Chapter Eleven

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At seven o'clock, I still sat at the bar. It was crowded for a weeknight, but Mickey made sure that I always kept my favorite seat at the end of the bar next to the wall. I finished my third Diet Coke and second slice of pepperoni pizza when Jimmy wandered into the Palace.

He wasn't expected. I didn't know how he'd found the place. I called the place the Garlic Palace on account of the overwhelming aroma, but its real name was something else again. Maybe I described the location at length or perhaps Jimmy located my battered blue Renault in the parking lot. Was Lover Boy following me?

Sadly, I had to wait for Jimmy's explanation of how he'd gotten there because all forward momentum ceased when my friend, Claudia Elaine, entered the room.

Equally stunning in sackcloth and ashes, Claudie adopted a gypsy style of dress that was half 70's singer-icon Stevie Nicks and half New Age songstress Loreena McKennitt. She'd also traded her short blond locks for long, curly hair extensions, which suited her as if she'd been born with them.

I admit to a certain amount of wounded pride over Karlson's dating faux pas, and my therapist tells me that I suffer from low self-esteem. To me, Claudie's curves resemble a classic Coke bottle. I look like the machine it came out of. Given this immense discrepancy, how could I keep Jimmy's mind on me? Because C was my friend, she'd never knowingly steal a beau, but what guy would choose me over her?

As I sat in shocked silence at my ringside seat, Claudie and Jimmy grinned warmly at one another, shook hands, and chatted. I was too far away to overhear them, so all was an eerie pantomime to me. I feigned nonchalance and whirled on my stool to pick up another piece of pizza from the plate in front of me.

"Looks like she's chosen the dude du jour," Mickey said. As usual, he never missed a floorshow, and as usual, he picked up a piece of my pizza without asking. He folded it in the middle, turned it forty-five degrees, and bit off the tip.

For once, Mickey wasn't being cruel. He honestly didn't know anything about Jimmy. I'd never been foolish enough to tell him. To Mickey, knowledge was always about power.

I didn't reply because commentary on the Master's pronouncements was not necessary. He said it, so it must be true. In that, he reminded me of my favorite college professor, a mage of a different sort.

Claudie's current get-up was totally my fault. Across the room, Claudie pushed her eggshell blue tunic off one shoulder and whispered something into Jimmy's ear. Jimmy smiled.

I was the one who'd invited a reluctant C to a Loreena McKennitt concert in Chicago. The concert, along with the pre-concert dinner with a group of cyberfans calling themselves The Old Ways List (OWLs, for short), was enough to send C off on another of her "phases." This one was full-blown, according to Mickey.

Three weeks after the concert, Claudie developed an affinity for Celtic harps, long full skirts, and off-the-shoulder peasant blouses. The Stevie Nicks touch was the black, lace lingerie that peeked out from underneath the gauzy tops.

A couple of months later, Claudie was on stage at the local folk club, Charlotte's Web, so named in a waning fit of E.B. White fancy.

The place might as well have been called Claudie's Web for the effect she had. From the first, C was a hit. Mickey said her popularity had less to do with her harp technique and vocal talent than with her abundant personal charms. I didn't say anything because I was understandably a little jealous of all the extra attention my friend was getting.

I saw Jimmy whisper something into Claudie's ear. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and laughed at his joke. Her tunic fell off the other shoulder, but C's ample bosom managed to hold the garment up.

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