There was nothing particularly special about the AmericInn in Winona except for the view. It was on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi, and from our balcony we could see the sun dapple the river as it curved slowly around the bend and glisten off the steel girders of Main Channel Bridge—a cantilever bridge so old that it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.
The parking lot stretched out between the hotel and the river, and I also had a good view of the comings and goings of the guests. There were no red Sentras or black Cadillac DTSs in the lot and no one sitting in a different make or model of vehicle that I could see.
Nina, what were you trying to prove? I asked myself silently.
I sat on the balcony and sipped some of her Cinque Figlie from one of the plastic cups the hotel provided. After a while Nina joined me. She was wearing a silk nightgown beneath a silk robe cinched at the waist, her hair still damp from the shower. Her eyes—those riveting silver-blue eyes that captured my heart so long ago—caught the fading sunlight and held it.
“We need to talk,” I said.
“We need to have rules, you and I.”
“Rule Number One—never try to prove how brave you are. Never. Fear is God’s way of telling us to think before we do something stupid.”
“Like walk up to a car filled with gangbangers?”
“Exactly like that.”
“Okay. What else?”
“The rest we’ll make up as we go along.”
We remained on the balcony not speaking until the sun was down and ribbons of light outlined the bridge. From the darkness I heard Nina’s voice.
“Come to bed.”
Galena was a sparkling gem of a town located along the Mississippi River at the bottom of a steep hill. At one time it had been bigger than Chicago. However, the collapse of the lead-mining industry and the advent of a nationwide railroad system rendered the river port irrelevant until it reinvented itself as a tourist town mostly around the exploits of General Ulysses Simpson Grant, who actually lived there for only a couple of years.
We checked into the DeSoto House, the city’s oldest operating hotel, where $250 rented us a Parlor Suite with a sitting room and gas fireplace for the night. While we checked in, a young man bounded down the winding staircase as if he were in a dreadful hurry. When he reached the bottom, he looked up to see his girl descending slowly, dragging her hand along the banister.
“What are you doing?” he asked her. His voice dripped with impatience.
“General Grant touched this banister,” she said. “So did Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Stephen Douglas, who else?”
“Teddy Roosevelt,” the desk clerk said.
“Teddy Roosevelt, “the girl repeated.
“So what?” asked the boyfriend. “Do you think all that greatness will rub off on you? I bet they polished the banister since those guys touched it.”
“You’re such an idiot,” the girl said as she brushed past him and walked out the front door.
“He is an idiot,” Nina repeated after the boyfriend followed the girl outside.
It never occurred to me to argue with her.
After we claimed the room and unpacked our bags, Nina said, “What do we do first?”
“What do you mean, we?”
“You don’t really believe I drove all this way just to sit in a hotel room while you go out and enjoy yourself, do you? This is a nice suite, by the way.”
“Nina, you and I are not Nick and Nora Charles, okay?”
“Okay, but what do we do first?”
I sighed dramatically and called the Galena Police Department. That’s when I discovered that Chief Hasselback was out and wouldn’t return until Monday morning—why she hadn’t told me that when I spoke to her earlier I didn’t know. Still, it gave us plenty of time to explore the town and its many century-old buildings. I found a store called the Root Beer Revelry that sold nearly ninety different varieties of root beer. I bought two cases of assorted brands with names like Iron Horse, Gale’s, Jack Black’s Dead Red, Sea Dog, and Frostie with the idea that I would gather a group of trusted and discerning confidantes for a taste testing to determine the world’s greatest root beer. Nina told me to let her know how that worked out.