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I've never seen a murder," he said. "I mean, I've been in Chicago for the best part of a year now and I've never actually seen anyone killed."
"Is that why you came here?" she asked.
Merlin Richards laughed. "No, of course not!"
"Then don't sound so disappointed."
"What did you expect? Blood on every sidewalk?"
"A shooting on every street corner?"
"Go on," she prompted. "Gang warfare on Michigan Avenue?"
"Sally, this is Chicago."
"It has a reputation."
"An unfair reputation."
"Not according to that film."
"Don't believe what you see in the movies."
"It seemed pretty realistic to me."
"Wait till you've lived here as long as I have."
"Chicago has a huge crime wave, Sally."
"Show me a city that doesn't."
"You only have to read the papers or—"
"Or watch the movies," she teased, anticipating him. "Yeah, sure. This place is a jungle. You fight for survival. Walk a few more blocks and we're bound to witness at least two stabbings and a daring bank robbery. We might even get lucky and see a couple of cops being riddled with bullets from a tommy gun. Thatsatisfy you?"
Merlin laughed again. He liked Sally Fiske. She spoke her mind. Her comments were sharp and her mockery always good-humored. He was so used to the reflex agreement and obliging smiles of his previous girlfriends that it was refreshing to meet someone who challenged his remarks. Also—and this impressed him—Sally was so relaxed in his company. It was difficult to believe that this was only their second date.
"Didn't you like the film?" he asked.
"I loved it."
"But you think it was far-fetched."
"Too much black paint and not enough white."
"Yes," she argued. "The movie only used dark colors. I'm an artist, remember. I like to use a full palette. Strike a balance between light and shade. Little Caesar was all shade and no light."
"But it was very exciting."
"Yeah. Edward G. Robinson was terrific."
"But not a typical resident of Chicago."
"No, Merlin. Believe it or not, most people here are good, honest, law-abiding citizens. Even the crooks are not as bad as they're made out to be. They're kind to their mothers and never kill anyone on a Sunday. Not until they've been to Communion, anyway. And before you ask me," she added, turning to him, "in all the time I've lived here, I've never seen a murder either."
He grinned. "I won't hold it against you."
"So what did you think of the movie?"
"Bet you never saw anything like that back in wherever-it-is."
"Merthyr Tydfil," he said. "And you're right, Sally. Never even saw a talking picture there. All we ever had were silents, flickering away in the local fleapit while Mrs. Prosser beat the daylights out of the piano."
"The old lady who was the accompanist at the cinema. She didn't so much play the piano as pound it into submission. She was a sort of cross between Paderewski and Jack Sharkey. Music with muscle. Real character, Mrs. Prosser. Poor dab! When the talkies hit Wales, people like her will be out of a job."
"Happens to us all!" she sighed.
He shivered involuntarily. "Let's talk about something else."
"Over a cup of coffee."
"I have to work this evening."
"Oh, yes. I forgot."
"Coffee is all I have time for, Merl."
"Where shall we go?"
"I know just the place."
They were part of a large crowd that surged out of the cinema and made its way along Lincoln Avenue. Discussion all around them was loud and fevered. Little Caesar had left its patrons feeling exhilarated. Snatches of dialogue were being recalled, favorite scenes remembered. To impress their wives or girlfriends, amateur impersonators were already trying to mimic Rico. One guy even reenacted his death at the end of the film and went down in a heap on the sidewalk. Sally nudged Merlin.
"Now you have seen a murder in Chicago."
She led him down a side street, then checked for traffic before crossing it diagonally. They were soon letting themselves into a small restaurant. Merlin was glad when they were shown to a table. Seated opposite her, he was able to look at Sally properly for the first time, and she did repay study. Short blond hair framed a pale, oval face given definition by generous lips, a delightful snub nose, and the biggest pair of blue eyes he had ever seen. It was a clear, open face, untouched by the distortions that come from concealment and deception. The cinema had bestowed a token intimacy on them, and they held hands during the latter stages of the movie, but that did not compare with the pleasure of appraising Sally Fiske afresh.
Merlin was an architect. He preferred a front elevation.
They ordered coffee and pastries, then subjected the movie to closer analysis. Both had enjoyed it, but for very different reasons. It seemed only seconds before the waitress returned with their order. Merlin sat up in surprise. He caught sight of the clock on the wall. Time was racing by at a cruel speed.
"Do you really have to work this evening?" he said.
"Can't you give it a miss?"
"They need me."
"So do I."
She smiled. "The hotel pays me more than you do."
"You don't belong there, Sally."
"How else do I earn the rent?"
"You're a creative artist. A questing spirit. What you need is the freedom in which to experiment and develop."
"What I need is more commissions, Merlin," she said bluntly. "Then I could afford to buy some of that lovely freedom and follow my vocation. Until then, I have to work as a hotel clerk or whatever else brings in the bucks. Besides," she said, her smile broadening. "I like the hotel. The job has its compensations."
"Is that all I am?" he protested. "A compensation?"
"A very nice one."
"How else would we have met?"
