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Monroe sighed as the
reporter’s spiel went on, finally interrupting with, “But who
is
she?”


Her name, if you can
believe it,” the reporter said in a whisper, making a dramatic face
like he was about to divulge a state secret, “is Winter
Willows.”

Monroe liked it. Real or
not—and he had his instinctive doubts as to its authenticity—the
name was poetically fitting for a woman of her unique
appearance.


What does she
do?”


She works for the
mayor.”


Doing what?”


That, my friend, remains a
mystery. Nobody’s really sure
what
she does. The mayoral
staff is pretty tight-lipped about certain matters and Ms. Willows
is one of those subjects. She showed up in Boston a couple years
ago working for a modeling agency but seemed to switch occupations
pretty fast. She moved into political circles and God only knows
what she does now. But I don’t think she’s his mistress or anything
like that. The mayor’s wife doesn’t seem to have anything against
her, so I don’t think the mayor has anything
against
her
either. Whatever her function is…I’d love to be the one to break
that story. She gets around though, shows up at all the big
parties, sits in at closed-door staff meetings, and seems to know
everybody but gets close to nobody. The girl is a sweet little
enigma.”


Interesting,” Monroe said.
“You know, I love a good mystery. I always have. I read plenty of
Agatha Christie when I was younger.”

The reporter laughed again.
“Don’t even think about it, buddy. Look around. Politicians,
gangsters, actors…and none of them have a shot with the lovely Ms.
Willows. Do you really think you’ll do any better?”


It’s not whether you win or
lose,” Monroe said with a smile, “but how much fun you have playing
the game.” He meant not a word of that of course. He had every
intention of winning his prize. He made up his mind to go after
Winter Willows and would do everything in his power to crack that
particular mystery. He finished his wine, put the empty glass down,
and excused himself from the reporter’s company with a quick, “Nice
talking to you.”

The time for eating was over
now and music began to fill the air of the ballroom. Couples got up
and began to dance. Monroe made his way over to the bar and got a
scotch, took a sip, and stood watching the crowd. Several of the
women whom Monroe guessed worked as escorts in Cyril Benson’s
employ had caught hold of gentlemen of prominent positions and were
dancing seductively with them, either trying to coax favors out of
them or beginning an evening of paying them back for favors already
done for Benson. As for Benson himself, Monroe saw that he remained
seated, not bothering to keep up his chat with the mayor, but
simply sitting up there on the dais and looking down upon the
revelers like a king surveying the serfs.

Now Monroe turned his
attention to the table where Winter Willows sat for dinner. She was
still in her chair. She sat there for a moment as if considering
what to do next, said something to her table companions, flashed
that diamond smile again, and got up. Monroe watched her move
across the floor, weaving left and right to gracefully detour
around the dancing couples, not dancing herself but taking the
shortest route through the ballroom. Monroe saw that she seemed to
be heading in his direction and he readied himself.

 

Chapter 10: One
or the Other

 

The glorious thing about
being the new kid in town, Monroe decided, was that the cliques
were still uncharted. Considering who worked for who and who
answered to who and probably also who slept with who, Willow
Winters, to judge by the way others moved out of her path and
nodded politely when they recognized her, was not someone who
should be approached—let alone hit on—by a lowly marketing
consultant who had just recently set up shop in Boston. But Monroe
had his recent arrival to use as a perfect excuse for his ignorance
and he intended to use that weapon like a master swordsman would.
She approached, stepped right past Monroe, and stopped at the bar.
The bartender was just finishing up with another customer and
Monroe took advantage of the slight delay to intercept Winter
Willows.


Excuse me,” he said,
flashing his best smile, which was a warm one but not one that
stepped too far over the border that divides friendliness from
over-eagerness, “can I buy you a drink?”

Winter Willows looked at
him, or rather down at him and through him, for her gaze was a cold
one, and the ice in her laugh matched it. “But drinks are free
tonight,” she said condescendingly.


Then that’s all the better
for me,” Monroe recovered and laughed. “What will you
have?”

Willows thought for a
second. Should she humor the stranger or blow him off? Her eyes
flashed at Monroe and went warm for just an instant.

Good, Monroe thought,
there’s just a chink in her armor.


Whiskey,” Willows said,
“with plenty of rocks.”


Fine,” Monroe said, “a cold
drink for a cold lady.”

He got the whiskey, handed
it to her.


Thanks,” she said. “So
you’ve already decided I’m an ice queen?”


Well that’s a harsh look
you gave me,” Monroe said, “but it suits you. Very businesslike,
and I have to tell you that it matches that stunning look of
yours.”


I appreciate the drink, but
drop the charming act. It’s unnecessary and won’t get you
anywhere.”


Can I at least ask your
name?”


Don’t play stupid with me.
I’m sure you already know my name, just as everyone else in this
room does.”


But I’m a stranger to
everyone here. I only just moved into Boston and I haven’t been
keeping a scorecard. I know who the mayor is obviously, and Mr.
Benson, but I’m afraid I haven’t a clue when it comes to
you.”


Fine,” she said. “I’ll give
you that much in exchange for the drink.”

She took a sip, swallowed,
and said, “I’m Winter Willows.”


Richard, Richard Monroe.”
And he shook her hand, happy to find her flesh warmer than her
attitude.


So you don’t know anybody
here,” Willows said, “and yet you managed to get invited to one of
the biggest events of the year. Whatever did you do to deserve
that?”


I’m not quite sure,” Monroe
said. “I’m a consultant, so I suppose one of my associates thought
they were doing me a favor by getting me invited. Perhaps they
thought it would help me drum up some business. And what is it that
brings you here, Ms. Willows? What do you do?”


