Saturday, June 04, 2005

Chapter Four (Complete)

It was only nine-thirty, and Detective David Varajian was already having one of the worst days of his life.

Starting the Friday off with a bang, he'd been rudely awakened an hour early by a city crew using a pneumatic drill right outside his bedroom window, tearing up a portion of street that had just been laid a few months ago; some days, the excellent people-watching that led him to choose this second-floor-front apartment on a fairly busy side-street in the Castro just wasn't worth the noise.

Also right outside his bedroom, the acacia tree had started blooming unexpectedly, spewing pollen through the screen of his slightly-opened window and activating his sinusitis with a vengeance; he ordinarily scanned the newspapers for the pollen-count and closed his windows when the acacias were expected to erupt, but he'd been lulled into a false sense of security by a late blooming season after a dry winter and a cold spring. He paid for this carelessness with a sinus headache that made him fear that his skull might actually crack open from the pressure.

Dragging himself painfully into the bathroom for antihistamines and a shower, David sadly discovered several more grey hairs on his chest and a new bit of sag on his waist; he'd turned fifty the month before, and his tall, solid, athletic body seemed to have taken that milestone as an excuse to start unravelling at hyperspeed, as if his skin had been just been waiting , carefully plotting all through his thirties and forties to let go and drape itself around his muscles and bones like a swagged Victorian valance. He'd seen the same thing happen to his father and older brothers, a family of great big Bulgarian bakers, but David had always thought it was the bread and cake and complete lack of personal vanity that turned the straight men in his family from warrior-heroes to Michelin Men one after another, not the curse of the Bulgar's blood he shared with them. His dieting, exercising, and vanity had kept the curse at bay for an extra decade, but it wouldn't be outrun.

His face was starting to go, too: the pouches around his gentle, questioning brown eyes were multiplying like rabbits, and his nose seemed to be getting bigger, morphing from an impressive Roman aquiline to a sinister Semitic hook; what was once a handsome and formidable Turko-Slavic visage, frequently compared to that of a sad-eyed eagle, was quickly turning into a middle-aged mess of a face, with an uncanny resemblance to a very tired basset-hound. David slathered a supposedly-age-defying moisturizer over his skin after he finished shaving, and then a generous dab of tightening cream around his eyes, but it looked like a losing battle.

Once he'd pulled himself together sufficiently to leave for work, properly groomed and insufficiently medicated, dressed rather nattily in well-orchestrated pale earthtones, he was dismayed to discover a gargantuan SUV blocking his driveway; it took an ear-harrowing fifteen minutes to find the owner by repeatedly bouncing on the behemoth's rear bumper to activate the alarm. Once the owner appeared, an enraged out-of-towner pulled from a trick's warm bed, David lost another ten minutes being berated on the sidewalk by a suburban SUV-driver unable and unwilling to see anything wrong with blocking half of a person's driveway ("You've got plenty of room," he protested, apparently believing with all his heart that a Ford Taurus sedan is only three feet wide).

The SUV's owner, a fleshy man with a slick haircut, a Minnesota accent, and a too-smooth face screwed up in a belligerent scowl was not mollified by the explanation that David could just as easily have had the SUV towed away, and was only trying to save the guy some time and money by asking him to move his vehicle; the guy was also entirely unimpressed with David's police badge, and even took down the badge number with a veiled threat to sue the city for harrassment if he did get towed or ticketed at any time in the future. David was mightily tempted to draw his weapon and shoot the SUV-driver right in his smug stupid face; resisting that temptation just made his headache worse.

Then there had of course been one traffic snarl after another all the way downtown, and David asked himself again why he bothered to own a car in this driver's nightmare of a city... but then had to answer himself: at considerable personal expense he'd had a police radio and other law-enforcement accessories installed in his own car so that he didn't have to use a cumbersome smelly Division car drawn at random from the pool, nor ever let his partner drive, two scenarios that were rather more unacceptable to the control-queen in him than the frustrations of morning traffic.

Standing in line at the coffee bar had been another exercise in frustration, a full seven minutes wasted behind a short and protuberant dispatcher with a severe case of indecision and an attitude of being owed something by the entire universe. The temptation to shoot her was even worse than the SUV-driver, because aside from the time she was taking to decide between one hideously sweet coffee-and-ice confection or another, and then micromanaging the barely-trained new employee behind the coffee bar as he assembled it, the woman's overprocessed hair was corn-rowed in a spiral pattern that posed a perfect bull's-eye right under Detective Varajian's nose. When the dispatcher finally waddled away with her caramel-vanilla mocha frappe, David spent another few minutes grinding his teeth at the apparently stoned boy behind the bar, who moved so slowly that he appeared to be practicing Tai-Chi under water.

In the elevator, he dripped a blob of jelly from his filled croissant onto his favorite tie, discovering to his further ire that the filling was cherry preserve, which he hated, instead of raspberry jam as the stoned coffee-boy had promised. Then he spilled some coffee on the same spot of his tie, and burned his hand in the process, because the boy had placed the lid so that the sip-hole was on top of the seam of the paper cup, creating an unexpected dribble-glass effect.

Six different people greeted him with the cheerfully snide compliment of "Nice tie" as he made his way to his desk, ineffectually dabbing at the scarlet-and-brown stain that marred the sage-and-oatmeal diamonds patterning the expensive designer silk. And just when he'd settled in comfortably at his desk and started on the pile of paperwork from his recently-closed cases, which he'd been looking forward to all morning (he should have known it was going to be a bad day if he was actually looking forward to paperwork), he was suddenly assigned to a brand-new case and had to leave again.

