Closing time at the Roadhouse, and Cooper waited in the doorway with Margaret while Harry brought the car around. A persistent buzz of neon from the revolver overhead, the kind of hot-wire sound the real thing ought to make, and a few feet away, Cooper could make out two spent beer bottles spread clock-handed in the mud. Read from this angle, they made it out to be one-thirty a.m., and it felt late enough to be true. He closed his eyes.
“You shouldn’t do that.”
He turned to Margaret, saw the neon caught at the rim of her glasses. Down in her arms, her log was shadowed over like it was still in the forest.
“You came here for the owls,” she said. “There’s still a light on up there, isn’t there?”
It was a clear night on the other side of the road, where the trees took over from the asphalt, and the moon beat down over the parking lot in dusty streaks of white. Like the light inside the Roadhouse, before the music came back into the air in tints of blue. “So you saw it too,” he said.
Margaret clenched throat around the truth the way some men held onto their chewing tobacco before expectoration. She took his hand by the knuckles and led it over sawn-down end of her log until he landed on a whorl where the wood drew in tight at the center.
“My log can’t close that,” she said. “That’s the only way you’ll ever see anything.”
The moon had a while to go before it reached the horizon, that distant place where the firs cut through the bleary scent of beer. Watching it left an afterburn behind his eyes; he took it as a kindness.
“Thank you, Margaret,” he said.
“Agent Cooper, there’s a message for you from Miss Horne,” said the girl at the concierge desk, the Great Northern closed around him like warmed-over honey. “Says she wants to see you tonight. She’s waiting at the bar.”
The lights were all out in the Timber Room, walls cooled down to a mezzotint. On the chair at the end of the bar, there was Audrey, pale in her sweater, her head crooked to one side so attentively it made him want to listen for music. He held his breath over the sound of his footsteps, the clean way the wood took his weight as he came to her.
“You’re back,” she said, spinning towards him so fast he heard the scuff of her shoes on the footrest. Seen after midnight, she was moonstruck all over and dark under the eyes, heartbreaking in every implication.
“Audrey,” he said, very softly. “You shouldn’t have waited up so long.”
“Maybe.” There was a wineglass on the counter in front of her, marked with a lipstick that wasn’t hers: that, more than anything, made him feel how long she’d been alone. “But I liked it better here than at home, and it’s not like I’m going to class in the morning, right?”
“You look a little dehydrated,” he said, stepping in closer, touching her cheek, slick where the light from the window hit it. A little under forty-eight hours, and he hadn’t stopped touching her like she was still drugged deep in satin. “Let me get you a water. As acting owner of the Great Northern,” and he smiled thinly, “do I have your permission to go behind the bar?”
“Sure.” She twisted on her seat as he opened out the counter, watched him with the heavy-lidded eyes that tears could sometimes leave behind. “You know, if you find any maraschinos back there," she said, as he unhooked a glass, "I could show you how this all started. Guess it’s too bad the girl with the pomegranates didn’t know any party tricks.”
“What we call the criminal underworld isn’t under us so much as all around us,” he said: that careful way he tried to acknowledge what was heinous in the world, like taking a long drive over black ice. “Makes it all too easy to get lost there. You did an extraordinary thing in coming back, Audrey, although I realize it may not feel that way to you right now.”
She was skimming two fingers over the rim of her wineglass when he looked back at her, a rotary dial to nowhere that made him stand for a moment with his hand over the tap before he could turn it and mean it.
“It got real hard for me to keep my eyes open towards the end,” she said, looking down at the counter. “But when I could — God, it was like I’d never seen so much red in all my life. Did you know I always wanted a ruby?”
Her ring flashed as he handed the water to her, a stray brilliant spark from the topaz. “I like what you’re wearing already,” he said. “Just look at that.”
She looked up at him instead. This close, the blue of her eyes hit him like mountain air.
“Look, Special Agent, there’s something I need you to know.”
