Chapter Forty-two

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When I eventually reached HAT's apartment for our usual Saturday tea date about 2 p.m., I still hadn't figured out why I'd let Jimmy go. I hoped the mid-afternoon sunshine on the cornfields and the winding back roads while I drove through the wilds of DeKalb would draw the truth out of me like a poultice. I was also hoping to think of a way to trap Simone into admitting that she'd killed Deborah.

No longer did I have a radio in my Renault. Someone stole it last spring, so road trips over 15 minutes usually prompted a great deal of introspection. Since the drive from Rockford to DeKalb took a good 45 minutes, I was pretty sure I'd have both answers about the time I pulled into HAT's parking lot.

However, my chat with Liz had me considering colors rather than emotions. Maybe several quiet hours with the Mycroft Holmes of the prairie would wrangle the truth out of me. HAT was always good for a couple of hours of uninterrupted entertainment, but he might also prove useful as a sounding board. I didn't have proof against Simone, and Odin wasn't going to consider her as a suspect unless I did. HAT was a clever man with years of experience in the world; maybe he could help me figure out how to get Simone to confess.

If things got dull, I had only to ask after his new class of freshman English majors. Their baby faux pas were good for an hour all by themselves, and HAT was never more entertaining than when recounting the flaws of others.

HAT answered the door himself—a good sign. He also had the tea table set up, which astonished me. Usually, I did the setting up while he managed the tea. Today, my only chore was to sit in the man's best chair and marvel at how even HAT managed to make his living space unique.

His walls were easily as white as my own, but they were covered with pictures of writers. Most of the writers were long dead, but small, framed photographs of them covered every wall. HAT's furniture was all wooden with cushy upholstery, and it ran to the bad knock-offs of good designers. There were plenty of claw-footed tables and chairs with graceful Queen Anne legs, but the veneers were frequently pockmarked or faded. However, in a few cases the offending surfaces were covered with lace-edged antimacassars and flowered tablecloths. The place had the air of faded gentility. If HAT, who didn't even own a television, could do this much, I decided that I could become a 20-something Martha Stewart without half trying.

When HAT returned from the kitchen with the tea, he didn't even open with a snipe about the murder investigation—or, indeed, any question about the murder he'd been so sure I should have solved a week ago.

When he failed to respond to my questions about his freshman class, I got worried.

"Is everything going well?" I asked. I was on my second cup of tea. HAT had barely touched his, nor any of the chocolate biscuits, leaving all of them for me.

"Of course," he replied.

I asked after several of his colleagues, the oafish ones, but HAT had nothing but slightly distracted comments to make. Usually, by now he was cutting them to ribbons. All was right with the world, according to Dr. Homer Andrew Thorstens, only he wasn't acting at all like himself.

In a last ditch effort to get a rise out of him, I thought I'd regale him with the funny story of Becky and her late-night shoe theories. From there, I planned to segue into the murder case proper. I put my cup and saucer down on a stable end table—one with four legs in case HAT got hysterical.

"I believe that I need your advice," I said.

Comments of this sort generally put the sparkle into HAT's eyes. He loved to tell other people what to do, especially me.

"Really," he said.

This was a statement because HAT never questioned that others needed his advice. People acted so foolishly otherwise. I had his complete attention for the first time since I'd walked through his apartment door. He stirred a teaspoon of sugar into his cup, but his eyes were fastened on me.

"Tell me," I said, "what do you know about women's shoes?" I was warming him up for the main event.

HAT nearly overturned his entire cup of tea on the carpet. He righted the saucer at the last instant and only slopped a little tea on the rug. Unfortunately, what missed the carpet ended up in his lap. I jumped up to help him mop up the floor, but he waved me away.

"Never mind," he said. "I've got to turn you out in any event, Paulette."

Turn me out? But I just got there. We had an hour and a half yet until HAT was sick of me. And several more chocolate biscuits.

"But . . ." I said.

"Can't be helped," he said. He handed me my purse and coat and walked me the few steps to the door. He even opened it.

"I've papers to grade," he said.

Before I knew what happened, I found myself on the opposite side of the door gazing back at my old professor. He wiggled the fingers on his right hand in what passed for his usual wave of farewell while his left hand closed the door in my face.

The sight of HAT standing in the doorway with an enormous tea stain on his crotch should have given me the giggles. But I wasn't amused. A tiny trickle of anger reached the pit of my stomach, and I knew I was going to be sick if I didn't eat something soon.

Luckily, I knew where the finest grease pit in all of DeKalb was located. Thank the Goddess they still made pizza puffs.

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