Chapter Thirty-five

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The first order of business at work on Friday morning was to deal with the flashing red light on my desk telephone. Someone left me a message. Because today was the end of the week, I figured Becky was letting me know that she was sick again. That way I could relay the information to Harriet.

This served the dual purpose of allowing Becky to sleep in and to delay Becky's having to deal with Harriet's wrath. By Monday, Harriet would have forgotten her anger at Becky for being sick.

Harriet herself was annoyingly punctual and never used a sick day that anyone had ever heard about. She showed little patience for those with less hardy constitutions. Becky was probably taking a mental health holiday anyway. Despite my advice to the contrary, Becky thought it was a good idea to be sick on a Friday or a Monday. She never quite understood how anyone could doubt that she was really sick—or, hell, maybe she didn't care. It wasn't that I wanted to deny her an unscheduled day off, but I took my mental health holidays on a Wednesday and kept diligent track lest someone get wise to me.

I waited for the computer to boot up and pushed the blinking light on the phone. Karlson's voice greeted me in a clipped monotone. He wanted me downtown after work. Something to do with the investigation, he said. I still meant to find Deborah's killer, but I was taking the night off, Odin or no Odin. Now that Jimmy and I were again speaking nice to one another, I wanted to consolidate my gains. And, I had to admit, I didn't want him spending the night with Kate.

I was about to tell Karlson's voicemail that I wasn't showing up when Becky appeared. She was chatty and full of news about her husband and kids. I didn't get back to the message on my voicemail until Jimmy appeared with a spare mocha. He, too, was talkative despite the time we'd spent together. He told me amusing stories about Kate in the grocery store and at the mall.

In a strange way, it was as if we were discussing our child, because we both took such delight in her sense of joy and wonder at all things American. I would probably have listened to Jimmy's stories until lunch, but Becky interrupted. Barney wanted to see me right away, she said.

Since it was barely 10:30 a.m., Jimmy and I made plans for a late lunch to discuss what we were doing for the weekend. Then I marched up the stairs with a big question mark on my face.

My current project was a general inputting of client information, but it would be two weeks before any of it would be needed for a mailing. Moreover, I had been on time or early every single day since Barney had offered me a cigar, I couldn't imagine why he wanted to see me.

Becky was talking with Harriet when I got upstairs, so I couldn't quiz her. I could hear their low murmuring in Harriet's office. I knocked first on Barney's door, and when I thought I heard him holler, I opened it.

"Come on in, Paulette," he said. "Have yourself a seat."

I did as he told me, then shifted around to stare at Simone in the other client chair. She wore her trademark red, and she smoked a cigar.

"You know Ms. DuPre, of course," Barney said. He, too, puffed a cigar.

Simone didn't even pretend to smile at me around her cheroot.

"Now, Paulette, you've been here what, five months or so?" Barney said.

"Six months next week," I said, leaning back in my chair. I offered Barney a perky little grin that I hoped was cute. With the Cobra Queen this close, I needed to make an ally of anybody else in the room.

"Top drawer," Barney replied. "Now, I haven't told Ms. DuPre what I had in mind, Paulette, because I didn't rightly know myself. You like it here, don't you?" He tapped the ash off his cigar into his big glass ashtray, which sat about halfway between him and Simone.

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