Chapter Forty-three

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As I chomped on my wonderfully greasy pizza puff at Tom & Jerry's in DeKalb, I decided to text Claudie. She was free and wanted to meet me for lunch at the Beef-A-Roo closest to her place. Fine. The pizza puff was merely a snack.


We were at a table all the way in the back of the train-themed Beef-A-Roo. Pictures of old passenger trains and train stations covered the wall behind us.


C tapped the table with her fingertips as if she was playing a piano riff. This was a new symptom of her recent obsession with folk music and Celtic harps. Between sets, she was all musician, all the time.

"I gotta tell you something, Lette."


That was C's idea of a nickname. For obvious reasons, my initials were off-limits.


"You chatted up HAT again, and now you're his new flame," I said before I could think it through. I'd start giving myself nightmares if I kept this up.


C scrunched her face into a grimace and flipped her buttercup hair from one shoulder to the other.

"Right. And here in bizarro world, Paulette Goddard is voted Queen of the May and Grand Empress of all she surveys." She stuck the straw into her mouth, sucked on her chocolate mint malt, and raised her eyebrows at me.


"I guess that's a no to being HAT's flame," I said.


C put her malt down and picked up a cheese fry on her fork. "No, and ten on the ewww-factor," she said.

She munched the fries and chased them with more malt. C was a salad girl from the word go, but every blue moon she went heavy on the grease and sugar. It did my heart good to see it.


"So noted," I said.

Today, C was ahead of me in the grease and sugar category. I opted for a beet salad that was new at Beef-a-Roo. It had gorgonzola cheese and candied walnuts which actually tasted good with the greens and beets. Maybe it was bizarro world after all, since C and I had traded sides in the food wars. I carefully omitted mentioning my earlier pizza puff.


"I met Simone," C said. "I pretended that I wanted to get out of the pharmacy."


I put down my fork and fortified myself with an extra long slurp of full-sugar cherry Pepsi. I didn't want to change my MO completely.


"And you didn't tell me because?" I managed to keep my voice even while I speared a blood-red beet on my fork but didn't look at C.


"I did it yesterday," C said. "It was the shoes that decided me. She's a piece of work."


"Tell me about it." I added a few greens to my beets and put the wad of good-for-me into my mouth. It wasn't quite as yummy as it seemed a minute ago. 

"Just a sec," I said. I went straight to the counter and ordered large cheese fries. I manged a few mouthfuls of cheesy goodness before I signaled to C that she could continue.


"I made an appointment over my lunch hour. The bitch ate her Mary's Market salad right in front of me. Didn't even drip salad dressing down her blouse." C sucked on her malt.


"Red, black, or teal?"


"Teal," C said. "You mean she's got them in every color?"


"Mostly," I said. "That's the range of her palette. With chunky gold jewelry, right?"


"1980's chic."


"Exactly. She have advice for you?"


"Beyond how to look like Jane Badler from the first 'V' television show?" Apparently, someone else was into Me TV as much as I was. Or maybe C streamed vintage sci-fi on Netflix.


"Job advice?" I clarified.


"Keep my day job. She couldn't believe that I wanted to leave."


"What'd you tell her?"


C was at the bottom of her cheese fry cup, so I nudged mine over. She forked a big glob with cheese and didn't drop any of it, a feat that I couldn't accomplish in a million years.

C took another slurp of malt, wiped her mouth on a napkin, and pushed my cheese fries back at me. "I told her I was looking for something more creative and would take a pay cut as needed."


"Nobody does that in Rockford," I said. "Do something that makes good coin and be creative in your off hours."


"I know," C said. "Total Neanderthal thinking."

Neanderthal was a word C applied to anything that she didn't like. A guy who wanted time outside the boudoir was a Neanderthal, as well as one foolish enough to infringe on C's Sunday morning ritual of Balducci's bagels, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and expensive lox. Only one guy had ever tried it.


"So how much time did she give you?"


"What?"


"Simone grants time as if she's a monarch granting clemency. Did you get twenty minutes?"


"About thirty-five or forty. I got back right on time."


"Consider yourself lucky. I'm fortunate to get ten minutes. She must have thought you worthy."


"Of what?"


"Time, effort, whatever. You passed, C. She approved of you."


"As if," C said.


"And?"


"There's something about her. Something off. I think she did it."


"Murdered current fashion, you mean?"


"Nope. I've got Spidey sense."


Forget the salad. Now I was ready for a hot-fudge sundae at DQ, only a couple doors down from Beef-a-Roo. "You've got what? We're super heroes again?"


C pulled my cheese fries over and skewered five in one thrust. "Just saying."  Then she stuffed the fries in her mouth.


I pulled the fry cup back and skewered some fries of my own. "You're just saying that Simone killed Deborah Alston with giant scissors. Of course, you have no proof—just your Spidey sense."


C's mouth was too full to answer, so she nodded.


"Okay," I said. "The score is officially Gender Changers one, and the Princess nada. Oh, and we've got nothing, too. But on the flip side, I agree with you."


"When did you get religion?" C slurped more mint goodness.


"Must be the free tickets to good music," I said. "Round about the time your fiddle guy made me cry during the second set. It was weird, like a vision, only I was awake. Suddenly, it seemed so obvious."


"Damn straight," C said. She went for the malt again, but it was empty. "Time for more of the chocolate food group," she said. "Race you to DQ?"


I let C drive.

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