Chapter Five

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I yanked myself out of bed and got dressed after losing my bout with the Cobra Queen, Simone.

The little bedroom of my little apartment houses a tiny closet. I reached in and grabbed the outfit closest to the door. It was pink. Since I was spending the day with Karlson and company, I put the outfit back. Pink wasn't armor enough.

I pulled the string on the overhead light and peered into the dim interior. Crammed in toward the back, I found what I needed. Head to toe black. Add black hose and shoes to the jacket and slacks, and I was ready to battle all the dragons.

Underneath the long black jacket nestled a lacy camisole with spaghetti straps, but Karlson wasn't going to see that bit.

I ran down the outside staircase from my second floor apartment to get into my Renault Alliance at the curb. In a few minutes, I worked my way around all the one-way streets in Victorian Village and was headed for Rockford's cop shop. Downtown, all the snow had melted or been moved. In spots, I made out small patches of green. Any day now, I might spy a crocus.

Traffic was minimal as it always is in Rockford after 9 a.m. Major cities boast rush hour traffic all day, but in an old manufacturing center like my Forest City, everybody goes to work at eight in the morning. We consider those who wander in at nine a.m. to be slackers of the worst sort. Like the employees of the brokerage firm.

I got to the Pubic Safety Building (PSB to us locals) in record time and found parking instantly. Since I'd been there before, I knew exactly where Karlson sat, who his partner was, and why his desk was devoid of pictures. Once upon a time, I thought my own face might grace a frame on that desk. Right. I believe in the Easter Bunny, too.

But it was still a good thing to know where I was going because every desk in the room was exactly alike. Only the photos varied from one desk to the next. For some reason, the place smelled of pine-scented cleaner today as if someone recently mopped all the tile floors.

I was three-quarters of the way across the crowded room when I noticed that the chair in front of Karlson's desk wasn't empty. It was full to the brim with a very round, very dark-haired woman.

As I approached, her oval face crinkled into a grin emphasized by brilliant red lipstick. Her short dark hair was pulled away from her face in waves shot through with silver, and damned if she didn't look good that way.

She wore a neck-to-knee-length muumuu. Nice fabric, neatly made, but all the same a sack with armholes. And she had even less of a waist than I did.

"Enzo," she sang across the squad room, "there's a pretty girl here to see you."

If she hadn't caught my eye and winked, I think I would have twisted around to see who stood behind me. Nobody ever described me as a pretty girl. In Rockford, only thin was pretty. I'd learned that in grade school.

And who was this "Enzo" character? I turned to ask the nice lady who she was talking to when Karlson appeared on the spot. His easy arrogance was displaced by a flush of pink climbing up his cheeks.

Before he said a word, the little woman in front of me popped to her feet and stuck out her hand. I grasped her hand instinctively.

"I'm Angelina Karlson," she said. "Enzo is my son."

From force of habit, my hand moved up and down in hers while my mind spun out into the vortex. Enzo? Mother? This was Karlson's mother? I'd always imagined some cold, slim matron in wool. But this was a flesh and blood woman, a fat woman, with the heady smile of an angel. Damn but life was full of surprises, and Karlson was one of them.

Before his mother said another word, Karlson plunged in. "She's a witness, Mama." Then he introduced me. And Miss Manners would have been proud because little Enzo Karlson had been coached by the best. Another star in his Mama's crown. I was determined to find out what other surprises Mama had in store.

"'Don't let's ask for the moon,'" I said, raising my eyebrows a quarter of an inch.

She looked puzzled for a second until a light made her eyes sparkle with mischief. "'When we already have the stars,'" she replied. Not word for word, you understand, but close enough. I figured all that Now, Voyager movie talk from Karlson was merely so much soft soap to make me talk. Apparently, cops could be sincere once in a while.

"You like Bette Davis?" she asked. This time I grinned back sincerely to see if I could piss Karlson off.

"Love her," I replied. "But Paul Henreid. . . ." I let my sentence drift off into a sigh.

She grinned back and this time she appeared positively sexy. No mistaking it, Karlson got that smile from his Mama. "Quite a man, eh?" she said. "We used to say dream boat, but now is more like hunk, yes?"

"Yes," I agreed. I began to see why Karlson's northern-bred father had fallen for this woman in the first place. It was that lilt in her voice and the odd inflections now and then, as if she wasn't from the Midwest. Add the smile and subtract thirty years, and I would have married her myself. Although I liked only boys, so far as I knew.

What made everything even better was that my exchange with his mother put Karlson off his game. His face was red because Mama and I had been dishing men right in front of him. What would Papa say?

"I have to ask Ms. Goddard some questions now, Mama," Karlson said in his no-nonsense cop's voice. Of course, none of this meant a whit to the woman who set him on the potty at two years old.

His mother nodded and reached down to pick up a leather satchel that matched her flat black shoes.

"Yes, Enzo," she said, "you take Mama to lunch another time." She winked at me again. "Maybe you bring Ms. Goddard along with you."

And with that, Angelina patted me on the shoulder and allowed herself to be walked to the elevators. Karlson saw her safely inside before he wandered back. By the time he sat down, his arrogant exterior was back in place, but I was having none of it.

"Enzo?" I asked. I settled myself into his mother's chair.

"Vincenzo. My grandfather's name. Her father. Karl was my father's name."

"Was?"

"He died ten years ago. Heart attack."

Which explained why Karl kept himself in peak condition.

"I like her," I said.

"You didn't meet her."

"But. . . ."

"My mother earned two degrees in English after my father died," he said. "Now she tutors English as a Second Language at Forest City College. She puts on that 'I don't speaka so good English' act only for strangers and women she thinks I'm interested in."

Before I inquired which category Yours Sincerely fit into, "Enzo" ushered me inside a small room with an enormous mirror at one end. The Inquisition was about to begin.

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