But the moment Danny entered the room, flanked by Marquesa and Valerien with Casterman bringing up the rear, the normal mild clatter of silver against china and murmur of urbane conversation rose to an appalling Babel of startled conjecture and irritable speculation. And not only did the majority of lunchers neglect to lower their voices when discussing the import and surprise of Danny’s appearance, but some people even forgot themselves to such an extent as to point.
The Hotel Queen Charlotte, atop which L’Aurente perches, is not the sort of place where one raises one’s voice or points one’s fingers; the hotel and restaurant are so select in their clientele that they refrain from advertising, forbid photographs or media mentions, do not display their name on the side of their building, and even keep their telephone numbers unlisted. Unless you know someone who is Someone, you can’t so much as get through to the information desk. Reporters and paparazzi are bribed and threatened to stay away, and no restaurant critic or travelogian has ever crossed the threshold.
The dining room of L’Aurente is a long and lofty space with an elaborate tinkling fountain under an immense floral porcelain chandelier at its center; a long wall of tall arched windows opens onto a narrow terrace lined with little topiary lemon trees in porcelain tubs; the windows are echoed on the back wall by false windows of flattering smoked mirrors behind bronze lattices. The paneled walls are a sunny yellow limned with ivory and gold, and the ceiling is a pale sky-blue dotted with clouds and dawn-colored birds, bordered by a trompe l’oeil trellis laden with pastel fruits and blooms. The chandeliers and sconces are faded antique Limoges, the furniture is French Provincial honey-varnished pine, and the floor is paved in warm Caën stone; the tables are placed as far apart as possible, the napery is pure thick white, the place-settings are heavily simple, and the flower-arrangements are whimsically wild. If Marie Antoinette were to give a luncheon in the Orangerie at Versailles, it might have looked a bit like L'Aurente.
"Are you holding up all right?" Marquesa asked Danny solicitously as they were led to the most conspicuous possible table in the room, right next to the fountain on the window side.
"I’m fine," Danny lied, trying on a confident smile. He was in fact mortified by the attention, but even more terrified by the full realization of his situation: when he’d been in police custody, it had all been entirely unreal, a strange and sometimes frightening adventure that was nothing at all like his own life; but here, in a restaurant he knew, among people he recognized, he was confronted with a sudden clear vision of how his arrest and the suspicion of murder that hung over him was going to affect his day-to-day existence.
Even if the charges were dismissed, Danny was now notorious. No longer would he be on the periphery of a crowd, admired and noticed but still able to move about with some anonymity, able to see as well as be seen; neither would he be a safe companion for the closeted old queens who had heretofore paid for so many of his pleasures. And then, if he was not cleared entirely, if he got off on a technicality or remained under suspicion, he might no longer be welcome at all in the society to which he was accustomed. No matter what happened, his life was going to change completely, there was nothing he could do to stop it, and he was scared out of his wits.
"That’s my brave boy," Marquesa saw through the lie but accepted it at face value as he settled himself elaborately into his chair, taking off his gloves with snappy gestures, slapping them down onto his large flat handbag (though he retained the ladies' prerogative in keeping his hat) and turning his rings around so the immense sapphires and diamonds were back at the tops of his fingers before accepting the menu from the captain, "It’s always unpleasant to be gawked at, and I am quite shocked by this display of bad manners. But this little exercise is very important, we have to have you firmly established in Society before Cissie Marshall starts yapping."
"Do you suppose she will yap?" Valerien wondered, "It's not like she gave a fig for her husband. I rather suppose she'll be glad he's gone and can no longer blight her existence with all the rumors of his tacky behavior."