“Audrey, you may be asked to make an official statement very soon, and you’ve been through so much already. You don’t need to tell me anything tonight.”
“No, it’s not like that,” she said. She slid down from the edge of her seat with that same muffled, mink-deadened gravity he’d seen from women the run, her body too slight to hold it. “I’ve just been thinking about all the things I saw when I was at Jack’s, and — she had other girls there. Blackie. Sometimes they’d come and talk to me, before things got too bad, and they were all so tired. Like they’d forgotten how to want anything except to go home. But when it was just me locked up in that room, I knew I wasn’t going to be like any of them, no matter how long they kept me. Can I tell you why?”
“Audrey,” he said, hoarser and closer.
“Just hear me out, okay? I knew I couldn’t ever be like them because every night — every night, I thought of you. I wanted you.”
She took half a step forward, and she was coming to him from out of the white light and out of her memory of red. On stage at the Roadhouse, truth came tall enough to scrape the ceiling. Now, in her father’s bar at the end of the night, Audrey went up on her toes to kiss him.
He tasted her lipstick first: the cosmetic trace of powdered silk between his lips like something that told you when you’d made it to the other side of an ending. Then she exhaled, gently, snuck her breath into his mouth, and there could never have been a girl like her for going on tiptoes, all her body held in balance by her shy determination. He took her face in his hands.
“Audrey,” he said again, and she sighed into his chest: his girl in the dark.
“I know,” she said. Her hips were pushed hard against the beam of the counter, as close as she could get. He wanted her in his arms. “I know why you can’t. I just wanted you to know why it was you I was waiting for, the whole time. I want it to be you who I’m waiting for.”
Under his thumb, the mole at the corner of her eye seemed to press up into him with its own urgency. There’s something I need you to know. He would like to have gathered her in and told her how it felt to drive across the border for her, the car frictionless between the trees, and how it felt to find her again. What he said was, “I’m right here, Audrey. I’m already here.”
Her eyes were very wide, shimmering in the light. “Then — can you get me out of here too?”
“Yes,” he said.
She laid down on the bed while he hung up his jacket: those hot blue eyes watching him from over the nightstand, the coverlet gently rucked under her skirt. One way or another, she was always waiting for him in beds her father had made, and he moved carefully through a room that, by design, still quavered with buckshot.
He approached her from the corner of the bed, three feet from the concentrated warmth of her. He'd hoped the distance would help him keep a clear head, but now he felt a kind of pink-edged vertigo, profoundly aware of how his body canopied hers when he stood over her like this. If he touched her, it would have the implication of awakening her.
She smiled up at him, tilting her cheek. Still those heavy eyelids, but such a difference to their weight.
“Is this okay?” she asked him. There was a breathy, bee-stung hitch to her voice that caught on every torn edge left in his chest.
“Better than okay,” he said. He sounded like he could crack in half, cedar on the fire: if he took a lateral view of their separation, three days was long enough to burn through the outside of anything, and longer than anything should burn. “Audrey, you are — this is — everything I could ever want to see.”
Her smile broke open a little more. “That’s funny, I could’ve shown you a lot more the last time I was here. Can, can I —”
“Easy,” he said, almost to the memory of her waiting in the dark. “Let me help you out this time.”
He took off her shoes for her, kissed her just by the side of her knee before he got her out of her nylons. They were damp from his mouth by the time he slid them down over her ankles.
“Special Agent?” he heard her call down from the headboard: the sound of her was soft, pillow talk that could melt into the cotton. “I think I’d like you to kiss me again.”
With his body braced over her, she kissed him like she knew how it should look from the outside better than anything else. She could hold herself like a movie star, her arms around his neck and her face turned up like it was her job to outburn the kliegs, but her mouth opened out in hot little gasps, sounds where she was stretched tight between desire and surprise.
“How long has it been since anybody kissed you, Audrey?”