David's new partner, Detective Scott Spevik, was in a foul mood, too... and was more than happy to vent his angers and frustrations all the way to the scene. Detective Spevik (an earnest dark-haired young man obsessed with body-building and addicted to FBI-type suits and sunglasses, he might have been attractive if his eyes weren't so small, his features so sharp, or his stingy little mouth so inclined to sneer) was involved in a protracted on-again-off-again breakup with his girlfriend, and he spent the entire drive reliving their latest fight; his nasal voice and illogical arguments, exacerbated by his high-pitched imitations of his girlfriend's nasal voice and illogical arguments, cut through David's cracking skull like a buzz-saw ripping through corrugated steel.

Between the clogged morning traffic, the irritating noises of his partner and his police radio, and his screaming sinuses, his head felt like it was about to explode when they pulled up at the address of the crime-scene; and as David looked up at the acres of pink stucco that coated one of the most expensive apartment-buildings in the City, he realized that this case was going to be its own terrible headache... the press was going to be all over this building in a matter of minutes, just as soon as some news agency picked up the famous address on the police scanners.

The criminal justice system does not tacitly favor the rich over the poor, nor the famous over the obscure, the beautiful over the plain; however, the press has no such compunction, knowing full well that a murdered millionaire sells papers and a murdered pauper was just another boring statistic, that an attractive young suspect is more entertaining than an anonymous criminal. And if the press was interested in a case, the criminal justice system had to work harder, had to make a better show of what it was doing, simply because the press shone the light of public scrutiny on it.

Furthermore, Detective Varajian knew from experience that if the SFPD's handling of the case was under public scrutiny, the investigating officers were put under the full pressure of that scrutiny, not to mention huge amounts of pressure from City Hall and every elected official in the county to solve it quickly and efficiently. If there was a well-known rich person murdered or suspected of murder in this exclusive landmark building, Varajian's life was going to be a living hell for the forseeable future.

Arriving at the eighth floor, he found that the crime-scene itself was a chaotic mess, with far too many people milling around and talking at once. There were the two uniformed officers who had arrived first on the scene, no longer needed but apparently unwilling to cede their importance in the case by leaving, chatting idly and poking around in the large and elegantly-decorated apartment; then there were the two additional uniforms who had been called in to translate for the two witnesses, a Vietnamese doorman and a Bolivian cleaning-lady who were each clamoring hysterically in their diverse languages while the bilingual officers tried valiantly to calm them down and take notes of what they said.

On top of all this, there was a whole circus of forensics clowns crawling around and calling out to each-other in their incomprehensible jargon, made up of two evidence technicians in their distinctive dark coveralls, the medical examiner dressed inappropriately in a stained lab-coat over a frowsty track-suit, and the ME's young trainee dressed even more inappropriately in sleek black Prada; and to make it all completely unbearable, the ME was Dr. Marriott Griggs, an irritatingly fey and gleefully pedantic old fart who'd seen far too many television crime-dramas and read far too many overwritten detective novels, and as a result felt it necessary to narrate his own sparklingly brilliant deductions to whomever was unfortunate enough to come within earshot.

"It's only nine-thirty, and I'm already having one of the worst days of my life," Detective Varajian moaned to nobody in particular while massaging his face in an attempt to soothe his sinuses, "I wish I'd died in my sleep."

"So, what's the story?" Detective Spevik addressed himself to the translating officers, most likely because they were nearest the door, adopting the infuriating thanks-for-your-help-but-I'm-in-charge-now stance that always made Detective Varajian want to slap him.

"Mrs. Esposito arrived at eight-thirty to clean as usual," Marcia Ramirez the Spanish-speaking officer replied, adopting her own slap-worthy pseudoauthoritative posture and indicating a small, thin, dark, very nervous-looking middle-aged Hispanic woman dressed in a grey maid's uniform who had obviously been crying, "She found the apartment ransacked; she called out to Mr. Marshall, her employer, but there was no answer. She searched the apartment and discovered a door at the end of the hall that had always been locked before. Mr. Marshall was in the back room, dead. Mrs. Esposito did not touch anything except the front doorknob when she came in and the telephone when she called the doorman, Mr. Nguyen, who called 911."

The moon-faced Vietnamese man in the faintly ridiculous gold-braided green uniform rattled off an indignant litany that seemed to be equally blended of Vietnamese and French with a few stilted English phrases thrown in for good measure, in which the recognizable words "concierge" and "doorman" surfaced several times.

"Mr. Nguyen says he's the concierge, not the doorman," Tommy Tran the Vietnamese-speaking officer, who looked too girlishly pretty to be a cop, explained after Mr. Nguyen finally wound down, "He and Mrs. Esposito both identified the body as a Mr. Drayton Holyfield Marshall III, the owner and resident of this apartment. Mr. Nguyen keeps mentioning Marshall's 'boys,' and how he 'knew it would end in trouble.' It seems Mr. Marshall frequently brought strange young men home with him."

"Oh, great, another hustler-kills-fag case," Spevik groaned.

"The papers are going to eat this up," Varajian agreed, remembering just such a case from a couple of years back, where the Division had suffered the furore of gay citizen groups screaming about gay-bashing on one side, the morality brigades screaming about street-hustlers on the other side, and the newspapers reporting every jot and tittle from both sides while hounding the investigators in the middle... still, he wished Spevik wouldn't say the word fag in that offensively offhand tone, "Can Mr. Nguyen identify last night's young man?"

"He thinks so," Officer Tran responded, "He's given me a fairly detailed description of a caucasian male, about twenty years old, six feet or so, curly dark hair, dressed in black with a leather jacket and jeans with a letter 'D' studded on one leg. He also says there is a surveillance camera in the lobby and the elevators that would have recorded anybody who came in with Mr. Marshall."

"That's wonderful," Varajian allowed a glimmer of hope to enter his heart... if they had clear video of the hustler, and he was a repeat offender whose identity would be in the system, this case could concievably be wrapped up before the six-o'clock news.

"It gets better!" Marriott Griggs popped out of the bedroom hallway, a big dopey grin on his shiny frog-like face, "Let me walk you through our discoveries!"