"In an art gallery, probably. Yes, that would have been much more appropriate. Bumping into each other in the shadow of an old master. Welsh architect meets commercial artist from Illinois. Kindred spirits. Instead of which," he recalled with a sigh, "I charged into your lobby in a state of panic because I was late for an appointment with a potential client, and you were the faceless member of the hotel staff who told me where to find him."
She bridled. "Faceless?"
"What I mean is, I took you for what you seemed to be."
"A faceless, anonymous freak!"
"No, Sally. Truth is, I didn't give you a second glance. You were just one more attractive girl behind a reception desk. Part of the hotel furniture. Handsome but functional. It never occurred to me that you made a living illustrating books."
"I don't, Merlin."
"You did. For a while."
"Those days are gone."
"They'll come back one day."
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Will they?"
"I admire your optimism."
"It's not optimism, Sally. It's self-belief. Don't forget that I'm in the same boat as you. Struggling to find employment worthy of my talent. Work dried up on me as well. Completely. It was only by sheer coincidence that I managed to land a position here."
"You told me. After trudging around Chicago until you wore out your last pair of shoes, you had a stroke of good fortune."
"Two strokes. One was the job with Westlake and Davisson."
"What was the other one?"
"I thought I was only part of the hotel furniture."
"Handsome but functional."
"That's what I'm hoping," he said with polite lechery.
"Drink your coffee. It'll calm you down."
"Never give up," he urged. "Never surrender your ambition. Who knows? A whole flurry of commissions might be waiting for you just around the corner. Believe in yourself, and you'll get there in the end."
"If only it was that easy."
"Things are bound to improve soon."
"Yeah. Less suicides among stockbrokers."
"You call that an improvement?"
They shared a laugh, but it only covered their uneasiness. Sally's own career was on hold, and she knew that Merlin's prospects were far from rosy. His show of optimism was tempered by a deep insecurity. He had a job but no indication of how long it might last. Work for architects was increasingly scarce. Westlake and Davisson might soon be one more extinct Chicago practice.
Sally hoped this would not happen. She was very fond of Merlin. He was an interesting mix of shyness and confidence. He treated her with respect. His big, round face was pleasant rather than handsome, and his crooked nose had a fascination all its own. Merlin would win no prizes for smart dressing—his tie was loose, his suit crumpled, his hair unacquainted with brush and comb. She admired his take-me-as-I-am attitude, and she adored the Welsh lilt of his voice. There was something else she had learned. For a man with the build of a heavyweight boxer, he had the most incredibly soft and sensitive hands.
"What time do you have to be there?" he asked.
"Do you always work on a Saturday night?"
"When the chance comes my way."
"But Saturday nights are for fun."
"Someone has to be on duty in reception."
"Why must it be you?"
"Because I can earn extra if I work late."
"When do you finish?"
"The night porter takes over from me."
"Isn't it dangerous?"
"No, he's a sweet old guy when you get to know him."
"I wasn't talking about the night porter, Sally. I meant this city. Chicago. There're some weird people out there. I don't like the idea of you having to go home alone that late."
"You get used to it."
"Do you take a cab?"
"Not if I can help it."
"But that would be the safest way."
"You don't know cabdrivers," she said wearily. "Some of them ought to be locked up. Besides, cabs cost money. They're a luxury." She saw his concern and reached out to squeeze his arm. "Don't worry about me. I'm a big gift. And I grew up in this city, remember. I'll be fine."
"I'll pick you up," he decided.
"I'll be in the lobby when you come off duty."
"Merl, that's crazy!"
"Staying up that late when there's no need."
"I want to see you get home safe."
"I always do."
"Tonight, you'll have an escort."
"But you'll have to wait for hours."
"You should be asleep in bed by midnight."
"I'm a night owl," he lied.
"What will you do between now and then?"
Merlin shrugged. "Stooge around. Kill time. I'll find something to keep me out of mischief. Might even go to the office. Yes, that's an idea," he said, warming to the notion. "I could put in some overtime. Finish those drawings I had to leave. That would impress Brad Davisson. Great! It's all settled. When I've walked you back to the hotel, I go straight to the office and get my head down."
"So you'll be working as well as me."
"I thought Saturday nights were for fun."
"Architecture is fun. And they've given me a key to the office now. It shows they trust me. I can let myself in and work all alone. It'll be bliss. I'm only four blocks from Randolph Street. I can walk to the hotel and arrive on the stroke of midnight." He rubbed his palms together. "It's all settled. The Merlin Richards Protection Agency is at your service."
"But I'm not sure that I want it," she said crisply.
There was a long pause. She could see the disappointment in his face and feel his embarrassment. He was clearly afraid that he had offended her. His shoulders hunched in apology. They had reached a boundary line in their relationship, and Sally was hesitating to cross it. She searched his eyes to find out what sort of a guy he really was. With an appeasing smile, Merlin sat back in his chair.
"I didn't mean to sound so ... proprietary."
"Trying to make your decisions for you. Stupid of me."
"No harm done."
"Do you forgive me?"
