Note: Some 19th century opinions on race relations are integral to this chapter. These reflect the views of the character, not the author. What may seem like typos in Maarit's syntax instead reflect how the Finns of the author's acquaintance speak English.
"Are you planning to stand there and stare at me all night, Mike?"
Mike Ahern pushed off from the wall, where he'd been leaning while supervising the new employee working at the front desk.
"No, sweetheart, sorry. Just got a lot on my mind. Don't mean to make you nervous or nothing."
"I'm not nervous, Mike, but I am excited. I want to learn everything about the hotel business, since we're going to run this place together when we're married. So, no, I don't mind if you watch me. In fact," Maarit said, turning to smile at him, "I like it when you look at me."
"I do like looking at you, sweetheart, very much. Maybe too much. Makes it hard for me to concentrate. Maybe I should get someone else to train you."
"Oh no you don't!" she said. "You promised you would teach me, mister, and I expect you to keep your promises."
"I did say I'd do that, didn't I?" He looked at the stack of papers organized neatly next to the hotel register. The thought of going through all that, even with a beautiful woman, didn't fill him with joy. "But if you're tired, sweetheart, we can do this another time."
She leaned against the registration desk and looked up at her fiancee. "If I'm tired?"
He smiled ruefully at her. "You got me. Sleep sounds mighty fine right now. But I want to be here when those people from the Dalles come in. It could be a rough crowd. I don't want you to have to handle them alone."
She nodded thoughtfully. "I appreciate you want to keep me safe, Mike, but if I'm going to work here, I have to work with anyone who comes in."
"And you will. But while you learn to do that, I'll back you up."
"Oh." He could see she was considering that. Even when she made a funny face, she looked cute to him.
"Since you put it that way, I guess that makes sense. Okay, you can be boss at the hotel. But wife is boss at home, so I will be boss there."
"Sounds like a fair deal." He bent down to kiss her lightly on the forehead. "Just don't push me around too hard. I bruise easy."
"Mike," she asked, "Are you really worried about rough crowd?"
He wasn't sure what to say without worrying her too much. "No, not much. Not too much. No, not at all." He sounded unsure even to himself.
"That doesn't happen much in daytime, does it?"
"Not as much then, no. It happens more in the late evenings and overnights. During the daytime, it's quieter."
"Goes without saying."
"You know, Mike, I am a grown woman," Maarit began.
He grinned wolfishly at her. "I wouldn't be marrying you if you weren't."
"And," she continued, ignoring his remark, "I can take care of myself very well. I don't need a bodyguard."
He sobered instantly. "I know you're capable with most people, Maarit, but there are some mean men out there. They see a pretty woman like you standing here, all by your lonesome, and they'll take advantage because you're no threat to them. That's why I need to be here tonight."
"So . . . does that mean that you are a threat to them?"
"If need be." He saw her face change as she thought about threats and moved quickly to reassure her.
"Now don't get upset, sweetheart. You know how I am. Jake always says my number one job is worrying, and he's probably right."
"Oh. Jake says that, does he?" Something in her tone of voice sounded strange to him.
"Yeah, he does." Her mouth twisted in an odd way. He wasn't sure, but he thought she might be upset about something.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
She looked away and idly started to turn the pages of the registration book. "Nothing."
He put both hands on her shoulders and gently turned her to face him.
"One thing I've learned about women over the years; when they say 'nothing', it's something."
Maarit stared down, as if she found the floor fascinating. "No, it's really nothing."
He put a finger under her chin, and she allowed him to tilt her head up. "Come on, honey, you can tell me."
"You might get mad if I do."
He blinked, surprised. "Is it that bad?" She didn't answer. "I guess you better tell me, honey. I promise I won't get mad."
"Alright," she said, "but only because you promise not to get mad at me." She took a deep breath before continuing. "I think you spend too much time with Jake. I don't like him. I don't think he's a good man."
Mike stepped back in shock. Whatever he'd been expecting her to say, that wasn't it.
"Whoa! Where did that come from?"
"I'm sorry, Mike, I know you like him, but you are right that I should tell you what I am thinking. There shouldn't be any secrets between husband and wife. I think Jake is a bad man, and he is a bad influence on you."
He shook his head slowly, stunned. "I can't believe I'm hearing this. You never said nothing against him before."
"I know," she said, almost sadly. "That was my mistake. I know you like him, and I didn't want to make a fight between us. But we need to know everything about each other before we marry. If we keep secrets from each other, we won't have a happy life."