Varajian moaned again while pinching the bridge of his nose. He wished he could simply break into tears, just weep and howl the pain and frustration out of his head.

"What have you found?" Spevik turned his attention to the roly-poly ME, again trying on his take-charge contrapposto, one hand resting on the butt of his gun and his head tilted in challenging enquiry, like John Wayne about to put it across a jumpy bandito.

"An embarrassment of riches!" the little ME exclaimed, clapping his hands as if he'd just received a wonderful present, "Mind the cocaine on the floor, we're trying to separate it from the footprints. But that's for Vice and the DEA... we have better fish to fry. The fingerprints alone are a forensic wet dream: this is the most thoroughly-cleaned residence I've ever seen; aside from the maid's prints on the doorknob and the telephone, there are only two sets of prints anywhere in the apartment, belonging to the victim and one unknown person. The Unknown touched almost every object in this apartment, and left at least forty perfectly clear prints! Even some full sets-of-ten on glass and metal surfaces! Even better, the Unknown was apparently covered in vegetable oil, and left the most amazing footprints all over the place, so clearly imprinted that I'll be able to retrace his steps completely once we finish photographing them... and then there is DNA all over the place! Semen and hair and..."

"Wait... vegetable oil?" Varajian cut in.

"Follow me, you're gonna love this!" Griggs exulted, beckoning the detectives down the hallway.

Varajian did not, however, love the sight that met his eyes in the dark back bedroom of the apartment, he in fact found it distinctly unsettling: a man his own age, well-built and almost handsome, whom he vaguely recognized from the bar circuit... naked in a big black-rubber box full of vegetable-oil and blood, spread-eagled with a look of shocked horror on his bloody face, a splash of semen on his bloody stomach, and an obscenely large kitchen knife protruding from his bloody chest.

"This is sick," Spevik gushed like a frat-boy watching bootleg porn with his buddies, smiling an amused and astonished little smile as his eyes travelled from the sprawled victim to the walls covered in sex-toys, "totally sick!"

"The physical evidence in this room alone is enough to identify your perpetrator," Griggs settled in to lecture the detectives on his own deductive cleverness, shuffling through a collection of bags and envelopes from his evidence kit as if they were props in a magic trick, "Two easily identified pieces of clothing that are exceedingly unlikely to belong to the victim, a torn black silk shirt and matching boxer-briefs, distinctive and handmade with the labels proclaiming them as the work of Benjamin Phoenix, a local designer so exclusive that we'll be able to trace the owner as soon as the shop opens today.

"We also have two semen samples, one apparently from the victim, and a surprisingly large deposit beautifully preserved in the oil, courtesy of what appears to be a single Unknown donor. Fingerprints and footprints galore, all over the walls and floor, some from the victim but most belonging to the same Unknown, whom I deduce to be a little more than six feet tall judging by his strides. He has a distinctively long middle-toe and wears a size eleven shoe... with which he left a number of very distinctive prints in the oil in this room and the cocaine in the other room with soles of Italian manufacture featuring the brand name carved in the heel, a brand that has only two distributors in the U.S., one of which is a very exclusive shop here in town, and so terribly easy to trace.

"And finally, since the knife was driven in only once and not removed, from all appearances quite accurately bisecting the heart and causing almost instant death, there wasn't any gushing blood to disturb the semen and other DNA leavings, but there was plenty enough from a nosebleed shortly before death, as well as from the knife-wound, to have left a goodish mark on the perpetrator, who did not wash himself off at any of the taps in this apartment."

"A Benjamin Phoenix shirt and rare Italian shoes don't sound like a hustler," Varajian interposed when the ME paused for breath.

"You are quite right, I don't believe our mysterious Unknown is a hustler. Furthermore, unless I am very much mistaken, our mysterious Unknown is not actually unknown. This is the best part: the room is rigged with four high-quality video-cameras concealed behind the wall-panels, each one focused on the playpen and set to record any goings-on, time-stamped and with excellent sound. Look here!"

With a grand flourish, Griggs produced a slender black remote-control in a clear plastic evidence bag, on which he very gingerly (so as not to disturb fingerprints, despite the fact that the remote had already been dusted) pressed some buttons. A pair of wall-panels folded back from the right-hand wall, revealing a huge television set recessed into a closet full of videotapes and DVDs, which was paused displaying four different views of one scene: the victim, still alive in the oil-filled box with blood running down his face and a scrap of black fabric clutched in his hand, and a tall and incredibly beautiful young man with an impressive hard-on shoved into his tight jeans and a black leather jacket over his sculptured naked torso, apparently in the grip of some strong emotion, with his right hand entwined in the victim's hair.

"Nice pelvic definition," Spevik admired the oiled torso of the young man on the screen, taking a tone of almost sexual reverence that Varajian always found mystifying in straight boys. Varajian, though, immediately recognized the gorgeous youth as a favorite feature of his own neighborhood, a boy he'd seen all over the Castro at various times of day... and his cock recognized the erotic beauty of the boy and stirred in his pants, immediately interested despite the sordid and macabre situation.

"Now see what Providence bestows upon us!" the ME pushed the Play button, and the four scenes came to life, the beautiful young man pulling the victim upright by his hair in an amazing feat of strength, announcing his identity in quadrophonic sound:

"... I am not a nothing piece of fuck! I am Marcus Daniel Vandervere the Fourth, and Vanderveres don’t take shit like this from any cruddy little parvenu Eli dickhead Marshall. You got that, asshole?" the youth screamed, divine in his fury, then slapped the victim hard and threw him across the black rubber box, and finally stalked out of the room. The video went on for a few moments, catching audio evidence of some kind of mayhem happening off-stage while the victim wallowed around on all fours trying to recover himsef; the ME fast-forwarded the tape past the next few minutes, in which the victim tried to get his nose to stop bleeding, then a few minutes more of the victim masturbating, finally ending when the victim picked up the remote and turned toward the part of the room where the television was concealed; the screen went to snow after that.

