She didn’t show up for work one night and was still gone.

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A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 81

Ten minutes later they pulled up to Al’s Steak House. As Stone opened the heavy oak door, the scent of hunks of beef sizzling on a charcoal grill made his mouth water. Deanna hardly ever served red meat, and the smoky aroma made him ravenous. Maybe he and Matt could come back later. He turned to Matt, but his partner’s expression was blank.

Stone peered into the dining area, a series of rooms with beamed ceilings, each decked out with uninspired Christmas gear. It was barely five o-clock, but business was brisk. He didn’t see a maitre d’, but the hat check girl opposite them was cracking her gum loud enough to muffle a twenty-two. He walked over.

“Good evening.” He flashed his badge. “Couple of questions for you, ma’am.”

She inspected his badge, then looked up with a bland, moon-shaped face.

“How long you been working here?”

“I came on at four.”

“That might not be long enough. I’m looking for someone who might have known Maggie Champlain. She worked here about a year ago.”

The girl got a faraway look as if she was thinking hard, then shook her head. “Sorry. I’ve only been here six months.”

“Well, maybe you can tell me who’s been here for a while?”

Her eyes slid to the main room. Two or three waitresses in black skirts and white shirts scurried back and forth. “Sheila. The one with red hair? She’s been here forever.”

Stone spotted a rail-thin woman with too bright red hair and a face just this side of burnout. Hefting a tray loaded with salads, soups, and drinks, she hurried over to a table. One of the diners was a woman with blue-white hair who looked well past eighty. Her voice was loud and reedy. “What do you mean, I’m a dizzy dame, Leo?”

Her dinner companion, a considerably younger man, wore a pained expression. “No, Ma. What I said was it was a drizzly game. They canceled Stevie’s soccer match.”

“Oh. Well, why didn’t you say so?” The woman looked around as if to see whether anyone had caught her gaffe. When she caught sight of Stone, she lowered her head.

Sheila set down their salads with a thump, flashing the woman’s son a what-can-you-do smile. “Here ‘ya go, boys and girls. Italian for the young lady, French for the old man.”

“Old in more ways than one,” the woman cracked.

Sheila smiled. “You betcha, sweetheart. Don’t let him put anything over on you.”

Stone watched as Sheila winked at the son, and then retreated to the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel pinched into her waistband. She was good: fast, efficient, sense of humor.

As she chatted with another waitress in an alcove, Stone went over. Matt followed. Sheila turned and sized him up. A knowing expression came into her eyes.

“Sergeant John Stone, ma’am.” Her badge read, ‘Hi—I’m Sheila.’ “I’m from the Northview Police Department.”

“Northview?” He noted the heavy mascara on her lashes as she spoke. “Where’s that?”

He knew people whose concept of urban demographics was limited to whether their subject backed the Cubs or the Sox. “It’s north of the city. Near Winnetka.”

“You’re a long way from home, cowboy.” Her eyes flicked over to Matt. “You too?”

Matt nodded.

“You boys come down this way for some southern comfort?”

“Sorry,” Stone said. “My wife doesn’t let me.”

“You always do just what she says?”

She didn’t miss a trick. “Sheila, I’m wondering whether you might have known a woman named Maggie Champlain?”

“Maggie Champlain?” Her grin disappeared. She picked at a spot of food on her pants.

“She worked here a year ago.”

“There’s a lot of turnover here.”

“Sheila,” His voice took on an edge. “You’re not stupid. You wouldn’t refuse to answer a cop out of some misplaced sense of loyalty or something, would you?”

Wiping her hands on her apron, she looked at the floor. Stone waited. She looked up, saw he was still watching her, and sighed. “She was my boss.”

“How long did you work together?”

“About a year.”

Long enough to get to know someone. “We’re trying to find out what happened to her.”

“You and the rest of the world.” She smiled ruefully. “She up and disappeared one night. Didn’t show up for work. Still hasn’t.”

“You never heard from her?”

The woman hesitated for just a fraction of a moment. “Not a clue. She just left. Doo-doo-doo-doo.” She hummed the opening bars of Twilight Zone.

She was holding back.

“And you don’t know where she ended up?”

“Nope.”

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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