Chapter Twenty-four

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Claudie sauntered in a scant five minutes after Odin left and joined me at the table. She did her great white way impersonation in a ruffly white peasant blouse, white jeans and white ankle boots. As usual, the outfit made her long blond hair look more vividly yellow. She might have been a contender for the human buttercup contest had she not seen fit to wear a sexy black bra underneath the gauzy top. Subtlety, thy name is Claudie.

I filled her in on the recent arrival and departure of Odin and my midday adventures with Jimmy. When she'd gotten the full advantage of my retelling, she put her feet up on the chair next to me and let out a long, low whistle. "Paulette," she said, "how the hell do you get yourself into these messes?"

"Damned if I know, C." I shrugged. "But, more important, how do I get out of it?" Luckily, she hadn't bugged me again about the sidekick issue. The answer was still no freaking way.

"Your boss, what's his name? Barney? Helluva lot easier if you dated him."

"Easier like how?" I said. "He's really married."

C folded her hands behind her head and leaned back. We both knew she was cruising the bar. "Jimmy is also really married," she said. "With Barney, at least, you know that he's bored with the wife. Just sex."

"But Jimmy said he'd never slept with Kate. They're trying to get an annulment."

C shifted toward me and gave me the long, lazy grin that sends guys into a swoon every night when she's performing. If I didn't love Claudie, I'd hate her for that grin alone. "Two people in the world know if that's true or not, and you've spoken to only one of them," she said. "Besides, I'm Catholic. People lie to Mother Church all the time. It's like cheating on your taxes. So long as you don't get caught."

"So I should talk to Kate?"

"Depends on how you feel about him."

"I like him," Mickey said. He'd snuck up on us. He sat a squat glass on the table. It was Claudie's usual alcohol of choice on the rocks: brown stuff that smelled like rubbing alcohol. He wiped at the table with a rag.

"You mean Jimmy?" I asked.

"Naw," said Mickey. "That cop, Karlson. You could do worse, Paulette."

"I did do worse, Mickey," I said, "That's the 'thin friends' guy. Remember?"

To my everlasting shame, on that fateful night I cried, scratched Karlson's paint, then hightailed it to Mickey's dive. And midway through my first diet soda, I'd starting crying again and spilled my pain to Mickey. For once, he hadn't taunted me with his knowledge.

"That was him?" Mickey's high note could have shattered glass. "You shoulda told me. I'd've given him a piece of my mind."

I rolled my eyes while Mickey wiped the table for the third time. "What were you going to do, offer him a light beer?" I said. "You got along well enough when you found out I tossed wine in his face." I did my best Mickey impression. "'I can never get a word in edgewise.'"

Rightaway, Mickey got all prim. "I prefer strong women with minds of their own," he said. "You know that, Paulette." He gave the table a final half-hearted wipe and rotated as if to go back to the bar.

Now macho man's pride was hurt. Arghh! This was always the part where I dreamed of life alone on a deserted island—without annoying little friends whose egos I had to stroke.

"Everybody knows what you're about, Mickey," Claudie said. "And we dig it." She put her feet back on the floor and leaned toward Mickey with a concerned frown on her face.

If I hadn't been sitting there and heard it direct, I would have sworn that C sampled some prose circa 1965. People were "digging" things about 15 years before I was born, and Claudie was younger than me.

"Besides," I said, "we were talking about Jimmy."

"He's married," C said before I shushed her. Never give ammunition to Mickey unless you're prepared to feel it whizzing past your ears later.

Mickey gave a swipe to the table next to us and shifted back. "The tall guy what was talking with Claudie Friday night?"

C nodded.

"I never liked him. But Karlson. . . ."

Mickey gave us his full attention, although at several tables to the left people were trying to signal him by waving their hands over their heads. The little Sicilian was good at ignoring things he didn't want to see.

I didn't hear the rest of Mickey's heart-warming endorsement of Odin as I felt a sudden urge to go the Ladies Room. The urge was brought on less by a call of nature than by the very real need to keep from breaking Mickey's nose.

When I got back, Claudie was seated on a stool at the bar, and Mickey was nowhere to be seen.

"I got rid of him," C said.

This was new. "How?"

"You know that cute girl he was trying to date? The Doc Martens chick?"

I nodded.

"I told him she was hanging out in the pool hall," she said.

"Is she?"

Claudie shook her head, took a sip of her drink, and gave me an evil grin. "But he doesn't know that." She paused. "He went to change his shoes."

I laughed until I thought I was going to choke, and Claudia Elaine had to pound me on the back.

Every once in a while they throw you a bone. That's how my therapist, the Liz-meister, refers to those serendipitous moments that drop from the sky like perfect butterflies and light onto your shoulder for an instant.

That's exactly how I felt as I walked out of the Garlic Palace on an ordinary Monday night when Claudie did the impossible, and Odin dropped in for a bite.

Once I got home, I saw the note on my windshield. The words were cut-out letters from the newspaper taped to a lined green sheet from a steno pad.


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