Chapter Thirty-nine

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The Palace was jumping after eight when I got there. Every seat was taken at every table in the place, and those without chairs were milling about in every conceivable direction. I had to shoulder my way through crowds three deep at the bar.

Luckily, Jimmy grabbed the last two stools at the very end of the bar, and he'd stuffed his coat over the empty stool on the end so it appeared as if there was no stool at all—only a bit of space. Clever boy.

I tapped him on the shoulder, and he turned to me with a wonderful smile on his face.

"You're here!" he said. Damn, but it was nice to have someone to come home to at the end of the day.

"Finally!" I said.

He quickly cleared off his coat and ordered me a soda. And I quickly coughed up what had happened that kept me so late. At least the part about making a new "friend." The content of our conversation had been labeled top secret by a frowning Odin. Jimmy was also surprised by my description of the Princess's fiancé.

"Karlson didn't ask if you knew who he was?"

I shook my head. "I thought he was her shrink," I said. "He was quiet and well-dressed and kind. I liked him immediately."

"Maybe that's what Deborah needed," Jimmy said.

I noticed with a mental frown that Jimmy wasn't referring to our deceased coworker by her nickname any more. In fact, I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard him use anything but her given name. In death, apparently, the Princess grew in stature. Although it sure seemed hypocritical to speak kindly of a dead coworker whom you couldn't stand in life.

I certainly didn't expect anyone to think I played nice with other children when that was patently untrue. Lately, I'd been having a good patch, what with falling in love and all. But I was certain to lapse into my old sarcastic self sooner or later.

I was about to seal the bargain with some serious rudeness about Mickey's brown on black ensemble when Claudie made an appearance.

Like the Red Sea, the crowd at the bar parted for my friend as she nonchalantly smiled at Mickey and placed her order for Jack on the rocks. It was only a single as she still had one more set to play before quitting time at the Web. The lane to the bar remained open, however. I couldn't decide if it was her ensemble or the angel wings that gave her that otherworldly air.

Claudie wore what appeared to be a black sleeveless cat suit under a black lace corset. Her boots were thigh-high black suede with a cuff. If it hadn't been for the impressive cleavage out front and the white wings in the back, I would have teased her about her Mutiny on the Bounty boots.

As it was, I thought her outfit lacked only a pair of red devil horns to mark her as the archetypal image of wet dreams everywhere. I thought it, but I wasn't about to say it.

"Nice do," I said, when Jimmy motioned her over. Her hair was the only thing that looked normal, which is to say buttercup yellow ringlets falling to her waist.

She ignored me and asked Jimmy if he wanted to see her second set. I had already been to her show several times. I think that was before men started flinging their jockey shorts on the stage.

Jimmy turned to me for an answer, and I could see Claudie over his shoulder putting her two hands together palm to palm as if in prayer. When an angel puts in a request, who am I to refuse?

"Sounds fun," I said.

"Starts in half an hour," Claudie said.

"Save us a couple of seats?" Jimmy said.

And before I knew it, Jimmy and I were walking next door to see Claudie's second set from front row seats—on the house. Rank had its privileges. Though few have ever been offered to me.

Once we settled into our wooden folding chairs at the wagon-wheel-sized table two feet from the stage, Jimmy shifted to me. The lights were perpetually dim at the Web, but we sat so close to the stage that I could still make out Jimmy's facial expression.

"I found out about Deborah," Jimmy said.

"Really? What got the Princess exiled to Rockford?"

For an instant, Jimmy stopped and glared at me before continuing his narrative. Apparently I'd been right about the Princess's nickname. He didn't seem to like my using it. "She got on the wrong side of several key figures," he said.

"Who?" He stopped again and frowned slightly as if he wasn't pleased to be delivering this particular news.

"As far as I could tell, everyone," he said. "She isn't—wasn't—well-liked in Chicago."

"Interesting," I said. "And Becky?"

Jimmy shook his head. "Local. No one's met her yet. They say she sounds nice over the phone."

"Thanks," I said. "I've got to remember to tell her that on Monday. Was it only the male members of the staff?"

Jimmy rolled his eyes. "For your information, my sources were all female."

I smiled. "Good taste will out," I said.

Jimmy smiled. We were stuck that way, staring into one another's eyes, smiling dreamily until the stage lights came up and a short bald man advanced to one of the two stage mics.

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