Chapter Twenty-seven

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Lunchtime, but I barely noticed because I had work to do. The Princess's accounts had been divided across alphabetical lines and parceled out to Jimmy and Will. It was my job to switch the codes in the computer and draft an appropriate letter of explanation, which the brokers would personalize as needed. Then Jimmy and Will would follow with a phone call to close the deal.

The big clients got personal phone calls and lunch invitations, and words had been exchanged over dispersal of their names. Jimmy told me that Will had gotten to the point of tears of frustration several times during their long, long meeting with Barney. But since Jimmy was happy with his half and even offered to swap one or two clients with Will, I was happy to do the work.

Besides, the work kept my mind off the hostile note and my unresolved personal life. Both came back like bulls at a stampede when Jimmy tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was ready.

"Huh?" I said.

"Our debrief lunch," he said. "If you're going to assign homework, Paulette, you have to be prepared to endure it. I'm full to the brim with information."

This was a Jimmy I hadn't seen before, and his word choice was positively academic. Perhaps other women swoon to the sounds of tender sentiment, but I'll take a man talking piffle every time. And piffle requires vocabulary. Why, I wondered, did the best ones always have to be taken?

Jimmy waited, so I grabbed my purse, a gift from Claudie—a giant clock face that actually worked. I figured that my girth would draw attention to me anyway, so I may as well wear something cool. Besides, a big woman absolutely requires a larger-than-average bag.

I headed up the stairs and into Jimmy's sedan, not even remembering where we were going until Jimmy pulled into my favorite Beef-A-Roo on Riverside. We grabbed a booth all the way in the back next to the rocket ship and the Elvis poster.

The place was decorated in nostalgia kitsch, and it was so loud and busy no one would likely hear what we were saying or even notice us. I was all but addicted to their cheddar cheese fries. Jimmy went to the counter to order the food, my treat, while I saved our places. The high school kids in particular coveted the booths in the back.

While I waited, one particular specimen of high school boydom drew my attention. He was dressed in an amazing get-up of ankle-high hiking boots with athletic socks that featured red stripes at the top. I saw his socks because he wore baggy shorts that hung down past his knees, a t-shirt, and a garish Hawaiian shirt over the top of the ensemble. He couldn't have looked sillier if he dyed his hair purple.

At that bizarre thought, I recognized the kid because at one time he had dyed his hair purple. I'd worked with him at the discount store where I'd been involved in my first murder.

For a variety of reasons, including that I'd never had the guts to go back to the store after I'd almost been killed in a trash compactor, I didn't want this kid to recognize me. I couldn't face him again after everything we'd been through.

I don't like to think of myself as a coward, but this kid had been one of a little band I'd recruited to help me find my missing coworker. After the funeral for said missing coworker who'd had the misfortune of finding the killer before I did, I couldn't face any of them again. I'd quit without even saying goodbye.

"Paulette, I hesitate to mention it, but you're staring at that young man, and it's enough to give a confident Irishman pause." Jimmy was back with the chow, piled high on one tray, but I only had eyes for that kid.

"I know him," I said.

"Really? From where?"

I shook my head. "My last murder case. You don't want to know."

Jimmy took my hand in both of his. "If the last one still bothers you so much, Paulette, how come you got involved in this one?"

I gave Jimmy an annoyed glance and pulled my hand out of his embrace. We'd been over this before. At least, I thought we'd been over it. "I told you yesterday, Jimmy. Karlson said that I was your alibi. And the Princess was found under my desk."

Jimmy parceled out the food, cheese fries first. "You are, in fact, my alibi, Paulette. We can't get around that."

I grabbed a cheese fry with a nice, big glob of cheese on the end and stuffed it in my mouth. Lover Boy was starting to annoy me. "Yes, Jimmy, but Karlson conjectured that you were dating me because I was your alibi."

"Oh," he said. He pondered a long moment. "That Karlson is a mean son of a bitch, isn't he?"

"It isn't the fault of his mother," I said, "but I can't vouch for his father." Jimmy was using a fork to eat his cheese fries. Amateur. "You had him pegged earlier when you said Karlson was a piece of work." I helped myself to another couple of cheese fries.

"So this time it's about me?" Jimmy had me cornered with his serious brown eyes.

"Excuse me," a voice said. "You're Paulette, right? You used to work at Discountland before. . . . Remember me?"

I glanced up to see Randy from my former life as a cashier and nodded. "How could I forget a guy with purple bangs?"

Randy gave me a cute, lopsided grin, and I could see that now he wore braces. "That got lame," he said.

"I imagine. Do you still work there?" Neither of us needed me to be more specific. "There" was the place where they ground up people like cardboard.

"Naw," he said, "I couldn't. . . . "

He seemed about to say something else, but I nodded again to stop him. I knew exactly what he meant. The place reeked of death. I still couldn't bear to drive by. We might have stood there like that for hours unable to talk and yet unable to walk away, but Randy's friends intervened.

"Hey Lindeman," somebody shouted. "You coming or what?"

Randy started as if from a dream. "Yeah," he called out after them.

"It was good to see you, Randy," I said. "See you around."

"See you around," he said. He rotated on his heel and walked out the door. Like me, he didn't want to look back.

"Let's eat," I said before Jimmy could start in again about my reasons for chasing down killers.

There were easy reasons I could explain away using words like "prove myself" and "wounded pride," and there were other reasons I could only sense, like icebergs buried beneath the ocean.

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