"Vandervere?" Spevik wondered, "Like the toilet-paper?"

***

Marcus Daniel Vandervere IV woke with a start, comfortably but restrictively spooned between two hot damp male bodies, fully disoriented and a little terrified by his complete inability to remember where he was. His startled eyes traveled past the tousled ash-brown hair under his nose, past the skeins of sunset-red hair that lay across his shoulder, down the long expanse of golden satin sheets that covered his and his companions' bodies, beyond an ormolu-mounted rosewood marquetry footboard, across a vast expanse of bleary gold and black and deep-reddish-brown objects to a three-fold source of blinding light; his eyes darted away from the sunlight shooting violently through the windows and came to rest on an immense crystal chandelier that toyed gently with that violence, and then up to the gold curlicues and pastel-painted pastoral scenes on the ceiling.

"Le chambre du roi, Baron Valerien de Seguemont, Marquesa Willard-Wilkes," Danny tried to say aloud, but his throat wasn't working yet, so only his lips moved; then he silently sighed the relief of remembering where he was.

Carefully and by nearly imperceptible degrees, Danny turned and shifted until he had disengaged from his sleeping companions and slid ever-so-slowly down the bed and out from under the sheets; it took some time to traverse the distance from the head to the foot without making any sudden or jarring movements, but he eventually got free and perched alone at the end of the bed. Turning back, he spent some time watching his new friends sleeping, his arms wrapped around his legs and his chin resting on his knees.

Leaning back against the uncomfortably ornate footboard, Danny was struck again by the never-before-considered danger of sleeping with virtual strangers: Marquesa and Valerien had only met him last night, they knew so little about him besides his name (about which he might well have lied) and his general presence in Society (which didn't mean anything in itself); but there they were, asleep and vulnerable to any kind of violence Danny might choose to visit on them. These two physically strong and temporally powerful young men, with very little assurance, trusted him with their sleeping bodies, willingly gave up to him their ability to defend themselves from harm. He could easily kill them both where they lay... or at least steal from them, he'd had plenty of opportunity to test what security there was in this building; he was loose in an apartment filled with valuable antiques, and Marquesa had left a fortune in jewelry lying carelessly on a countertop in the bathroom.

And of course Danny had trusted his own sleeping body to them, knowing as little about them as they knew about him. And each of the hundreds of men he'd slept with before had been trusted with his sleeping body... even if he didn't go to sleep, his encounter with Marshall last evening demonstrated to him that every time he'd offered his body to a stranger, he practically courted death. And though he didn't often let strange men into his apartment, generally preferring to meet at the other man's home, he had still allowed a good number of practically unknown men complete access to most of his possessions, with almost no assurance that they wouldn't steal from him.

But this morning, after a night of great sex and heavy sleep, sitting quietly at the end of a warm bed in this beautiful room, that knowledge didn't inspire the embarassingly lachrymose terror that had gripped him the night before; instead, he felt a sort of blithe acceptance, a deeply satisfying realization that the peril of death or loss was infinitely better than the perpetual fear of death or loss.

To attempt to live one's life in complete safety was to live life fortified and alone in one's own home, never meeting anyone new, never having fun, never going on adventures, never getting anything. One took one's life in one's hands every time one stepped out of the house, every time one stepped out of bed, even; and a life lived without risk was not really lived at all.

Pleased with this new understanding, Danny slid quietly off the bed, took one last look at his new friends in their touching fragility, and padded off to the bathroom. After relieving himself at the toilet, he took a cool shower to rinse off the sweat of sleep and stimulate his sluggish body into wakefulness, then turned the tap all the way to cold and drank down as much water as he could hold.

Patting himself dry with a big clean towel, he crossed over to the sink to check his hair and face in the mirror, smiling smugly at his gorgeous reflection: though he'd cried the night before, and had been deeply asleep for some hours, his hair was sexily tousled but not untidy, his eyes were clear and unswollen, his skin was lightly flushed and remarkably smooth. He nevertheless daubed on a healthy dollop of moisturizing cream he found on the black marble countertop and gently massaged it into his perfect skin.

Once he took his eyes off his own reflection, his gaze was drawn to the pile of Marquesa's jewels lying on the counter, glinting mysteriously in the gloomy half-light of the black bathroom; Danny stirred the glittering heap with a curious finger, then untangled the impressive bib necklace out of the clump and tried it on, marveling at the cool weight of the platinum setting against his warm skin, relishing the fiery glints in the great cushion-cut rubies and the multitude of brilliant and baguette diamonds. The bright jewels resting against his skin enhanced his beauty in a way that he didn't really understand; but even without understanding, the sight and sensation of wearing the necklace set his sleepy cock stirring.

He resisted the temptation to put on all the jewelry, just to see how he looked in a million-or-so-dollars'-worth of Van Cleef & Arpel; instead, he put the jewels carefully back the way he'd found them, tied the towel low and loose on his hips, and left the bathroom to explore the rest of the apartment.

***

"As best I can figure," Dr. Griggs went on in an excited tone, delighted with himself and the avalanche of evidence at the scene, "after his guest left, the victim decided to jack off to the video he'd just made, I found it cued up to the middle of their sexual encounter, and the semen trace on his body is consistent with masturbatory ejaculation. And apparently, while he was jacking off in here, the young man was still in the apartment, leaving his lovely distinctive bootprints in many of the same places he'd already left his lovely distinctive footprints. I believe he took this knife from a drawer in the kitchen, which is covered with his fingerprints, and returned here to show the victim what exactly Vanderveres think of Eli dickhead Marshalls. Marshall probably heard him coming and closed the closet doors with the remote control; there's no evidence that the young man touched the television setup or the remote control, and the wall panels were closed when the maid came in."

"Too bad we didn't have tape on the murder itself," Detective Spevik remarked, "it would be a slam dunk."

"It's not tape," Griggs corrected the young detective, "It's digital."