“Since I got old enough for it to mean anything. I walked out at Sparkwood on the last boy who wanted to go someplace off the road with me. Guess it shows, huh?”
“Only because I’m used to seeing you act with such intent.” He kissed her again, this time with his mouth closed, nosing her cheek with some deliberation at the end. “It makes quite a contrast when your instincts take over.”
“Listen, I should tell you,” that sleepy voice coming faster, “when I said I was waiting for you, up at One-Eyed Jack’s — I meant a different kind of waiting too, you know?"
“I know,” he said. “I know, Audrey. Even before you were gone, I’d thought as much.”
“Oh — I really hoped you would.” They were almost cheek to cheek, and he tilted her into another kiss: her lips between his, one at a time and one at a time, until the pitch of her legs softened under him and she sighed. “You like making me wait for it, don’t you?”
“I used to set a stopwatch watching Cary Grant in junior high,” he told her, straight like timber-fall.
Her laugh tickled him halfway down his collar, still tickled when she kissed him, wide open and lovely. “God, I’m so glad you’re real. I can’t believe this is going to be real.”
“It’s going to be real.” There was a thrumming ache along his jaw from kissing her so openly, and he was ready to deepen it. He kissed her some more, the shimmer under her eyes and all the places she’d sprayed her perfume, her neck and behind her ears, places of gentle darkness. He dropped them out of time with her pulse, and that needed a precision of its own: like marking out the deep, unlikely woodwind swoons in a song and not the rhythm itself.
“Audrey,” he said, a little lower than he’d intended, “I’d like to keep on kissing you.”
Her blinks came heavy, and he held very still as he waited for her eyes to come into focus. “Here, and here, and here,” he said, with his hand on her side from her ribcage to her waist to her hips, pressing out a faint silhouette through her clothes. “May I?”
She moaned, restless across her hips. “God, I feel like you just did. Please, you’ve got to.”
Her sweater clouded up her hair when she pulled it over her head; he helped her with the skirt. There was crinkly satin underneath, a brassiere that crackled under his hand in a way that told him she wore it often, that he was being let in on some skin-close secret. All the way down to the hem of her panties, she was streaked up like the dawn, a blush she couldn’t lie still with.
He swallowed twice before he could say, “You do get flushed, don’t you? It beats watching the sun come up.”
“That’s not even all of it.” Her lashes fell again, sped up to a hot cat-flick when she looked down to his thumb at the seam of her brassiere, the small stitches over her nipple. “Will you look at me where you can really see it?”
“Yes,” he said, and the small of her back was already arched for him to slip his hand underneath her.
Her breasts tumbled into place with her as she laid back on the bed, settled into hungry angles. Soft skin and warm nipples, wide like she was made, in every way, for extremities of sensitivity. “Oh, Audrey,” he said, and there was a lump in his throat that bobbed under his tie as he bent down over her. He went in delicately, his hand on her shoulder, and he got down almost to the underside of each breast just sucking at the darkest points of them.
Audrey shivered and bucked, curled her hands in his shirt as he held her steady. “God, are you really going to —”
“For as long as you’ll let me.” His nose was slick between her breasts: he could almost hear her sweat changing his voice. “In my experience, the best way to learn anyone is through taste. I’d like to start there with you before we go any farther. May I ask if you’re familiar with the concept already?”
“Yeah,” she said, a long sound that was weighted like her moan. “I mean, I figured out you must be able to do that to girls too, even if no one ever talked about it. I kind of liked it that way, like I got to make it up in my head. And now —”
“And now,” he agreed, softly. She kicked hard to get her panties over the side of the bed when he eased them down, still had her legs spread when he saw her: thick dark hair all the way up to the catch of bone, and a hot glimmer of pink underneath. “Audrey,” he said, ragged, loosening his tie as he crouched down. “That’s it, let me get a good look at you. Oh, that’s beautiful, Audrey. Hold still, I’m just going to get you open.”