You might call my
occupation a consulting one as well,” she answered. Monroe got the
impression that she was unwilling to go into detail so he decided
to lighten the topic.

He waved a hand in the
general direction of the dance floor. “Everyone seems to be having
a good time,” he said. “Handsome men, beautiful women: I suppose
we’re lucky to be here tonight among all these happy
people.”


Don’t get any bold ideas,
Mr. Monroe,” Willows said. “I’m not one of
those
women.”


That’s good,” Monroe shot
back, “because I’m not one of
those
men. I tend to take
things much more seriously than those who bounce around drunk and
look for a quick thrill. I always take the potential consequences
of my actions into account before I leap. But once I
have
made up my mind, it’s not easy to stop me from getting what I’m
after.”


You’re quite sure of
yourself, aren’t you?” Willows asked.


A man who doesn’t know
himself,” Monroe said, “doesn’t get very far in getting to know
others. That’s one of my strictest rules.”


Let me give you a piece of
advice, Mr. Monroe,” Willows said with a smile that fell somewhere
between sarcasm and seriousness. “In this city, among these people,
that cockiness of yours can do one of two things: it might get you
well connected…or it might get you viciously shut down. Make your
choices carefully and don’t assume anything before you know the
score.”


You, Ms. Willows,” Monroe
said, “are taking this conversation far too seriously. I’m only
trying to enjoy your company.”


Look around, Richard,” she
said, using his first name for the first time, “and you’ll see how
much attention is already being thrown your way simply because
you’re talking to me.”

Monroe pretended to look
about but had already noticed. People were staring, but he saw that
as a good sign, a mark of progress. “It doesn’t bother me in the
least.”


I can see that,” Willows
said.


So tell me, Winter,” Monroe
put her first name into the conversation now that she had used his,
keeping things evenly balanced, “did your consulting work have
anything to do with the building of this lovely new
hotel?”


I may have been slightly
involved in the process,” she admitted.


Good,” Monroe said. “Here’s
what I’m thinking: I’m guessing you know more about this place than
just the ballroom. It’s getting a little loud in here for my
tastes. Perhaps you’d like to take a walk with me and share some of
the hotel’s secrets, for I’m sure it has many.”


You
are
daring,
aren’t you?” Willows laughed. “Even after I warned you, still you
try and try.”


Shall we take our drinks
with us, then?” Monroe asked.


I think I’ve had enough for
now,” Willows answered. “You were right. It’s a bit too cold
already for so much ice.”

She put her glass down on
the bar and Monroe did the same with his. He followed her across
the dance floor as the people parted to let Winter Willows and her
companion pass. They reached the doors of the ballroom, which were
efficiently held open by two staff members, and passed out of the
loudness of the party into the much quieter corridor of the Boston
Crown Hotel.

They took the elevator up,
stopping at the top story. The doors opened to reveal a circular
room with a glass ceiling and walls made up mostly of windows. On
all sides could be seen the city of Boston, a pageant of lights and
tall buildings. Monroe thought the view was lovely and imagined
that this might be what it felt like to be inside a snow globe
looking out at the larger world beyond the transparent
boundaries.


Stunning,” he said just
above a whisper.


It is, isn’t it?” Winter
Willows said. “This is the crown of the Crown, a room where only
the most important guests will get to look out over the
city.”


But who,” Monroe asked,
“gets to decide which guests are important enough for that
privilege?”


Certainly not you, and not
even me,” Winter said. “Those privileges are reserved for the kings
of the city.”


And here I thought we lived
in a democracy,” Monroe quipped.


You should know that’s only
an illusion, Richard.”


I do, I suppose,” Monroe
said, catching himself in a moment of honesty with Winter despite
the rest of his act, “but I can’t help dreaming of a better world
now and then. So tell me, how do you know so much about illusions
and corruption?”


No,” Winter said. “Tell me
something: what
are
you fishing for anyway? You know more
than you’ve admitted and you’re either looking to get between my
legs or you’re trying to hook yourself up with a job. Which is
it?”


You appreciate brutal
honesty then, it seems?”


Lay your cards on the
table, Mr. Monroe.”


Well why can’t I be after
both, Ms. Willows?”


It doesn’t work that way,”
Winter said. The ice had come back into her voice. “It’s one or the
other. Choose.”


Are you saying I can
actually win on one front?” Monroe asked.


I haven’t decided yet,”
Winter answered, “but you have to decide, right here and right now,
if tonight is about business or about pleasure. It’s your call,
Richard, and I promise not to slap you unless you really deserve
it.”

Monroe took a step closer to
her, looked down and straight into her eyes. “If it’s a choice
between the money and the lady, it’s not such a difficult one.
After all, I’ve already got a little something in my bank
account…”

He kissed her and she did
not back away. It was a warm kiss as Winter Willows let her icy
defenses drop away. Their lips locked for a long time and Monroe
ran his hands through the long white hair that seemed so
incongruous, yet so enchanting, on so young a woman.

Winter was the first to
speak when the kiss finally ended.


I happen to know that the
Crown management will be making an announcement toward the end of
the party tonight.”


And what announcement would
that be?” Monroe asked.


Any invited guests at the
party,” Winter answered, “who want to can have a room here tonight,
free of charge. I suppose it’s their way of breaking in the place
and also avoiding any scandals that might come out of anyone
leaving a bit too lit up to drive. Will you be spending the night,
Richard?”

BOOK: Nobody Dies For Free
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