, she couldn’t avoid the horrific answer to his question: who would even know that we had dinner on September ninth?
. Zane, she thought, choking back a strangled cry. Zane.