Frank rubbed his forehead in an effort to release the tension that had settled on his brain. In the darkness, he sat at his desk with the telephone before him listening to Dauterive prattle on about his concerns. In the ring of light cast by the desk lamp, a partially empty dinner plate was shoved away from him unceremoniously. He looked up as a soft knocking echoed on the door. The knob turned tentatively and the door opened a few inches. He recognized the silhouette.
“Yeah, I don’t want to risk using that business anymore, Dauterive, shut it down and get rid of anything that leads back to us…Yes, as soon as possible…I’m going to have to let you go…mm-Hmm.” He hung up the ear piece and pushed the telephone away. Caroline still stood in the doorway.
“I didn’t want to disturb you, but I need my things,” she said. Frank waved her in and she closed the door behind her. She didn’t go to the chair where her wrap still sat, but stood sheepishly by the door.
“Are you feeling better? More sober?” Frank asked. He shuffled some papers on his desk.
“Yes,” Caroline took a step forward. “You were right, as usual.” Frank looked up at her.
“Huh, I don’t think I’ve heard you say that before,” he said.
“Oh, yes, I have,” her voice brightened. “It was years ago though.”
She came closer to the light spilled by the desk lamp.
“I’m sorry…about earlier. Perhaps it is guilt…since I was there when she…when she…” Caroline couldn’t bring herself to say it. She didn’t want to set off another spat between them. Her voice died away without concluding the thought.
“I know you’ve had some rough times yourself, but you need to get past that. Whichever way that helps you. When it comes to that particular subject…I can’t be your shoulder to cry on. I put all that grief away. It’s locked up and I’m never opening it again.” His voice was firm, but still gentle. Caroline nodded as she stared at the carpet.
“I understand. I don’t really have any other friends right now to talk to.”
Frank nodded and glanced down at the papers. They were notes he had taken from his telephone calls. They hadn’t lost as much inventory as he thought. Some of the warehouse had already been transported to the Night Owl. Hopefully Spiegel had never known about the destinations of outgoing liquor. Caroline came around the desk and leaned on the corner.
“How bad is it?” she asked as she glanced down at the various figures he had scribbled.
“It’s a hit, but we’re not crippled or anything. I sincerely hope Micky O. comes up with something soon,” Frank sighed. He straightened the papers into a stack and shoved them in a drawer.
“Have you heard anything from him?” Frank shook his head.
“No, I’ll call my contact out there tomorrow and see if he’s been in town. I don’t want to drive out there with this Spiegel breathing down my neck.” He saw the worried look on Caroline’s face and elaborated. “It’s not that bad, Caroline. He’s fresh on the job, has a lot of pep, he got a lucky break that’s all. We’re not in any danger.”
“Alright, if you say so,” Caroline reached over to lay a hand on his shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “Maybe he’ll lose interest.” Frank realized how close she was as his eyes settled on her hips that were only a foot or so away. He lost his train of thought.
“Who?” he asked as he tore his eyes away.
“Agent Spiegel, who else?” Caroline replied. She was thrown off by Frank’s sudden confusion.
“Oh yeah, him. He’ll be taken care of.” Frank’s eyes drifted back to her hips. “I suppose it’s pretty late…” He glanced over at the clock.
Caroline wasn’t ready yet, she needed more time.
“Almost closing time. How is the new manager working out? Do you still have to oversee the night’s take?” she asked. Frank shook his head and began fiddling with a fountain pen.
“Everything is running smoothly. Mort is meeting expectations. We don’t have to worry about a thing concerning the day to day.” He cleared his throat. “I have some things to look over. I know I said I’d give you a ride home, but I can check if Charlie is still over at Tino’s if you’d like.” He started reaching for the telephone, but Caroline grabbed his hand and pulled it towards her.
“I don’t want to go home, Frank…not alone,” she said in a shaky voice as she held his hand in her lap. Frank opened his mouth to reply once or twice in the following silence, but was at a loss for words. Her face was like a porcelain doll, neither happy nor sad, her eyes on the verge of glistening. She swallowed a lump in her throat before she stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I’ll leave.”
Frank’s hand fastened around hers and stopped her in her tracks. She refused to look at him.
“If you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then you better look me in the eye,” Frank said. Caroline sniffed, but didn’t make any other move. He stood up and put a hand around her waist. He put the other on her chin and swiveled her head around to face him. Caroline was trying to steel her expression, but her tears failed her. She kept her hard gaze on him as if daring him to point out her weakness. Frank knew it was a tenuous opportunity. It was not the lighthearted affair that he had hoped for. After their earlier conversation, Margot was not far from his mind and at that moment, he didn’t want to make a mistake.
“What do you want me to do, Caroline?” he asked.
“Kiss me, Frank,” she whispered. “Kiss me.” He followed orders, probably the only orders he ever had in his life. Caroline wrapped her arms around his neck and released her own enthusiasm. She pushed away and hopped up on the desk. Frank didn’t follow.
“No, Caroline,” he said. She froze with one hand on her garter and stared at him in disbelief. He went to the chair and picked up her wrap and pocketbook.
“I’m taking you home,” he said as he put the wrap around her shoulders, “With me.” The tension released from Caroline as she exhaled the breath she had been holding. Frank leaned close to her ear and whispered, “I intend to take my time with you.”
Caroline’s nerves were vibrating with an excitement she hadn’t felt in years. She went to the door as Frank retrieved his hat and turned off the desk lamp. They made a hasty exit through the lingering crowd of late night revelry.