"Nothing to forgive."
"I only made the offer because I care, Sally."
"I know," she said. "But it was more like an order than an offer. Do this, be there, listen to me. I appreciate your concern, but I really can find my way safely around this city. Even after midnight."
"I thought you might value some company."
"That's a different matter, Merl."
"And it would have put my mind at rests."
"Go back to your apartment. Have an early night."
"No," he said firmly. "I've got a surge of energy. I feel like getting back to the drafting table. When the muse calls, you have to pick up a pencil and go. If you have to work tonight, then so will I. Good way to build character."
"Maybe I should stop by and pick you up at midnight."
There was a laugh in her voice that revived his hopes. He put his arms on the table and leaned across to her. Their faces were close.
"It was lovely to see you again, Sally."
"Thanks for asking me."
"Pleasure. At least we managed a few hours together this time. All we had on our first date was a hasty lunch."
"I had to get back to work that afternoon as well."
"How many hours do those slave drivers keep you at it?"
"A job is a job, Merl," she said levelly. "In any case, you put in even longer hours than me. Didn't you say that you sometimes have to work seven days a week?"
"When the pressure's on."
"There you go, then."
"I get caught up in a project," he admitted, "and find it difficult to let go. It takes over my life. Becomes an obsession. I think of nothing else until it comes to an end."
"I move on to the next commission."
"And lose yourself in that?"
"So there's a definite pattern here," she said quietly. "Your work gives you a real buzz. You go from one high spot to another. I'm just wondering where I fit into this pattern."
"That's up to you, Sally."
"I'd hate to be just one more stop on your personal subway."
"You're not!" he insisted.
"How do I know that?"
"I thought you'd have worked it out by now."
There was another long pause, then she noticed the clock on the wall. It made her nibble a piece of her pastry and wash it down with the last of her coffee. She picked up her purse.
"I have to go."
"One more question."
"Supposing I happen to be passing the hotel at midnight?" he said. "Quite by accident. I might just stroll into the lobby to take a look around. If you feel that you'd like an escort home, all you have to do is ask. On the other hand, if you'd rather go out into the night alone, I won't try to stop or follow you. And no recriminations afterward. Is that fair?"
"It's a deal, then."
Sally nodded and rose to her feet. Merlin gulped down the last of his coffee, then left some money with the check. They came out of the restaurant and headed toward Randolph Street. All that they talked about on their way to the hotel was the movie. It was a neutral zone. They could move about freely inside it. However, while they traded comments about Little Caesar, their minds were on something else.
As they passed a shop window, Sally saw them mirrored in the glass. They looked good together. She was relatively short but had a full figure that saved her from being dainty; looming over her, Merlin moved with the easy swagger of a sportsman. He kept himself in good physical condition. That was not true of all the guys she tended to attract. And Merlin was only a couple of years older than she was. That, too, was unusual. Sally was normally a target for those who were trembling on the edge of middle age and saw her as a last staging post. Merlin Richards was in his prime. He was rather special. She thought once more about the curious softness of his hands.
For his part, Merlin was relishing some of the moments they had shared during their brief time together. Sally had an air of independence about her that was quite breathtaking. She asked for no favors and expected no allowances to be made for her. Behind a hotel reception desk she was bright and efficient, but there was no sign of her natural vivacity or her wicked sense of humor when she was on duty. The real Sally Fiske emerged only when they were alone together. Merlin was touched when she brought some examples of her work to show him over lunch. Her illustrations were superb. She had serious talent. Merlin winced when he reflected on how that talent was lying fallow.
They were still arguing about the movie when they reached the hotel. Merlin was about to follow her up the steps to the revolving door, but she came to a halt and turned to face him. Sally took a quick inventory of her feelings before speaking.
"Thanks again," she said.
"Lovely to see you."
"Sorry we couldn't lay on a real murder for you."
"Only a question of time," he said with a grin. "I'll probably see half a dozen on my way to the office."
"Right, I'll let you go now, Sally. But I'll be back at midnight."
"You're under no obligation. You don't have to speak to me or even look at me. Ignore me altogether, if you like. Have the night porter throw me out. But I'll be there. You know—just in case."
"You're a gentleman."
"Does that mean you want me here at midnight?"
"No," she said, touching his cheek with her fingertips. "It means you won't complain when you learn the hideous truth about me."
"What hideous truth?"
"Brace yourself, Merl."
He swallowed hard. "You're not married, are you?"
"Or living with someone else?"
"What do you take me for?"
"On the run from the law, then? Hiding out after a terrible crime?"
"Nothing like that."
"I've got it. You must keep strange pets. Snakes, maybe? Polar bears? Tame alligators?"
"So what is this hideous truth?"
"I'm a lousy cook."
"I don't follow."
"You will," she said.
She brushed her lips against his before going up the stairs and into the revolving door. Merlin was baffled. As the door came full circle, Sally stepped out with an explanation.
"Wait till you taste the breakfast I'll cook for you."
She disappeared into the hotel for good this time.
Merlin simmered with delight.