"It's too circumstantial," Detective Varajian interjected, "anybody could have come in here after Vandervere left."

"Not so, my dear Detective," Dr. Griggs giggled in a way that Detective Varajian thought shouldn't be tolerated at a murder-scene, "This building has excellent security. People can't just come wandering in off the street, they have to get past the concierge and the cameras in the lobby, as well as the cameras in the elevators, at the garage entrance, and all the side-doors into the building."

"It doesn't have to be someone wandering in off the street. Are there cameras in the stairwells and hallways? There are at least fifty units in this place, each one potentially filled with possible suspects."

"There are in fact sixty-four units," Griggs clarified, "three units on the ground floor with the garages, six to a floor from two to ten, two to a floor from eleven to thirteen, and one full-floor unit on the top. But there is absolutely no evidence as yet that anybody besides Mr. Vandervere was in here with Mr. Marshall. Not to mention the violence displayed by Mr. Vandervere on the video... earlier in the encounter, Vandervere broke Marshall's nose, that's where much of the blood came from. Perhaps it's not a slam-dunk, but it's certainly a lay-up."

Varajian wanted to protest further, irritated by Griggs' arrogance and his poorly-applied sports metaphor, but he knew from past experience that it would be useless: challenging Griggs' assumptions always made the little bastard entrench behind his position, and though he was too good a scientist to let his first assumptions dictate his later findings, he would nevertheless spend hours lecturing his challenger in defense of those first assumptions.

But for Detective Varajian, something just didn't feel right... the boy in the video didn't look like the type who could drive a knife into a man's chest and bisect the heart in one try. Boys that beautiful tended to be stupid, or at least careless; but even without the beauty, anyone who was stupidly careless enough to leave so many fingerprints around a crime-scene would never have found a heart on the first stab. Besides, men who kill in anger always strike more than once, even if they kill on the first try; and if that video was any indication, the beautiful young man was insane with fury.

"You say the cameras have a time and date stamp," the detective resumed massaging the bridge of his nose, hoping to soothe the pressure that was builing up behind his eyes, "Assuming it's correct, it might tell us what time the murder took place?"

"The stamp is correct," Griggs bristled a little, "I tested it before I showed it to you. The snow started at 10:42 p.m., and we can assume that the time of death was approximately five to twenty minutes later, depending on how long Marshall took to get himself off. Judging by lividity and other factors, he's been dead for at least six hours, but probably closer to ten, so I would say between elevenish and fourish."

"That's a pretty wide 'ish.' Perhaps we can solidify our timelines by finding out when the kid left the building, in which direction he left, by car or on foot. If the security is all you've led us to believe, Mr. Nguyen should be able to give us an idea of when and where Mr. Vandervere went."

***

Danny was in heaven, wandering alone in the vast and almost unbearably beautiful apartment. He was horribly tempted to snoop through the closets and drawers of Valerien's lovely little red-and-gold dressing room, which was furnished in the heavily sumptuous style of Louis XVIII with bulbous easy-chairs flanking a red-marble fireplace and a richly-draped daybed between two elaborately curtained windows. But with his honesty and his new friend's privacy intact, he tiptoed through the great black-and-gold bedroom as quietly as he could, so as not to wake Valerien and Marquesa, who had rolled into each-others' arms and continued sleeping... just like little angels, Danny thought as he passed them with a fond glance.

The grand salon kept Danny enrapt for nearly an hour, touching and studying to his heart's content. The morning sunlight gleaming on the golden edges of the furnishings and objets d'art, shimmering on the polished wooden surfaces and rich silken upholsteries, and glittering in the crystals of the great chandeliers and sconces was almost more than he could stand, and he found himself blinking frequently to clear blurring tears from his eyes. The way the sunbeams slanted through the tall east-facing windows to fill the long and lofty room with warm soft light made him wish he had the skill of painting or photography with which to capture the magic of that space.

The other rooms Danny encountered were equally as beautiful, but they were considerably smaller in scale than the salon and bedroom, spacious but not cavernous... there was a gorgeous yellow-and-cream Louis XV dining room and a little jewel of a study encased in glossy intricate marquetry paneling which, along with the salon, created a long enfilade along the front of the apartment, flanked at each end by linen-canopied terraces crowded with brilliant potted flowers and airy white wicker furniture. At the opposite end of the apartment was another beautiful bedroom, deliciously feminine in the Louis XVI style with embroidered pink roses and little porcelain shepherdesses everywhere, reminiscent of Marie Antoinette's bedroom in the Petit Trianon.

Finishing his circuit of the apartment in a broad corridor connecting these smaller rooms to the salon, Danny stopped in his tracks at the ambrosial smell of coffee coming from one of the service doors (which were small and plain, painted the same color as the wall so as to escape notice, easily differentiated from the very grand doors with gilded curlicues and inlaid heraldic crests that led into the main rooms); Danny tentatively pushed the door open and was greeted by a barrage of French profanities as well as a stronger smell of fresh coffee. Someone in the kitchen was screaming a blue streak at someone else, using words that Danny only recognized as French by the accent, and the other person only groaned weakly in defense.

Danny hovered outside the door, caught between two strong warring desires: a caffeine-addict's need for morning coffee and a pacifist's need to avoid screaming Frenchmen. Eventually, though, a third desire came to outbalance these two, Danny's desire to continue wandering alone from delight to delight like Beauty exploring the Beast's enchanted castle. Good servants would be unlikely to allow him, a stranger as well as a guest, to drift unaccompanied through the apartment; they would hover over him, anchoring him to a chair and a table with kind offers of refreshment and entertainment. Danny wished to relish his solitary freedom for a little while longer, so he regretfully and silently closed the service door and continued his explorations.

Returning the way he'd come, Danny did the circuit again in reverse, this time only studying the paintings on the walls. There were a few antiques scattered around, so-so still-lifes and the occasional portrait of an unimpressive ancestor; but almost all of the pictures were by Jacky Alvarado, and had not been included in the artist's shows or catalogs.

