An opening at a Michigan Avenue art gallery wasn’t the sort of event that McKinney was used to frequenting, and he was impressed that one of Carla’s sculptures was being exhibited at a snooty place like the Halston. He was happy to be on his second date with her in less than a week. On their first date her charm had won over the regulars at the Cermak Lounge. All the old bluesmen had flocked around her. Reverend Emmett pulled up a bar stool and sat with them the entire evening and a guitar player called Mumbles had talked to her for twenty minutes straight. McKinney couldn’t understand a word the man said but Carla claimed they had a “lovely conversation.” Even the club’s owner, a crusty, old hippie-type named Kenny, took a shine to her. “You oughta hang on to this one, McKinney,” he’d growled. “It’s the first time in months I’ve seen you smile.”
Tonight they were hobnobbing at the other end of the social scale, not that McKinney minded. He liked Carla and was pleased to be invited. Besides, it was a good way to get his mind off work. He had moved on from the Drenon and Burdett cases, but he was still convinced that the two were related; the shoeprints indicated that. What did those two people have in common? And the big question: why were they tortured and killed? He hadn’t heard any more from Detective Boadu, and he was relieved. He was glad to be out of it.
The gallery space was a large fourth-floor room with framed art hung on a couple of freestanding walls and sculptures displayed on blocky white pedestals. The wall closest to Michigan Avenue was solid glass, an enormous window that offered an unrestricted view of the Magnificent Mile from the Old Water Tower almost to the river. McKinney looked out on the last of the shoppers heading home with their bags from Tiffany and Nieman Marcus. Carla was across the room, standing in front of a big, lime green painting, drinking red wine and talking with some of the other artists represented in the show. McKinney decided to wander, going from piece to piece, taking them in—miniature oil paintings, life-size nudes, an installation made of one thousand jelly jars. He stopped to study Carla’s sculpture. She primarily worked with metal and had jewelry for sale at several boutiques around the city, but this piece was something special, a foot-tall statue of a little girl playing in the rain. It had been cast in bronze from her original clay sculpture, and both the mold and the original had broken during production. It was the only one that would ever be made and it was priced at eight thousand dollars. As he studied the piece McKinney called on his ability to be an objective observer; he didn’t want whatever feelings he had for Carla to prejudice his opinion of her work. He moved back, then came in close. He ran his fingertips across the cool, smooth metal.
The girl was about five or six years old and she was splashing through a puddle. Her wet face was turned up to the sky, eyes closed, grateful smile. The folds of her dress accentuated the motion of her kicking leg. Detail had been sacrificed for mood. It was an Impressionist statue. McKinney decided that he liked it, but he still couldn’t be sure how much he was influenced by knowing the artist, or by having a daughter whom he’d seen playing in the rain. One thing was certain—the statue evoked feelings in him that shattered his efforts to remain objective. Any woman who had the ability to capture a child’s exuberance in a lump of metal was worth getting to know better.
He continued his trek around the room, examining one piece after another, finally stopping in front of a painting of a black cat. The cat was curled in a ball, sleeping on a wooden floor next to a rocking chair. A heavyset man wearing a dark blue Armani suit with an orange and green striped tie walked up next to him and gestured toward the painting. A few drops of martini sloshed out of the glass in his hand, narrowly missing the canvas.
“Whadaya think?” he asked.
“I like this one,” McKinney said. “It’s deceptive. At first glance it just looks like a painting of a cat, but look…” he said, pointing, “the cat’s tail is under one of the rockers. You can’t see whether or not anyone is sitting in the chair but, if someone is and they lean back, the rocker will catch the cat’s tail. There’s some implied tension there.”
The white-haired man snorted. “Hell,” he said. “It’s a paintin’ of a freakin’ cat.” He drained his glass, turned and lurched off toward the bar. McKinney moved on to a six-foot square canvas of solid blue with a small, red dot in the lower, right-hand corner. He squinted to read the title, “Blue #2.” He didn’t think much of it and was about to walk away when Carla walked up behind him and linked her arm through his.
“Do you know who that was you were talking to?” she asked.
“Yeah, some guy whose necktie would make a moth vomit.”
“That’s Bryan O’Boyle. He’s a big shot in Chicago politics. The word on the street is that he could be the next mayor.”
“You mean ‘da’ next mayor.”
Carla gestured toward the large, blue painting. “Do you like it?”
“It’s okay in this space,” he said. “But I wouldn’t want it hanging in my living room.”
“Do you get what the artist is saying?”
“I don’t know…he likes blue?”
She snickered. “Okay, but he’s also pointing out how even a little bit of one color changes the way we perceive another color. It’s more effective if you consider all three of his ‘Blue’ paintings together. One has a spot of white, which really makes the blue appear lighter. The other has a spot of yellow, which gives the painting a greenish quality.”
“That is kind of interesting,” he agreed. “But it’s not thirteen thousand dollars’ worth of interesting. Some of these paintings just seem like artists’ conceits.”
He pointed to a large canvas covered with colorful, squiggly lines and blobs. “Well, I don’t want to sound like one of those jerks who looks at an abstract expressionist painting and says ‘my kid can paint better than that’ but it seems like that was probably more fun for the artist to paint than for us to look at.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s like someone playing ‘Purple Haze’ on the Sousaphone. They’re probably having a fine time doing it, but I’d rather not have to listen. Do you want to know what I think of your sculpture?”
“Jeez, I don’t know, Sean. Think I can take it?”
He grinned at her. “I think you’ve managed to express joy and innocence in a way that people can understand. You’ve made art that touches people. I agree that there’s room for art that makes people think, but making them feel? That’s quite an accomplishment.”
After the opening, they walked a few streets west to a Mexican restaurant on Clark Street to celebrate. The River North area was between crowds. The shoppers and tourists had gone home and it was still too early for the nightclub goers. As they walked they could hear the tap-tap of their shoes on the pavement, echoing off the buildings. Streetlights cast long shadows and drained everything else of color. McKinney was reminded of how magical the city could look at night. He stopped and pulled Carla into an empty doorway, put his back against the cool brick wall and leaned to kiss her. She pulled him into a kiss that tasted like wine. He heard other pedestrians giggle as they passed the doorway, but he kept kissing her, and he was pleased that she was undeterred as well. After several minutes they stopped to breathe. “If I had eight thousand dollars I’d buy your statue,” he said.
Carla smiled. “You’re just saying that because you’re horny.”
“Horny or not, it’s nice.”
“I’m not sure I’d let you buy one of my pieces. I think I’d feel funny about it. You know. Maybe some day I’ll give you a sculpture, as a gift.”
He kissed her again. “I’ll look forward to it.”
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