Chapter Fifty-two

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I drove to my mother's house in a fog. Somebody had torched my place, and the cops thought they could pin it on me. The next thing you knew, Karlson would try to say that I killed the Princess. Strike number two for Odin because he'd already accused me once.

It was enough to make a woman seek solace in chocolate. I thought about it briefly but opted instead for cheese fries. At the drive through window of the Beef-A-Roo nearest to Chez Swede on Riverside, I ordered some battered chicken strips to go with the fries and a giant Cherry Pepsi just because. Sitting in the parking lot of the Beef-A-Roo, I munched my junk food and considered my options.

First, what I was wearing needed washing again so I could wear it to work tomorrow. My mother and I had found a big t-shirt for me to use as a sleep shirt, and Mom already had everything else I would need in the way of deodorant and toothpaste. I didn't wear much make-up anyway, so the stuff lost in the fire wasn't much of a loss. So far, I missed my books most of all. Luckily, my baby book was at my mother's—and the digits for Claudie, HAT, Jimmy, and Odin were on speed dial in my cell.

Second, I needed new clothes. I shopped only once or twice a year when my underwear sprouted holes, and even then, I usually relied on catalogs. The bad part of catalog shopping was not being able to see and touch the merchandise, but this flaw was easily balanced by the good part—no dressing rooms.

The most magnificent failures of my life had taken place in women's dressing rooms. In front of those unforgiving mirrors, it was self-evident why clothes didn't fit. No amount of rationalization about bloating or fabric shrinkage could ever dislodge the image of pale sagging flesh spilling over the waistbands of too-tight jeans.

Maybe thin girls could pour themselves into jeans that didn't really fit, but women my size knew a thing or two about split seams. I didn't like it, but dressing room mirrors were preferable to going naked—barely.

Third, I needed a new apartment. I had apartment insurance to cover everything, thanks to my nagging mother. She hadn't stopped calling me about it until I'd signed up with her agent. Since I'd filled out the loss forms online, soon I'd have a check for all the books and scratched furniture. I wanted to be able to spend it immediately on new stuff. But first, said furniture needed a home. I couldn't afford much, but I had high hopes that I could find something reasonable. I waited for the offer letter from Barney and the brokerage firm. Harriet was writing it, but she seemed to be stalling. With my new salary, I might be able to splurge on nicer digs.

I pulled out my cell phone and texted Claudie. We needed to schedule apartment hunting. C usually chatted up the real estate agents while I took a closer look around. In combination, our tag team was effective. On Saturday, I hadn't told her about not sleeping with Jimmy. Her comments about that alone were bound to be amusing.  Come to think of it, I couldn't remember what we had talked about at lunch on Saturday. Probably had to do with the fire. No immediate text from C on my phone, but she was still at work.

Only then did it occur to me that I had completely missed my chance. When I had an apartment, Jimmy and his tall lean body were a phone call away. However, my current chances of making the beast with two backs was slim to nil. I wasn't ready now to have sex with him, but my feelings could change. Sadly, if that happened, we didn't have a place to be alone.

I could hardly invite him to enjoy carnal bliss at my mother's house. She'd never go for it. Jimmy's house was an option, but I couldn't imagine feeling loose and sexy with Jimmy's lawful wife down the hall. That left hotels and motels, which rated a 10 in the tawdriness category. I didn't fancy doing a Mrs. Robinson at the Courtyard by Marriott. Now my social life was as toasted as my apartment.

I got back to my mother's house to find the Swede already in residence. Just my luck. Though I'd been grateful to him earlier that didn't mean for an instant I approved of him.

"The Lieutenant, he calls," the Swede said when I wandered into the living room. He read the paper.

"When?" I said.

"It's on the machine."

I walked back to their bedroom. The answering machine showed one message. I hit the button and heard Karlson's no-nonsense cop's voice say, "Call me, Paulette. You know you want to."

I chuckled quietly. That was the last thing I expected him to say. I wondered if he was that surprising in all areas of his life. That idle thought was interrupted by the telephone ringing. It was Claudie, so I picked it up and sat on the corner of my mother's bed. I didn't have many minutes on my cell, so I asked C to call me on Mom's phone.


"Paulette, thank God. Are you okay?" It was Claudie, and I began to enjoy all the attention.

"Only a few singed eyebrows, oh, and I don't have any hair on my head," I said.

"Really?" she said. "Do you want to borrow a wig?"

"Messing with you," I said. I waited a beat. "What kind of wig?"

Claudie started to laugh, which caused me to laugh, and, before I knew it, I rolled all over my mother's tan comforter in fits of laughter. I laughed so hard that tears came to my eyes. Whenever I tried to stop, Claudie would start up again until I could barely breathe for laughing.

"Wait," I said. "Stop doing that."

"Stop yourself," Claudie said.

"It feels so good," I said, "I don't think I can."

"Truce then?"

"Okay, truce."

Ten minutes later, we set a date for apartment hunting on Saturday afternoon after my visit with HAT. C was off to rehearse with the band—her men—as she called them. I wished her happy harmonies and wandered out to the kitchen to see what was for dinner, taking the portable phone receiver with me. While I missed my books and my privacy, I looked forward to eating Mom's excellent home-cooked meals.

To my chagrin, I found Olaf in the kitchen.

"Where's Mom?" I said.

"Working late."

"So who's cooking?" I said.

Olaf glanced first at me and then at the pot he stirred on the stove.

"You cook?" I asked.


I looked dubiously at the pot on the stove. "What are we having?"

He smiled. "Swedish meatballs."

I smiled back at him as well as I could and vacated the kitchen. My tummy still full of grease, I really didn't need to eat for hours. My apartment was toast, but I nevertheless had a working automobile and friends to visit.

"Wonder what Mickey's special is tonight?" I murmured to myself on my way out.

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