Chapter Four

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Even though C was in the bed with me, I took a long time to fall asleep. Near dawn, I drifted off and didn't awaken until Claudie appeared in the doorway with breakfast: two cherry pop-tarts and a diet Coke. C took her diet Coke to go because she needed to drive to work across town. I wished her a safe drive and settled down to eat my breakfast in bed.

As I finished the second pop tart, my cell phone rang. Its current ring tone was "It's not easy being green" by Kermit the frog, but the volume was so low that I almost didn't recognize it.

It was my mother, and Rockford's only daily paper, the Rockford Register Star, had filled her in on everything that happened yesterday. My name wasn't mentioned, but the name of the brokerage firm gave Mom all the ammunition she needed.

First, she wondered why I hadn't called her and then she begged me to move in with her and the Swede. This time, I got only the short version of the mother load because she was getting ready for work which meant earrings, a suit, and high heels since she was admin to the president of a prominent Rockford company. At 7:45, she needed to go, so I apologized and promised to call her later.

I took another swig of Diet Coke and considered that moving in with Mom was one helluva tempting offer, since she'd do my laundry and cook all my favorite meals. The rub was the Swede himself.

I'd long since decided that my mother could have done better. Olaf Lampson's only accomplishment as far as I could see was convincing my mother to marry him. And though I loved her madly, as only an only child can, when it came to her second husband, I liked her dog better. Each had been acquired after I left for college, but the dog served some useful purpose.

I wondered if my mother could get Olaf to build a west wing onto their one-story Rockford ranch. That way I'd have a place of my own, and I'd have to see Olaf only at mealtimes.

One hour a night seemed reasonable recompense for my own suite of rooms. I'd even pay rent and toss in money for groceries. I was getting around to deciding what color to paint the walls when my cell phone rang again.

"Paulette, Darling, are you all right?"

The words were friendly enough, but the tone was chilling. It was Simone DuPre, the skinny bitch who ran the temp agency. The feelings of others were never her first concern.

"I'm about as well as can be expected since I found a mutilated body yesterday morning in the basement of the brokerage firm."

"Oh," she said. I imagined her sitting at that big oak desk in her office, cleaning the dirt from under her fingernails. "I suppose they're closed today on account of the tragedy."

What was she up to? "As a matter of fact, they were closed yesterday, but open today."

"But you're not there, My Dear." I heard the words tightening in her throat. "Why is that?"

It cheered me to know she wasn't calling to ask after my health but only to ascertain why I wasn't out there earning her commission.

"Barney gave me the day off with pay," I said with all the Pollyanna I could muster. "He said I must have had a terrible shock and needed another day off." I waited for the information to sink in.

"Another day?" she said.

I grinned, even though my Coke grew warm. "Why, yes, Simone, he paid me for yesterday, too, since it wasn't my fault the office was closed. I did spend the whole day with police officers trying to find the killer."

"You should have called me!"

Apparently, earning the commission wasn't enough. More was required. Most days, I try to placate Simone and suck up accordingly. However, today wasn't most days. Simone wasn't going to win today, but she didn't know it yet.

"Barney said he'd call you first thing."

"But. . . ."

The Big Guy was my get-out-of-jail-free card, and I knew it. Anything that was okay with Barney was okay with Simone because he was the one who signed the pay vouchers.

Besides, he was exactly her type: good-looking in a fake suntan kind of way with a wife he forgot as quickly as he turned off his cell phone.

"I'd better call him," she said at last. "I thought that, perhaps . . . that he might need someone else."

"Really?" I said, finishing my toast. "And why is that?" I felt a certain smugness at a battle well won, so I echoed her on purpose.

"Because I told him you've been coming in late."

"You don't know that."

"But I do. Every day for the past two weeks, I called the office at exactly eight-oh-two a.m., and the machine always answers."

"I was making the coffee. With the water running, I can't hear the telephone."

"You know, that's what I thought, too," she said, "so I drove by and called from my cell. No answer, and your car wasn't even in the parking lot."

She paused, but I didn't say anything. "And before you decide that you walked to work, Paulette, let me clue you in: the lights were off, the doors were locked, and I didn't see anyone inside."

With all my avenues of escape blocked and nowhere else to run, I did what all the other little rodents do—I turned to face the cobra. "So?" I said.

"Just watch yourself. I don't understand why, but Barney likes you. Only, when he's had enough . . . ."

I swallowed hard. "I know. When he's had enough, I'm road kill fricassee."

Her laugh was a raw sound more suited to Cruella de Ville than to an actual person.

Okay, so I cheated a little on the timesheet, but I always made it up. However, the client was paying for a temp to arrive at 0800 sharp, and that's all Simone cared about. Clearly, when I described her as the bitch who ran my temp agency, I insulted garden-variety bitches everywhere. What we had here, Ladies and Gentlemen, children of all ages, was a first-class bitch on wheels.

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