He took a quick look around the lobby. This late in the evening, they were alone. The guests had settled down for the night, and most of the staff had gone home. Still. He looked at her determined expression and almost sighed out loud. He'd always tried to walk away from trouble if he could, but he couldn't walk away from his future wife.
"I ain't sure this is the time or place to talk about this, Maarit, but if you got something to say, you better say it." Even if I don't like it, he thought, and he was pretty sure he wouldn't. "Why don't you like Jake?"
"A couple things. He talks a lot." She bit her lip, hesitating.
"He's a talker for sure, but what's so wrong about that?"
"He talks and talks and talks, but he never says anything about his past. Never. If you ask him any questions, he always turns things around, and he never answers. Nobody does that unless when they are trying to hide something. I think he did something bad, and he is afraid he will get caught."
"Or maybe something bad happened to him, and he don't want to talk about it."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I don't think so. Bad things happen to everybody, but all these years he is in Astoria, does anyone know who his parents were? Where he came from? What he was doing before he came here? It's all secret. He is hiding something bad; I'm sure of it."
"Alright," Mike said. "Is that all?"
"No. You can tell a lot about someone by his friends, and all around him are bad people. Oh not you, Mike," she added quickly. "I know you are a good person, and you don't have anything to hide like he does. But look at his other friends. Except for you and the sheriff, everyone around him is bad. He could do lawyer work with decent people, but he chooses to work with criminals. And when he is not with criminals, he is with Chinese and Negroes. Even Jews. He hired that Chinese woman, and she is around him all the time. There is only one reason why he keeps her. It is sin and he knows race mixing is illegal. But maybe he does it because it is not mixing after all. You know," she went on, ignoring his expression, "people say he doesn't talk about his past because maybe he is not white. People say he is mulatto or quadroon and just passing for white."
Mike was speechless. This was all so far beyond anything he'd imagined, so shocking, he literally couldn't speak. He just looked at his fiancee, the woman he loved, and he thought, I don't know this woman at all. I've never known her. And worse, she doesn't know me. He still kept the biggest secret of all from her, the secret of his real name and his criminal history. He felt sick.
"But the worst, Mike," Maarit went on, "is I think you let him influence you in bad ways."
He became aware she was waiting for a response from him. He had to clear his throat a couple times before words came out.
"What kind of ways?"
"Mike. . . " she began slowly, "Are you carrying a gun?"
It wasn't his way to deny or prevaricate, even when he knew the truthful answer could only lead to an argument. He looked at her straight on, not in defiance, but in simple statement of fact. "Yes."
"I heard what happened outside the jail. Oh, I know the newspaper got it wrong. I heard. You had a gun, and you were shooting at people."
"In self-defense. And in defense of the law."
"It was Jake's idea that you wore a gun. Wasn't it?"
"Maybe," he acknowledged. "But it ain't like he tells me what to do, Maarit, anymore than you do. I did what I thought was right. If I hadn't done, the gang would've broke into that jail and lynched the prisoner."
"Well," she sniffed, "No big loss there."
Hot anger washed through him. "Me and Jake, we upheld the law. I thought you'd be proud of me for doing that."
"That's not your job, Mike. Your job is here. One of the things I love about you is that you don't carry a gun, that you aren't one of these silly men who think everything is solved by shooting. I hate guns."
"I know you do."
"You're wearing a hidden gun right now because Jake talked you into it. You wouldn't be wearing a gun at all, if it weren't for him."
He felt the old stubbornness rising up, that part of him that had been simple willfulness as a child. As an adult, he simply could not be moved when he believed he was in the right. He took a long breath and reminded himself he wasn't facing some hotheaded gunslinger in the street. This was the woman he loved, the woman he planned to marry.
"I'm wearing a gun because I think it's necessary."
Maarit shook her head. She could be stubborn, too.
"I don't want you to wear a hidden gun, Mike. Please put it away."
Mike's back stiffened. His anger, so hot a minute ago, turned cold.
"You know what? You're right. I'm going to take care of that right now." He ignored her triumphant smile as he walked into his office, taking care not to slam the door behind him. He stood for a moment with his eyes closed, trying to breathe and calm down. A teacher at the orphanage had told him, count to ten before you do anything out of anger. The teacher's face and pleading voice flashed into his memory. That ten-count calmed his breathing and heart rate, but also gave him time to figure out a plan. He hadn't changed much since he was a boy. Maybe he'd been foolish to try.
