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City of the Absent
October 28, 1893, Chicago, Illinois, on the last night of the World's Fair
Mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, a politician who split families and lovers over the issues of the day, a man both beloved and despised, lay dying of an assassin's bullet. The murderer's three consecutive shots left Harrison writhing in agony on his own Ashland Avenue lawn. His last thoughts for his family faded in and out with his pride in Chicago on this special night, as it had been a night of celebration. Harrison had presided over the closing ceremonies of the Great Chicago World's Fair.
Across the city, Inspector Alastair Ransom and Dr. Jane Francis Tewes lay curled in one another's arms. Alastair, sleepless, contemplated Jane's outward ladylike appearance and demeanor, her inner beauty, her caring, giving nature, and her magical lovemaking.
Jane also lay awake, contemplating and fearing that she might love this man, fearing what her own heart kept telling her...that it wanted him. That it wanted whatever Ransom wanted.
She'd even said so; out loud, she feared. She now whispered, "World be damned if things aren't right between us, Alastair."
"What?" he'd sleepily replied.
"No matter, I will do whatever you ask . . . "
He liked the sound and beat and counterpoint she'd found.
" . . . Alastair . . . whatever you ask me to . . . "
"Jane, you needn't make promises that..."
" . . . even if you finally ask me . . . in the end . . . to leave . . . "
"Jane, you must not..."
"I must do what you ask me to."
He was unsure where that had come from; likely some deep wellspring of desirewithin her? Something in her deepest recesses? A need to wholly, completely give herself over to someone she believed in? In a love she might trust above all things...or rather, dreamed of in childhood along with castles and fairy-tale worlds? Else she was truly in love with him on a level he had no prior experience with, save in his own imaginings with Polly Pete before her death.
But how was he to take this? Coming from Jane? An emotional rock up till now. How to play it?
Their lovemaking had been extreme and pleasurable, lights going off inside his head like those in the sky over Chicago's Lake Michigan on this, the last night of the World's Fair commemorating Columbus and worldwide progress since Columbus. Isn't that enough in and of itself, he silently asked, furled in her arms, her heart beating against his. Pleasurable beyond measure, in fact . . . it'd been remarkably pleasurable; he'd thought such spiritual elation impossible in any physical bonding, yet both the hardened detective and the seasoned lady surgeon had transcended this ground, this room, this city, and this plane.
Still, perhaps that was not enough for Jane, and perhaps she wanted more of him...far more of him. Perhaps she wanted him to repeat her words. Words she'd spoken to entice words from him? To join her as in a mantra...a chant they should together adopt when addressing one another, and next she'd convince him that the two should marry, and God forbid, have children at his age. These rampant thoughts flitted through his mind along with an even more terrifying idea...his loss of freedom. Just as marriage to her must end the career of one Dr. James Phineas Tewes...her other self... it could end the career of one Inspector Alastair Ransom, should she, as a wife, demand he take a safer, cushier job, say that of a store clerk or haberdasher.
It'd never work. Besides, given his proclivities, his lifestyle, his set ways, he'd be doing her no favor whatsoever tying the knot; in fact, it'd be like tying her to a raging bull. This, in his mind, must be the end of it.
Bells began to toll all across Ransom's city and outside Jane's window. Then came the thundering of horses pulling police wagons. Aside from the fracas, something deep within, in the nature of self-preservation, roused Alastair from Jane's caress. The admixture of tumultuous questions and passions assailing Ransom with the staccato alarms created a strange wave of panic. A panic rivaling his most lovely moment; he just knew something awful had happened.
"Is it a fire?" Jane asked.
"Dunno. Could be." A fire on the final night of the fair, he thought. This could be disastrous.
The bells and whistles sounded like a wailing, wounded animal. Again Alastair felt shaken by whatever it might be that'd occurred outside his inner storm...the eruption of passion ending in confusion. From what he could tell from the limited perspective of Jane's window on Belmont, the disturbance must be uptown. Somewhere near the fair, perhaps along Michigan Avenue. The two locations police in Chicago were sworn to protect above all else.
Ransom continued to peek out through lace curtains, his action sending a shaft of diffused gaslight into the room and over the bed, where Jane's reclining figure became silhouettelike, even fairylike.
"Damn . . . this can't be good," he commented, ignoring her unconscious call for him to return to her bed. "I'd best go have a look."
Jane climbed from her own wakeful dream, joined him at the window and wrapped her arms about Alastair, hardly capable of the reach. She was dwarfed beside him. "Whatever the problem, they may need my medical assistance, too," she groggily muttered.
"Yours or Dr. Tewes's?" He turned as he said this, his eyes accusing. He'd long argued for an end to her dressing as a male doctor in order to attract patients to her clinic...or rather, the clinic below the shingle reading: Dr. James Phineas Tewes.
Jane squeezed him to her. "This is no time for old arguments, Alastair."
"When the devil're you going to respect me on this? Give up this masquerade, Jane, please! It's seriously troubling, this . . . this situation, more so now than ever."City of the Absent. Copyright © by Robert Walker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.