Danny was enchanted by the paintings, they appealed to him on so many different levels: on one level they were pure beefcake, merely decorative and titillating representations of male beauty, which he (and his burgeoning cock) appreciated immediately; but beyond this surface beauty, there lurked thought-provoking arguments — some of the pictures were so perfectly rendered in the style of the artist they were meant to imitate that they trod a fine line between homage and forgery, and seemed to question the validity of "real" paintings as better art than copies or photographs of those paintings... forcing the viewer to ask himself why a Restoration-era Huysmans portrait of an English nobleman posed as John the Baptist is better than Alvarado's Huysmans-styled portrait of an Australian underwear model posed as John the Baptist. The pictures challenged the viewer to consider the deeper meanings of art and of beauty — but did not force, or even try to suggest, any definitive answer.

There were also sly and amusing little anachronisms hidden in most of the pictures, particularly in the portrait of Marquesa that hung over the fireplace at the south end of the grand salon. Though the composition and colors were a direct copy of Boucher's portrait of Madame de Pompadour seated at a little writing-table and dressed in a pale green court gown festooned with peach-colored roses and ribbons, and Boucher's brushstrokes and telling mechanisms were faithfully reproduced, a focused study of the painting yielded a number of surprises: for example, the furnishings in the picture were not eighteenth-century as they initially appeared, they were modern pieces shaped like the extravagant Louis XV pieces of the original but smoothed and simplified in the Art Deco manner; the jewels were also modern, Cartier diamond brooches and graduated pearls with Deco diamond clasps, and the peach-satin slippers peeping from under the hem of the gown were diamond-studded Stuart Weitzmans.

What Danny found most fascinating was the artist's commentary present in many of the portraits, a sort of encrypted opinion or analysis that led the astute viewer to understand the painter's feelings about the sitter without giving away too much on the surface. In Marquesa's portrait, there was a suggestion of coldness that puzzled Danny... in Boucher's original, Pompadour appeared to made of sugar and rose-petals, a sex-warmed confection of a woman; but in Alvarado's portrait, Marquesa appeared to be made of packed snow, or perhaps a palate-cleansing sorbet, glacially forbidding and a little acerbic. Even the vibrant red of the elegantly brushed-back hair had a chilly mauve gloss to it, and the brilliant blue eyes regarded the middle distance with just the tiniest hint of disdain. Without making the picture unpleasant in any way, the artist expressed a certain fear and dislike of the subject's strength and distance.

Despite the artist's veiled warning, Danny fell even further in love with Marquesa while studying this portrait. That coldness excited Danny, presented him with a delicious challenge, urged him to do everything in his power to melt that frosty reserve... he wanted to press his skin against that coldness to cool his own fevered senses, as well as to imbue it with his own life. And that same strength that Danny fell in love with the night before was plainly represented in the picture, an indomitable if icy sense of self that would not and could not be compromised.

"Good morning," Valerien called out from across the room, wending his way through the clusters of chairs and tables to Danny's side. His hair was damp and his skin fresh, as if he'd just showered, and he was again wearing the terry-lined scarlet silk robe.

"Good morning," Danny replied, resting his arms on the young baron's shoulders and looking down into his wonderful upturned face. After Marquesa's characterization of Valerien's 'Big Purple Stare,' Danny could see the truth of the statement: there was real love and real trust in those great violet eyes, but it didn't mean anything, didn't promise anything; it was merely a trick of his beauty and his open, warm, charming personality.

"I am beginning to think you suffer from chronic priapism," Valerien laughed, pushing his hip against Danny's once-again-erect cock.

"No, I promise it will go down... eventually," Danny decided not to tell Valerien about the Viagra episode, preferring to not dwell again on his own foolishness; he wriggled out of his towel and poked his erection between the folds of Valerien's robe, "But there's so much to excite it here. Even before you came in, these pictures were making me horny."

"They have been known to produce that effect," Valerien let his robe drop and pulled Danny down onto the nearest sofa, "I'll have to send you over to Jacky's studio, he'd love to paint you. But in what pose and style?"

"I've always had an affinity for Carravaggio's 'Young Bacchus,'" Danny said between kisses, "but you already have one in your dining-room."

"One can never have too many Caravaggios," Valerien said thoughtfully, as if considering the suggestion seriously, "But Jacky will know how best to pose you. He has a skill for showing people to themselves, which is the mark of a great portraitist."

Danny wasn't sure he wanted to be shown to himself, but he was pleased by the implication that Valerien intended to add him to his walls, that Danny was going to become part of the Baron's life, if only for long enough to get a portrait painted. Making out with him on the couch this morning was as comfortable and enjoyable as making love with him in the big bed had been the night before; and without Marquesa's presence to add a sense of challenge and his more acute passion to the mix, Danny felt himself falling into a casual and pleasant kind of puppy-love with Valerien.

He was so caught up in the sensuous pleasure of Valerien's rich soft skin and luscious plump mouth that he didn't notice for quite some time that Marquesa had entered the room and was watching them. He had come quite close without Danny hearing him, consciously or unconsciously reproducing the pose of the portrait that hung over his head... lounging comfortably at three-quarter profile in a bergère beside the fireplace, his hair pulled back in a casual chignon, his long hard body loosely draped in an extravagant platinum satin dressing-gown with enormous fluttering ostrich cuffs.

"Don't mind me," Marquesa smiled when Danny and Valerien stopped what they were doing and turned to look at him, "Just enjoying the view. You make me think again of puppies frolicking."

"Join us?" Danny asked, turned on by the audience but aware that Valerien was losing the mood.

"I'll sit this one out, so long as you promise me the next dance. Val, darling, do you mind if I give orders to your servants? If I don't get coffee soon-sooner-soonest, I will have to tear someone's throat out."