"Nevertheless, I believe she'll consider it her duty to defend her husband and malign Danny," Marquesa replied, glancing over the menu without really reading it, "particularly since maligning people is something of a hobby with her. But if Danny is championed and sponsored by the two of us, she won't dare take the latter course. Of course she will want to defend her husband, but if she cares about her Social standing (and if I know her, she cares for little else), she won't dare court a feud between herself and us by casting doubt on Danny's innocence; she may be a Porthault by birth and a Marshall by marriage, but the Willard name and the de Seguemont prestige outweigh her by a wide margin. With our support and Cissie's silence on the matter, Danny will be considered innocent by Society. His place will be assured, I dare say elevated, and that will help his defense."
"How so?" Rodney Casterman wondered, not taking the eccentric young transvestite's Social machinations seriously but always interested in fresh perspectives on a potentially tricky defense.
"I know what you must be thinking, Mr. Casterman... all you see is a room filled with chattering overdressed women and chattering idle men," Marquesa discarded the menu and leaned forward onto the table, "They are largely irrelevant, in themselves: but those overdressed women chatter to their husbands, and those husbands are captains of industry, directors of finance, and key players in local politics; the idle men chatter at their clubs, playing golf or racquets or cards with those same captains of industry, directors of finance, and key players in local politics. They have the ears of powerful people in this city. A little push here, a bit of pressure there, some influence coming from unexpected quarters, these will all help Danny’s defense."
"And they say Justice can’t be bought," Casterman laughed, going back to the menu.
"Not bought, but certainly influenced. See that woman over there, the one in the regrettable pink-and-black Chanel? Her husband is the Editor-in-Chief of the San Francisco Sun. And that weak-chinned boy over by the fireplace? His father owns Channel 24. We’ll already have the Bugle and the entire weight of the National News Network on our side, if we have the Sun and other key local news carriers, too, we will have public sentiment. And you well know that public sentiment is very valuable in a city that elects its judges and District Attorneys."
"If only we got to elect our juries, as well," Casterman laughed.
"Ah, but juries are elected, chosen by you and the prosecution from the public," Marquesa continued, warming to his topic, "and public opinion sways juries more than even the best jury-selection procedures can safeguard against. Consider some of the recent murder trials where the defendant was tried in the press, and the juries did not diverge one whit from public opinion."
"What about the Simpson case? The jury found him Not Guilty despite the majority of public opinion," Casterman countered.
"Public sentiment remained mixed throughout, if you'll remember, and Not Guilty just isn't the same as Innocent... I bet every member of that jury thought he was guilty as hell, but the defense was so confusing that they couldn't get beyond the shadow of a doubt."
"Well, what do you think about the Menendez case..." as Casterman and Marquesa plunged deeper into a detailed discussion of media-circus murder trials, Valerien dismissed them with an indulgent smile and turned his attention to the rather more important issue of food. With the briefest lift of one finger, he summoned the waiter and sommelier to his side, and began to converse with them in French so effortless and idiomatic that Danny could barely follow along.
The fear Danny felt on his arrival at the restaurant was beginning to dissipate as he surveyed his companions. He could tell by the look on Casterman's face as he argued with Marquesa that the attorney was deeply impressed by the socialite's unexpected legal analyses; and though he hadn't been able to follow all of what Valerien said to the restaurant staff, he caught enough of the words to understand that the young baron had not only divined Danny's tastes without having to consult him, but he remembered everything Casterman had said about ris de veaux with Meyer-Fonné and was constructing four separate two-course luncheons and a dessert around that particular vintage.
Moreover, the noise of the restaurant had returned to its usual happy hum, and though people still stole glances at Danny whenever possible, nobody stared or pointed. The verdict was obviously in, as far as Society was concerned: if Marquesa Willard-Wilkes and Valerien de Seguemont were satisfied that Danny was innocent, then obviously Danny must be innocent. He must also be rather more important, better pedigreed than they'd once thought, if he could command the loyalty of such irreproachable luminaries. Such would be the content of a hundred conversations over cocktails later in the evening.
"...and besides," Marquesa summed up his argument by grabbing Danny by the chin and squeezing his mouth into a comic pucker, "how could any jury convict anyone with a face like this? Nobody with two eyes would believe Danny could hurt a fly."
