“And all this,” I said, gesturing at the club.

“The business is starting to run itself, now. I could probably even sneak away on a Saturday night and not be missed.”

“Is that a proposition?”

Nina blushed, something rarely seen in a mature woman. I found it entrancing. She glanced away, looked back.

“Try me.”

I think maybe we should start seeing other people. It seemed to me I heard someone say that not too long ago.

“Ms. Truhler, I would be delighted if …”

“Call me Nina.”

“Nina, I would be … Damn!”

Napoleon Cook was coming down the staircase.

I pretended I was a photograph on the wall. Nina did an interesting thing. She positioned her body to conceal me from Cook as Cook swept the room with his eyes. How could I not like her?

When Cook reached the bottom step, he shot an impatient glance upward. Hester had halted halfway down the staircase and leaned against the shiny brass railing, posing like a model in a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, looking just as alluring, just as inviting as any of the women you’ll find there. Cook watched her. I watched her. Nina watched her. The bartender watched her. So did everyone else. Now I know what is meant when they say, “A hush fell …”

Hester’s hair was long and black, blacker than Nina’s if that was possible. Her eyes were the color of flawless jade. She wore an oriental-style jacket, carefully fitted at the waist, with a floral tapestry on a hunter green background, a high mandarin collar, antique gold buttons, and slightly raised shoulder pads. Below the jacket was a very short, very tight black skirt—it could have been painted on—and black hose and heels. The ensemble didn’t look like something you ordered from Spiegel.

Hester glided—I’m not exaggerating—to the bottom of the staircase. Cook said something to her. She grinned at him. Cook moved to the door. I swear she winked at the room before following him out. I waited a few beats and followed, too. I covered half the distance before turning back. Impulsively, I told Nina, “I’ll call you when I can.”

“Please do.”

The way she said that made me blush.

Cook and Hester went to Cook’s Porsche. I headed for the Jeep Cherokee. Cook didn’t notice me two rows back. I guessed he had something else on his mind. He started the Porsche, went west out of the parking lot. I gave him a reasonable head start.

I began to think about the woman. I placed her in the midtwenties, five feet eight or nine inches tall, one hundred twenty pounds, with the kind of face and figure usually featured on the cover of women’s magazines found at supermarket checkout lines. The way she had moved—if Merci Cole could move like that she’d be rich.

The Porsche went north on Dale to I-94, followed the freeway west two miles, took the Snelling Avenue exit and headed north again. I followed, punching it through the yellow on University Avenue to keep up. We went north past Hamline University, past Midway Stadium where the St. Paul Saints play, past the state fairgrounds, to a low-slung motel with green neon flashing the name PARADISE between two pink flamingos. The Paradise was what they used to call a “motor lodge,” with a dozen or more rooms each facing an asphalt parking lot. A man in shirtsleeves was busy hosing down the driveway. He waved as the Porsche passed him and parked at the far side of the lot in front of the last room. I hid my face as I drove past, stopping down the street.

Cook left the car and walked toward the office—walked like he was trying hard not to run. Hester waited in the Porsche. Shirtsleeves decided he had given the asphalt enough water, shut off the hose, pulled it to the side and, wiping his hands on his trousers, followed Cook into the office. A few minutes later, Cook worked the lock of the room directly in front of the Porsche. Hester stayed in the car until the door was opened. The light did not go on until both were safely inside. It stayed on for only a few moments.

I glanced at my watch. Seven-thirty-three.

I flipped a U and parked the SUV in the street next to the motel parking lot. I turned on the radio and worked the tuner until I found WCCO-AM, joining the game in progress. The Rangers were shredding the Minnesota Twins’ pitching staff, knocking out a long reliever I hadn’t even heard of with three singles, a double, and back-to-back dingers justlikethat. The Twins were forced to bring in a third pitcher and it was only the bottom of the second. Damn. It looked like the eight-game winning streak was about to end. Still, the team had a sixteen-game lead over the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central and were cruising into the playoffs. It was just like the glory days of Puckett, Hrbek, Gagne, Gladden, Bush, Newman, and Larkin—the seven players who were on both the 1987 and ’91 World Series championship teams. I found myself humming the Twins’ fight song.