Chapter Three

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I saw Officer Hansen again. He drove me home to my apartment in Victorian Village from Mary's. It isn't every day that my ride home is a police cruiser. By that time, I would have gladly ridden home in the business end of the coroner's van. Hansen dropped me right in front of my car, which he parked there earlier per Karlson's instructions.

As soon as we pulled up, my friend Claudie got out of her silver TransAm and stood on the sidewalk in front of my second-floor apartment. She held a plastic bag full of Chinese take-out in one hand and a designer overnight bag in the other. C wasn't much of a cook, but she did understand comfort food.

I called her when Odin cut me loose. I briefly considered calling my mother, but I didn't want to worry her. Besides, she would only remind me that I'd almost been killed the last time I was involved in a murder investigation. I didn't want to explain that I wasn't involved this time and planned to stay out of it.

C waved at Hansen. I was afraid she was going to blow him a kiss. Hansen looked shell-shocked as he drove away, so her wave achieved the desired result. Even from across the street, my best friend was a bombshell.

At the top of the stairs, I unlocked the door and threw it open. That was all the invitation C needed, as she'd been there many times. In minutes, we were sitting on my ratty couch manging egg rolls and Crab Rangoon at my tiny coffee table in preparation for a main course of shrimp fried rice for me and General Tso's spicy chicken for her. Claudie drank a Chinese beer while I settled for water.

I grabbed the last Crab Rangoon which left Claudie the extra egg roll. I dunked the greasy morsel in sweet and sour sauce.

    "So when do we start?" C said.

    I took a bite. "Start what?"

    Claudie took a bite of her egg roll without benefit of sauce. "The investigation into Deborah's death. This time, I've got your back."

    C was curled up on my blue couch, hugging a purple striped pillow from the floor. She had her long, blond locks pulled back in a purple scrunchy, and her sweats exactly matched the color.

    I shook my head. "We don't."

    "You can't do this alone, Paulette. Let me be your sidekick." She used wooden chopsticks to carry a chunk of chicken from the white carton to her mouth. It didn't drip sauce.

    Irony, thy name is Claudie because, by all accounts, C should have been the senior partner. She looked the most like Wonder Woman. It was as if the Fantastic Four was now headlined by the stone guy instead of the stretchy one.

    I had a kitchen towel tucked into my collar because I didn't want to slop anything down the front of my dry-clean-only work clothes. Spooning up a bite of fried rice on my fork, I glanced at C but didn't answer her. I had nothing to say. I didn't feel like getting dead for my trouble. C continued eating with her chopsticks, so I thought she took the hint. I should have known better.

        For C, it was pretty easy to play second fiddle. While I'd been spending days and nights in my college library doing research for English papers, Claudie applied herself to the books in pharmacy school. The end result being that I was an out-of-work English teacher making 25K and change while C was a registered pharmacist making 65K and up.

    Her phone beeped, so I knew she had a text. It was probably the dude du jour trying to schedule a booty call. She peeked at her phone, typed something short, and dropped it back into her lap.

    Claudie chose the gig at Lantow's Pharmacy in Rockford because the hours were good, and she didn't have to work weekends. If she were willing to work more hours, the pay would climb closer to 70K, but C had enough for her simple needs: a top-flight condo, a nice ride, any clothes she fancied, and all the hooch she could guzzle. Despite the disparity in our incomes and body sizes, C was my best friend.

    I was halfway through my entrée before she spoke again. "I almost lost you," she said, sounding choked up. That was new.

    "I know. I was there, remember?"

    "But if I knew where you were going, I could've helped. You need back up."

    C's phone beeped again. She read at the text, sighed under her breath, typed something else, and flipped the switch for silent.

    I put my fork down next to the carton of fried rice. "No, I don't. I'm not getting involved this time. She had scissors jammed between her shoulder blades, C. I don't want to die."

    "That won't happen if I'm with you. We're a team." She kept eating but her eyes were on her entrée.

    "Then we'll both be dead. What if I lose you?" I waited until she glanced at me to pick up my fork.

    "That's sweet," Claudie said.

    "No, I'll be dead because your entire family, the Polish mafia, will stalk me."

    C's whole clan lived on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago—an area called Little Krakow. Her uncle was practically the mayor of the neighborhood.

    C was done with her meal because she stuck the chopsticks into the white carton and sat the carton on the coffee table. She'd barely eaten half and most of that was vegetables.

    She shook her head. "They wouldn't blame you."

    "Right," I said, "because you didn't stay home, get married, and pop out babies. You black sheep!"

    C tried not to grin at me, but she failed. She enjoys thinking of herself as a rebel. In Rockford, that's like shooting fish in a barrel. Way too easy.

    "Cards on the table," C said.

    Damn. This was going to hurt. Honesty equals pain in my book.

    "You're the smart sister. I'm the pretty one," she said. "I want to trade up."

    I sighed. Now I was forced to cut to the chase myself. "Smart is all I got, C."

    "But. . . ."

    I wasn't done eating until the carton was empty, so I took another bite. "I know, I know. I've got such a pretty face. Lose 75 pounds, cut my hair, dye it turquoise, buy a makeover, hire a trainer. Whatever." I finished chewing. "Sometimes the weight gets to me, and I think about doing it—all of it. Then I think, 'too much trouble.' Mostly, I try to ignore it. Call me the Queen of Denial."

    "I get it, Paulette."

    Right, as much as a beautiful, stacked, blond goddess could get it. If I didn't love C, I would have to hate her merely on principle.

    "There's always this assumption that I'm just arm candy."

    "What?" I hadn't heard this before.

    "Dim Bimbo Syndrome. Men assume I'm stupid, and women assume I'm a ho."

    I wasn't chewing, so I crinkled up my face. I had no idea what she was talking about. "And this is a problem, how?" I said. "Women want to be you, and men want to be with you."

    "It's a problem because I'm more than just my looks," she said. "As are you."

    I was stumped. She was right, and I couldn't figure a way out of investigating the recent murder. Time for subterfuge.

    C broke her fortune cookie in half as I finished my last bite. She pulled out the fortune.

    "You will have a long and successful life," she read

    "In bed," I added. We both giggled.

    "Do yours," C said.

    I broke my cookie and extracted the slip of paper. "You are a careful thinker." I looked at Claudie.

    "In bed," we repeated together.

    Before C finished laughing, I said, "Jimmy kissed me."

    No more idle chatter about death and its investigation. Claudie had to know all, so I changed into the sweats that served as my jammies and dished the details. When C started to yawn, we adjourned to my double bed in the next room. I wouldn't ask my worst enemy to sleep on the lumpy couch in my ugly white living room.

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