Calmer, he walked over to his desk and unlocked the bottom drawer. He took out his old gunbelt with the Colt still in it. He spun the Colt's chambers. Even though he didn't wear it regularly, he kept his gun as clean as he had when he was a young man and an outlaw. The box of bullets was still in the drawer, too. He carefully loaded the pistol. His gunbelt still fit. He tied the holster snug around his thigh as smoothly and easily as he had when he wore his specialized Colt every day. Rising, he caught his reflection in the window. He saw his old self starting back at him. Who'd he been kidding? He hadn't really changed. This felt right and natural. This was who he was.
When he stepped back into the lobby, he saw Maarit's expression change swiftly from anticipation to disappointment to anger to something unrecognizable. No surprise there, he figured. She'd never seen him the way he was born to be. He felt a brief twinge of regret for lying to her for so long.
"Oh Mike! How could you!"
"How could I what? Take your advice? I decided you were right. Hiding a gun is wrong."
"Put that away now. Please."
"No, Maarit. The gun stays."
"Mike, please. No, please hear me out. Please?" How could he say no to that, much as he wanted to? Reluctantly, he nodded.
"It's not just that I don't like guns. It's that I care about you. You never carry a gun. You don't have guns. You don't know how to handle them, and I think you could get hurt." Shock and hurt made him pause. She really knew nothing about him. It was his fault for lying about who he was. That was one secret he wasn't going to keep anymore.
"Lady, just who do you think you are? My mother? You got no right to talk to me like that, especially about something you know nothing about." When he was really angry, his voice got lower and quieter. His typical mild expression turned to stone. When Jake saw that happen, he knew better than to push any farther. But Maarit didn't know him as well as Jake did.
"I'm your future wife, that's who I am. That gives me every right to say that."
He stepped closer to her. She backed away from him without thinking, until her body came up against the hard edge of the reception desk. He seemed to tower over her. For the first time since she'd known him, she was afraid of him.
"Let's get something straight right now. I own this hotel. I run this hotel. I decide what to do, and when to do it. It is none of your business if I wear a gun or not. You, just like everyone who works here, does what I say. Do you understand?"
She didn't reply; she only looked up at him. He seemed like a stranger. The warm blue eyes were hard.
"Mike, I've never seen you like this."
"Now you have. You didn't answer my question. Do you understand that I am in charge here?"
She only stared at him.
"I'm waiting for an answer. Do you understand?"
She had to swallow hard before she could speak. "Yes, I understand."
"Good. If I wear a gun, it's because I think it's necessary, not because Jake told me to. Nobody tells me what to do. Not Jake, and not you. Tonight, I'm going to protect you and this business the best way I know how. If you don't like it, I'll get Eddie out of the kitchen to take you home now, and you can forget about working here. Either way, I'll be keeping the gun. Clear?" She nodded. "Are you going or are you staying?"
"And one more thing to be clear on. Jake is my friend. I like him. I trust him. He's a good man. Fact is, he's the finest man I know. What you just said . . . " he paused to gather his thoughts.
"What you just said about him, and about Miss Tan . . . that was awful. Just awful. I never knew you had that kind of ugliness in you." He wasn't angry anymore. He wasn't sure what he was feeling. Sadness? Bitterness? Resignation? Maybe none of that. He just felt kind of empty.
Maarit's eyes were full of tears. It was pretty clear what she was feeling. He wished he could cry, too, but he couldn't. He'd cried hard for the death of his entire family, for being a lonely child left alone in a harsh world he no longer understood, but that was the last time. The unhappy years that followed in the orphanage had burned the tears out of him forever.
"You promised me you wouldn't get angry. You wanted the truth. No secrets."
"Yeah," he agreed. "I wanted the truth. I got it and I wish to God I didn't. Now I got to decide what to do about it."
She wiped her wet face on her sleeve, as a child would do.
"What do you mean? What are you going to do?"
"Right now, I'm going to give you my handkerchief so you can dry your face. Then I'm going to send you into the kitchen. Tell Eddie to get us a couple glasses of that brandy he hides behind the sink. You and me still got a job to do tonight. We got to be professional and put this all behind us for now."
"I don't drink."
"You'll drink this."
"Yes, Mike." She took his handkerchief and blew her nose into it, loudly.
"Now go get that brandy." His voice was flat and neutral. She'd expected some word or gesture of affection, but there was none. As she walked into the dining room, he could hear her soft sobs.