"I'll have coffee served on the north terrace," Valerien said, squirming out from under Danny and retrieving his robe, apparently not put out over the interruption, "there are cigarettes out there, your brand is in the nacre box."

"Let them know that Danvers is coming with the car and a change of clothes, I phoned him from your room and he'll be here in twenty minutes or so. Don't forget the coffee, I'm dying," Marquesa sailed across the room to the terrace doors, then turned to yell back into the room before disappearing in a flutter of satin and feathers "Dying, I tell you!"

"I'm sorry to leave you hanging like this," Valerien pulled Danny to his feet and handed him his towel, "...but then, you're not hanging, are you? I'm sorry to leave you hard and quivering like this, but now that she's mentioned it, I absolutely have to have some breakfast. We can pick up where we left off after we eat."

"Whatever you wish," Danny answered with a smile, planting a little brotherly kiss on Valerien's forehead and turning to tie his towel around his waist.

"What I wish is that Marquesa hadn't interrupted us," Valerien turned to the fireplace and yanked on a long embroidered bell-pull that hung next to the portrait, "But I'll get what I want eventually, I always do. Would you like a dressing-gown or robe or something besides that towel to wear?"

"Do you have another sassy feathered number like Marquesa's?"

"No, that's her own; she keeps overnight things here in case she spends the night, and I keep a few things at her place as well. We're together a lot of the time, and some nights one just doesn't want to go home alone. Anwyay, I'm sure I have a kimono or a bathrobe that's big enough for you."

"I'm perfectly comfortable, unless you want me to cover up more?"

"I wouldn't cover you up for the world, but the servants are accustomed to a certain degree of decency. The towel will do fine. I like looking at you in it almost as much as I like looking at you out of it."

"Keep talking like that and I'm going to have to give your servants a scare," Danny joked, but hitched his towel more securely around his waist and retreated to a discreet distance when the little monkey-faced valet appeared to receive orders from the Baron.

From the middle of the room, Danny watched Valerien talking to his servant, giving very concise instructions in French for a coffee tray with toast and fruit to be followed by a perfectly enormous breakfast; he felt an overwhelming admiration as well as a protective attraction that he was not accustomed to feeling at the same time... he was used to well-bred authoritative men, and he was used to beautiful fragile youths, but never before had he encountered the two in one person. He was mightily enamored of Valerien's combination of seigneurial command and ephebic appeal, and wanted not only to be with him, but to be like him.

"I'm sorry that took so long," Valerien came over to where Danny was standing after dismissing the servant, "but Henri is in a pet this morning. Apparently Gaston... that's my cook and houseman, he was out all night getting drunk, and is practically useless with a hangover this morning."

"I make an excellent omelette if he needs help," Danny offered.

"Oh, no, Gaston wouldn't like that," Valerien laughed and hugged Danny impulsively, delighted by the unexpected offer, "He's so jealous of his pans. I really like you, Danny Vandervere. We are going to be very good friends."

"I'd like that very much," Danny choked back another little tear of happiness.

"Good. Let's go join Marquesa, shall we? She's probably clawing through the seat-cushions by now."

***

Detective Varajian's headache got continously worse, which he hadn't thought possible, while trying to make sense of the concierge's patois ramblings. Tuan could speak quite clearly in English when he was calm, but he couldn't be kept calm for more than one or two sentences... and then he couldn't even be kept on topic: he told them about the crazy homeless man who tried to come into the lobby, the elevator that broke down, the dripping faucet and the insomniac old lady in 5B, the morning concierge coming in three hours late and then leaving him on the desk so he could talk to his wife on the phone, and a host of other complaints. Officer Tran and Detecive Varajian tried to lead him back to the topics of their own interest, but every mention of Marshall or the beautiful boy he'd brought home set the little man to gibbering again.

"Just ask him when the boy in the black jacket left," Varajian massaged the space between his eyes and counted backward from ten, "What time did he leave?"

Officer Tran put this question to the hysterical older man three times, in French and Vietnamese and English, one after the other, in hopes that the repetion might perhaps sink in.

Tuan Nguyen was not a particularly astute man at the best of times, and this was by no means the best of times — he was exhausted from a long night on duty, with one minor crisis after another for nearly sixteen hours, followed by the taxing horror of seeing his tenant's murdered corpse in the oily playpen — and his mind was so disordered that he was ashamed of himself. But the last question, repeated so carefully in all three languages, planted itself in the front of his mind and started the wheels to turning.

"He did not leave," Tuan told the nice young policemen who'd been talking to him so kindly all morning, then retreated back into himself to figure out what it was that he should be remembering, what connection he should be making between Mr. Marshall's guest and some other event of the evening.

"You mean he's still here in the building?" Varajian pressed.

"No," Tuan answered distractedly, "He didn't leave."

"If he didn't leave, he has to still be in the building," Varajian pointed out testily, further irritated that all of the supernumerous personnel in the apartment were now clustered in the foyer, seemingly concentrated into a single organism focused on, and forming a tight circle around, the rattled concierge.

"Oh my God!" Tuan's mind came clear all at once: he remembered that the Baron de Seguemont and Miss Willard-Wilkes had come in from a party and got stuck in the elevator, but when the Baron called to be rescued, he'd mentioned being with two friends. The departing firemen had also mentioned three people in the broken elevator instead of the two Tuan had seen board before the homeless man had appeared at the front doors. Was that extra friend the beautiful boy who'd come in with Mr. Marshall? Could Mr. Marshall's murderer have gone up to the top floor with the Baron?

Tuan tried to relate all these fragments of possibility to the police officers, but his excitement set him to gibbering again, and Officer Tran found it impossible to sort out all of the polyglot phrases and names. His inability to make the policemen understand him only made Tuan gibber all the more, and his sleep-deprived mind devolved again into chaos. Finally, his frustration became too much to bear and he simply snapped, grabbing Detective Varajian by the lapels and screaming:

"The Baron! He's killing the Baron!" With that, Tuan pushed wildly through the circle of cops and went bounding down the hall toward the stairwell, determined to rescue his great and wonderful Baron from whatever danger the beautiful boy posed.

