Chapter Nineteen

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Adding insult to injury, I met Barney on my way back into the office, and he was chatty. My timing couldn't have been worse if I'd stumbled upon the Bataan Death March.

My puffy eyes and sniffling went unnoticed as Barney wished me the hearty howdy that was his stock in trade. Maybe clients felt better with the knowledge that their broker was a confirmed cowboy wannabe, but this jowly Marlboro man left something to be desired as a boss.

"Gotta minute?" I asked.

"For you, Paulette Honey, anything," he said right in front of Becky. For sure, that comment would wind up into the weekly office report to Harriet, and I'd be answering for it later. Nobody was supposed to be more friendly with Eff-Eee than Harriet herself.

At that moment, I decided I didn't care. Harriet be damned. This was my life, and I needed to know how much of Jimmy's story I dared believe. Confirmation of several key points from the man in charge couldn't hurt.

"Have a seat," Barney said as he lowered himself into his Chairman of the Board seat. He didn't have to lower very far because the thing was throne high as if he wanted everyone else to be closer to the floor than he was. Rank has its privileges, and Barney was well beyond VIP status. It was his brokerage firm. "Now tell me what has occasioned this trouble in Paradise between you two young lovers?" Barney said.

"Pardon me?"

"Sugar, unless your Mama is sick, there's only one reason for a girl your age to be crying, and it usually involves somebody with exterior plumbing, if you know what I mean. What's Jimmy done this time?"

I didn't know what to answer, so left with a mental void, I filled it with the truth. Stunned hardly covered my surprise, but Barney hadn't risen to his exalted status by missing any tricks. The trouble was that Jimmy and I thought we'd been discreet.

"The police think Jimmy killed the Princess because he knew about the secret door," I said. It seemed useless to hold out on a man who already knew my darkest secret.

"Is that so," Barney replied as he propped his feet on top of the desk. Damned if he wasn't actually wearing cowboy boots today, and worn-out ones at that. The leather was scuffed all around the heels and toes.

As he leaned back in his chair, his eyes locked on mine. If he thought he was scaring me, he was in for a shock because I'd been intimidated by men with twice his intestinal fortitude, and I hadn't flinched then, either.

"You smoke?" he asked.

If I was blank before, this change of topic nearly made my brain explode from the vacuum. "Huh?" I said.

"Tell the truth now, Paulette. Do you smoke?"

"The odd cigar," I said. Maybe it was the non sequitur that made him king of the business world. People bought stocks rather than answer his inane questions.

"Ever had a real Cuban?" he asked.

I shook my head. "They're illegal."

Barney smirked. "So's speeding," he said, "but only if you get caught."

He took his boots off the desk, and I heard him open a drawer somewhere on the left side of his desk. Clearly, the big humidor on the bookcase to the right—where I usually filched my bi-weekly cigar—was full of the cheap stuff.

"Shall we?" Barney said as he produced two fat cigars.

"I'm supposed to be working," I said.

"Darlin', you are at work," he said. "At this very minute, you are in the middle of a marketing meeting with your superior officer. So how about the smoke?"

Clearly, I wasn't going to get an answer until somebody put a match to something, so I shrugged and nodded.

"Good girl," Barney said. In short order, the boss man neatly clipped the end of my cheroot with what looked like a pocket guillotine. Then he handed the cigar to me and whipped out a huge gold lighter.

"Allow me," he said as if he were a leading man in a black and white movie. A slight push on the igniter produced a massive flame, and I stood up and leaned forward to light my cigar. Puffing lightly to get a good draw, I caught Barney's eye.

Although it was the very last thing in the world I expected, I felt a spark of energy pass between us—like the proverbial chill running down my spine. We stood there for several puffs staring at one another, knowing one another.

I was the first to look away, although I wasn't scared, not exactly. Maybe weirded out. In that eye-to-eye moment with Barney, he somehow telegraphed to me that he was a fabulous lover and offered to personally demonstrate his prowess. How I knew such a thing in the 30 seconds it took me to light my cigar was a mystery, but when I found the courage to look Barney in the eye again, he gave me a compact smile and nodded his head in affirmation. Even I wasn't wrong about that. Then he lit his own cigar and sat behind his desk.

Luckily, the mood was immediately broken by the sudden entrance of Harriet—sans knock.

"Sorry, Chief," she said, "but there was a call on the Roberts account, and I need you to okay it." She walked halfway across the room before she turned and officially noticed me. "Paulette," she said, feigning alarm. "I, uh, didn't realize you two were in here . . . alone."

Her attempt at stammering left me cold, since I knew for a fact that one of Becky's main responsibilities was to keep track of who went in and out of the boss man's office and how long each one stayed. Little somebody simply needed to know what was going on. And, I was certain that Barney knew as much as I did about the way our office was run. I couldn't yet tell whether or not he liked it.

Barney stuck the cigar back between his teeth and motioned Harriet forward. Then he signed the paper she held for him.

When she took the paper away, Barney took the cigar out of his mouth, took a couple of puffs, and tapped off the ash in the big crystal ashtray on his desk. He fixed me with a steely eye.

"Harriet," he said, "I don't know what I'd do without you. In fact, I was just instructing Paulette here in the finer points of punctuality. You know, she could take a page from your book on that subject."

Harriet was overcome. Her usually pallid complexion warmed to a rosy hue. "I don't know about that, Chief," she said. The hand not holding the paper reached up to pat the back of her hair, lacquered into place as usual. "If you say so."

"He's reminded me of it twice in the same week," I said. I shook my head. "I guess I'm going to have to work harder, Harriet. I hope that you can offer me some suggestions."

Harriet grew an inch taller and brightened even further at the chance to lecture one of her weaker sisters. "I've been making a list," she said cheerfully. "Stop by my office." With that, the Wicked Witch took off on her broomstick, ruby slippers clicking merrily.

About a minute after the door closed—enough time for a triumphant Harriet to make it to her office—Barney started a chortle that lasted several minutes. "You're pretty quick on your feet, Sweetheart," he said.

"And you, Mr. Dunbarton, are one smooth operator," I replied. "You don't miss a trick, Chief, so how's about answering a couple of perplexing questions I have about Lover Boy?"

Barney seemed pleased with the accolade and put his feet back up on the corner of his desk. "Shoot," he said.

I did, both literally and figuratively, and in this manner I found out that everything Jimmy told me was true—at least so far as Barney knew. The condoms had been reported, and Barney solved the problem with a call to our cleaning service.

The stolen accounts were harder to prove, but one of Jimmy's biggest clients reported having gotten sales calls from the Princess. After a little sotto voce confab with Jimmy, Barney had a few choice words with the Princess—moments before she came downstairs to make her last copies, thereby playing a part in my own personal psychodrama.

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