"Be that as it may," Casterman took a sip of the light amber-colored wine that had been poured into his glass, "Heavenly! Be that as it may, the best defense is a better suspect."
"Isn't that how Perry Mason always won?" Valerien observed, "He invariably unmasked the true killer, who just happened to already be sitting in the courtroom."
"So," Danny said while watching the waiters slipping empty plates off the table and replacing them with the first course using balletic flourishes, "by the rules of fictional murder, the real killer had to have either hated Marshall or wanted his money."
"He was so eminently hateable, that side would be impossible to narrow down," Marquesa put in, "Everybody hated him, except maybe his cleaning-lady and his vegetable-oil vendor. I wonder how long it will take for us to find out who gets his money."
"The wife and son would be my guess," Valerien shrugged, investigating his aiguillettes de canard with a connoisseur's eye, "unless they had a family trust. A little nosing around from my bank people will find that out. Marshall wasn't the type to leave anything to charities or servants."
"Too bad the wife and son were both out of town," Casterman pointed out before forking up a mouthful of sweetbreads and losing himself in sensations of pure delight.
"Oh, twaddle," Marquesa stabbed a hunk of sauceless poached salmon and a spear of steamed baby asparagus with violent precision, "Anybody can be 'out of town' at an important moment if they put their minds to it. It's a different matter to prove it. I think we should start looking into their alibis. I'll bet at least one of them is fake."
"You know, I still get paid even if you do all my work for me," Casterman joked, "and I already have a team working on those alibis. Mrs. Marshall's is watertight: she was, and still is, in England at a house-party with twenty witnesses. The son is somewhere in the Yucatán interior and hasn't been reached yet. The Mexican alibi will be the one we'll concentrate on poking holes in."
"Even so, we can't ignore the masses of on-site people who might have just as good of reasons to do Marshall a mischief. How many investigators do you have working on this?"
"I've devoted my entire in-house staff," the attorney answered, "five investigators working under my son."
"Your son is a private eye? How exciting!" Danny surfaced from the ecstasy of his roulades de poulet au grenades, "It sounds like the perfect scenario for a TV crime drama."
"You are of course authorized to hire more as needed," Valerien said with an air of finality, closing the sordid subject of business, "How are you enjoying your lunch? Yur suggestion of the Meyer-Fonné was brilliant. The next course is built around a very light, fragrant Chambolle-Musigny that I think you'll like."
For the rest of the meal, under Valerien's subtle direction, the conversation centered on the food and wine, general talk about cuisine and favorite restaurants, and passing commentary on current events and public figures. The second course and wine were praised enthusiastically, and following a palate-cleansing salad of escarole and butter lettuce, the cheese and fruit caused a sensation served with a light crisp champagne from Valerien's family's own winery, Château de Seguemont; the elaborate lunch wound down with strong Turkish coffee and a plate of Belgian chocolates, which Marquesa chose to forego in favor of a solitary post-prandial cigarette on the terrace.
"I had better get on the road," Valerien said, throwing down his napkin and standing when Marquesa returned to the table, "There's bound to be traffic, and if I'm not to the château before tea, Grandmère will start worrying; she's already irritated that I didn't come up last night. Mr. Casterman, may I offer you a lift home? Pacific Heights is on my way."
"No thank you," Casterman replied with a courtly bow, "After such a feast, I think I had better have a brisk walk; besides, I'm going back to my office downtown. Thank you, Baron, for arranging lunch, and please convey my warmest regards to your grandmother the Comtesse."
"It will be my pleasure," Valerien returned courtly bow of his own, "Danny, you're a little out of my way, but I would be happy to drop you home."
"I'll take Danny home," Marquesa said, "I have nowhere to be this afternoon, it will be no trouble."