After a moment of electrified silence, all four of the uniformed officers, the two evidence technicians, and Detective Spevik took off after the screaming little man like a pack of hounds after a fox. Detective Varajian and Dr. Griggs followed close behind, the former reluctantly and the latter with glee, while only Dr. Grigg's sleekly-dressed trainee had the sense to remain on the scene to secure the evidence and keep an eye on Mrs. Esposito, who sat weeping on a chair in the foyer.

The plump middle-aged concierge moved up the steep stairs faster than Detective Varajian would have thought possible, with seven police personnel clamoring idiotically after him like a gaggle of Keystone Kops; Varajian called out repeatedly to make them stop, but he couldn't be heard over the cacophany of the concierge's continuous screeching and all of the hard-soled shoes pounding the concrete steps in the echoing stairwell... still, as the senior officer, he felt it necessary to at least be on the scene of whatever happened, even if he couldn't control all of these people, so he followed after them as best he could.

Varajian could smell disaster ahead: the concierge's unexpected flight had activated the hunter-instinct in the cops, and whenever otherwise steady and methodical police officers acted in a headlong and impetuous mob fashion like this, it usually ended in lawsuits and reprimands. His only hope was to somehow minimize the disaster by being on the scene; his only satisfaction was that Griggs pooped out after the first flight of stairs and abandoned the chase to take an elevator instead.

As the unruly crowd spilled out of the stairwell into a large and beautiful hall, Varajian once again tried to call the group to order, but to no avail. The impetus of the chase could not be reined in, and the clattering mess of bodies went crashing toward a pair of ornate double-doors at one end of the hall, where the hysterical Tuan was battering at the panels and screaming at the top of his lungs for "M'sieur le Baron."

Pushing the screeching little man aside, Detective Spevik pounded in a more orderly fashion on the door, and Varajian could see even from his place at the back of the seething crowd that the young detective was denting the fragile wood.

"Open up! Police!" Spevik shouted through the door, and this announcement was greeted by an epic crash from somewhere beyond that galvanized the roiling mass of police into decisive action; Spevik drew his weapon and stepped back, motioning for the uniformed officers to break down the door.

***

Henri was struggling across the grand salon under the weight of an overloaded breakfast tray, cursing the hungover Gaston, whose job it ordinarily was to carry food trays. But the disheveled and bleary-eyed Gaston couldn't be seen, nor smelled, by the Baron or his guests, so Henri was forced to carry the trays for him... which the brandy-addled chef had loaded up with china serving-dishes instead of much lighter silver, and added two heavy cut-glass pitchers of fruit-juice at the last moment, creating a weight under which tiny Henri could barely stagger.

When the banging and screaming at the door commenced, Henri paused for a moment to decide where he could set down the tray in order to answer the door; seeing no clear surfaces any nearer than the big circular table in the foyer, he headed toward it. He saw out of the corner of his eye that the Baron and his two guests had come in off the terrace, drawn toward the curious and unaccustomed noise. Under such scrutiny, and alarmed by the sudden noise of even louder rhytmic hammering on the door, Henri faltered when he reached the steps up into the foyer.

And when he heard the frightening announcement that it was the police at the door, he unwisely turned to the Baron for directions... overbalancing the heavy silver tray as he turned, which hit the marble floor in a deafening cataclysm of shattering crystal and porcelain.

Henri barely had time to pick himself up off the floor before the front doors burst open, spraying chips of ancient wood and gold leaf across the foyer; the pack of police came skidding and tumbling through the door into the apartment, and at the head of this melée was the concierge from downstairs, who halted at the top of the steps and very dramatically pointed at the dark-haired young man in the towel, screeching in the high-pitched tone of a fire-alarm:

"There he is! Get him!"

After a stunned moment of incredulity, Danny reacted to this inexplicable accusation, and to the fearsome sight of so many people bursting into the peaceful beauty of Valerien's apartment and racing toward him, by doing the worst possible thing: he backed up and ran. By backing up, he separated himself from any flanking protection that Valerien and Marquesa might have offered, and by taking a few running steps toward the south end of the room, he brought the entire quartet of uniformed police officers crashing down on him, overturning two chairs and a vase of flowers in their pursuit, leaping at him like jackals on a fleeing gazelle.

The four officers bore him down to the floor while the sharp-looking detective in the black suit cuffed his hands behind his back. Miraculously, his towel remained tied as the muscular young detective hoisted him painfully to his feet by his cuffed wrists.

"Marcus Daniel Vandervere the Fourth," the detective pronounced the name sneeringly, "You are under arrest for the murder of Drayton Marshall. You have the right to remain silent..."

"I killed him?" Danny asked in disbelief, interrupting the reading of his Miranda rights; but as he was being led out of the apartment and into the elevator, he saw how it might have happened: if Marshall had passed out after Danny slapped him and threw him across the pen, he might have slipped down into the oil and drowned. But had he slapped Marshall hard enough to render him unconscious? Probably so, he'd been angry enough to knock the man's head right off his shoulders.

Danny was filled with horror that he could have done such a thing, to strike another human being so violently, and then go off without stopping to see if he was all right, or at least conscious. The thought that he had done such a dreadful thing as cause another man's death made him utterly miserable, and he wept inconsolably.

"I didn't mean to do it!" was the only defense Danny could offer, and he kept babbling that useless little phrase over and over again as he was hustled through the lobby of the building, past a gauntlet of flashing cameras and shouting news-reporters, and into the back of a squad car, "I didn't mean to!"

_________________________
9,573 Words ~ 17 Pages

Visual References:
Floor Plan of Marshall's Apartment
Floor plan of Valerien's Apartment
Boucher's Portrait of Madame de Pompadour

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