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Death in the Fort - Chapter Ten

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Jan Hoffman | The Journal Gazette

Chapter 10

Jessica's station wagon is disgusting. No, not just disgusting. Dis-GUST-ing.

First of all, there are balled-up chunks of aluminum foil (with God knows what inside) all over the floor. And those are mixed in with tons of dirty clothes and old winter coats, fast-food bags, textbooks and old newspapers and, I don't know, I think there's a phone book in there and a bunch of packets of soy sauce and a blond wig.

It's grotesque. Last year, she drove that thing around for months with our half-dead Christmas tree shoved into the hatchback.

"It makes it smell pine-fresh in here," she'd said, nodding toward the brown heap of needles behind her.

Around St. Patrick's Day, I'd finally convinced her to drive to a deserted area of town, creep into a patch of forest and leave the tree there. My hope? That passers-by would think it had died of natural causes. And except for the remnants of silver tinsel, it looked pretty convincing.

Unlike Jessica, I like my piles of junk in stacks. I may not be neat, but at least my mess is elevated. So driving to Auburn in Jessica's car - for our little mystery road trip - was torture for me. At one point, I looked down, and there was a sauce-riddled Arby's coupon stuck to my calf.

"You don't know how gross this car is," I said. "That's what's really scary about it."

My refusal to "lick my leg clean" (Jessica's suggestion) started an argument between us. It was one of those classic fights, the kind that begin with "Why can't you just keep your car clean!?" and quickly deteriorates. Pretty soon, I was yelling at her for playing (and singing) her music too loud at night. And for getting me up at 7 a.m. that day. And for getting me involved in Darleen's personal business in the first place.

"I don't even know why we're doing this!" I shouted. "We're going all the way to Auburn to find out about this woman and we don't even know where to start looking! It's a stupid idea!"

"You never want to do anything fun!" she countered. "If you had your way, you'd be back at home practicing your hospital corners!"

I was offended by the hospital corners comment, I admit. So as a peace offering, I suggested breakfast. When I was a kid, my mom told me that eating was the only way to stop a fight in its tracks. And for the most part, she was right. Put a plate of biscuits, bacon and eggs in front of two angry people, and pretty soon they're asking politely to please pass the butter.

So Jessica and I stopped into The Auburn House Restaurant, down the street from the courthouse square in Auburn, and immediately ordered two big cups of coffee and two plates full of scrambled eggs.

"I'm really hungry," I said. "I probably should've licked my leg clean."

"See?" Jessica said. "I was only looking out for your best interests."

The Auburn House was bustling that morning - lots of old guys, gathered around tables in the middle of the dining room, drinking coffee and telling stories. The servers, too, were really moving; quick to call us "hon" and "sweetie" and refill our coffee until, before we knew it, we'd had four cups of the stuff.

It was all very Main Street, U.S.A., in a way. Every time a new customer walked through the door - honestly, every time - a chorus of hellos went up. Mornin' Jim. Whaddya say? That kind of thing. Just like Fort Wayne, it seemed everyone here knew everyone else. No better place to begin our Darleen search, we decided.

"Any of you know Darleen Fitz?"

While I was shoveling eggs into my mouth, Jessica, trying to play it cool, leaned back in her chair to talk to the table of men sitting behind us. But she was wearing these giant sunglasses - "my rehab glasses," she calls them - and she ended up just looking kind of like a weirdo.


"Darleen Fitz?" Jessica said, dramatically removing her sunglasses. "She got hit by a moving van a few years ago? ... Anyone? ... Anyone?"

Pretty random, I know. And, of course, none of these guys knew who Darleen was. Or maybe they just didn't want to talk to Jessica. That's a possibility. At that point, I was so embarrassed, I didn't want to talk to her, either.

By the time we left the restaurant - only after Jessica had exhausted and confused nearly every patron in the place with her questions - we were thinking about giving up our search.

"I thought it would be like in a movie," Jessica said, as we walked back to the station wagon. "You know, like we'd solve a crime and get a key to the city or something."

We paused at the car. Someone had used his or her finger to write "This is a disgrace" on the back windshield. Although I wanted to, I didn't say "My thoughts exactly." Jessica looked depressed enough at the time.

"Excuse me? Ma'am?" We turned around to see an old guy, his face framed by a fuzzy crown of white hair, crossing the street toward us. "I thought I heard you mention Darleen Fitz back there. In the restaurant? How is she? I'm Cyrus Withers. I used to be her landlord."

Jessica pushed me out of the way and slapped him on the back.

"I could kiss you," she said.