He kissed her where she was neat as a stocking seam, head turned sideways, parting her a little with his lips. It took three full licks before he got her spread out like he needed. He pulled back to nose at her between her hips, inhaling so deeply she must have heard it.
“Oh,” she said, high and shaky, her thighs tensing around his neck like she wanted to keep hold of him. “Oh — I didn’t know you were going to do that there.”
“It would be a shame if I didn’t,” he said. His own breath kept coming back up to him through the dark tangle of her hair, like being this close to her meant that he was cradled in what he could dimly recognize as the circular logic of the forest.
“You really think so?”
“It reminds me a little of what I can smell here.” He caught hold of her wrist, kissed her where her pulse made civet beat out in thuds under a thin spangle of aldehydes. “The taste is lighter, sharper.”
She cried out before he’d even licked back into her, wrist bent where he left it until he settled in up to his chin and her hands shuddered through his hair. Her hips pushed up into him, all the dimpled hunger that he’d seen roll and break under her skirts, and he sucked at her like he’d kissed her, one fold at a time, slow over her clitoris until her cries lengthened out and his eyes stung from his hair worked loose, sweat neat through brylcreem, slick on slick.
Her first climax hit him so wetly that he threw off his tie in case she felt any shame at seeing herself soaked that deep into the weave. He rolled up his sleeves before he slid a hand between her legs, and she came so quickly for two of his fingers that he kept them inside her, stretching and tender, right up until she said, “God, do you ever take your suit off?”
He stripped down to his bandage. That was the first thing she touched, her hand over him in a hot blur: from the nape of his neck straight to his cock, wholly unprecedented patterns of contact. “You should tell me how you want it,” she said. “That’s what you were doing, the first time I saw you. It kind of drives me crazy, knowing exactly what you like.”
“Right now, Audrey, I can’t think of anything I’d like better than to find out exactly how you want to touch me.” He’d seen how beautifully she touched things.
She had a way of stroking him with the curl of her fingers, not the tips or her palm: the crooked place she made between her knuckles with her fingers bent, a gauge on her curiosity. “You look like I’ve hurt you,” she breathed, hand tucked under the curve of him. He was sure she was waiting to catch his pulse there, and he’d never been more relieved to have a soaring heartrate.
“You haven’t,” he said. His voice was husked down to a sound that matched the rush of blood in his ears. He closed his hand over hers as if that would help him believe it any better, those skimming touches that curved up at the end. He was braced over her, one hand flat on the pillow. When he opened his eyes, he realized how far his head had fallen forwards, almost to her breast. “That’s it. That’s good. You’re very gentle with your hands — I like that very much. There you go, that’s enough.”
Her eyes went wide for the condom in the nightstand, how cleanly it went down over him: those eyes like a hunger moon. He laid down over her, stroked her hair back from her eyes, and she wailed up in a hot curvet as he thrust into her.
“I knew,” she was whispering, again and again, clear and warm all the way down like the teardrop at the corner of her eye. “I knew it had to be you right when I saw you, can you feel what I mean?”
She was clenching down over him like she meant it with her whole body, even now, when she was so tight she couldn’t help but hold him close. “I can feel it,” he said, and kissed her with all his breath.
They’d made it down to the sheets together when Audrey said, “Do you ever smoke?”
“Only undercover.” He’d opened the curtains after he turned out the lights. Next to the low window, their bodies lay almost on the same axis as the setting moon.
“And never in bed?”
“Never in bed,” he said, smiling a little: he had to wonder, distantly, about the protective messages of torch songs. Perhaps he and Audrey could shore up a discography together before he mentioned it to Diane.
“Kind of makes you wonder why now’s the time you’re meant to have a cigarette.”
His smile pulled at him a little wider, out towards the corner of his jaw. “If you’d like to mark the occasion, I could call down to reception and ask if anyone could bring some matches.”
“That’s okay,” she said, long and drowsy, letting her head rest against his. “I like the light we’ve got now.”