Valerien and Marquesa exchanged a tense glare for a moment, conducting a silent transaction in their friendship that Danny and Casterman couldn't begin to comprehend: they considered Danny a joint possession, and without even discussing the question had already engaged in a friendly but nonetheless fierce competition for ascendancy in Danny's affection. That Marquesa would take possession while Valerien was forced off the field by family duty struck the latter as an unsporting advantage and the former as a fair opportunity.
The tension passed without anyone else taking much notice, and the quartet moved to the elevators and down through the lobby to the entrance, where Valerien's Rolls and Marquesa's double-length vintage midnight-blue Mercedes were double-parked, chauffeurs at the doors, serenely incognizant of the traffic that was building up noisily behind them. After a flurry of hand-shaking and cheek-kissing, Casterman strode energetically down the hill towards his office, Valerien slipped quietly into his car to travel to his grandparents' estate in Napa, and Danny followed Marquesa into the cavernous rear of the Mercedes.
Settling back into the deep blue velvet upholstery, Marquesa fell silent and simply gazed at Danny; and Danny gazed back, fascinated by Marquesa's beauty and relieved to be free from the need to make conversation. He picked up Marquesa's hand and just held it, feeling grateful and happy and protected.
"Excuse me, sir," the glass partition came down to reveal the back of the driver's head, "but there seems to be a gathering of some kind on Mr. Vanderhaven's street. Shall I drive past?"
"Yes, Bascombe... let's see what it is," Marquesa sat up attentively and peered through the tinted windows as the long car turned onto Danny's narrow, tree-lined, normally quiet street and negotiated its way between cars, pedestrians, and a surprising collection of large vans.
"Reporters, sir," Bascombe observed dryly, "and paparazzi. At least fifty people standing, and another dozen pedestrians rubbernecking."
"Danny, darling, do you want to muscle through that crowd? Bascombe can help you if you want to get inside."
"What in the world do they want?" Danny wailed, studying the milling press outside his own front door.
"They want to take part in your drama, of course," Marquesa replied coolly as the car slid past the scene, "ask you rude and idiotic questions, and take billions of pictures hoping that one of them will make you look like you're crying, or guilty, or both. I'll take you back to the Queen Charlotte, you'll be safest from the press there."
"Oh!" Danny was surprised by the perfection of this solution, and automatically tried to object, "But what about my messages? My phones must have been ringing off the hook all day. And my PDA's battery is dead. And I don't have any clothes. And those reporters are blocking my tenants and neighbors, I should contact them."
"Really, darling," Marquesa laughed at him while pulling his cigarette case out of his handbag, "Philippe can take care of all that for you. That's what concierges are for. You can access your messages remotely, can't you? You'll hide out at the hotel and rest up from your struggles for a few days, until the press gets bored and moves on to some other poor victim. Bascombe, call Philippe and have him get a suite ready for Mr. Vandervere. Oh, and get the police and a private security detail down here to make sure Mr. Vandervere's neighbors have free access to their homes."
"Yes, sir," the chauffeur/bodyguard replied, closing the partition.
"I don't need a suite," Danny protested, fretting over the astronomical expense of such a luxury, "a small room would be fine."
"Nonsense," Marquesa dismissed this concern with a wave of his cigarette, "you can't sit around in one little room all day for several days. Of course you need a suite. And the bills will go to me, so don't worry about using room service or the minibar."
"You're going to spoil me," Danny smiled, shyly and gratefully, taking Marquesa's hand again.
"Nothing could spoil you, sweetheart," Marquesa blew a smoke ring, "You're too good."
"But how do you know?" he worried aloud, still wondering why Marquesa and Valerien had invested so much trust and so much money in him after only one night's acquaintance.
"I just know," Marquesa shrugged, "I always know. It's a knack I got from my father... I know that you are good, honest, and kind just the way my father knew that fluffy musical beach movies would make millions in the Sixties and grimly underlit psychodramas would make millions in the Seventies."
"Your father is a producer?"
"He was a producer; you've probably heard of him, Jack Wilkes? But he died," Marquesa squashed out his cigarette in the pocket ashtray, glancing casually out the window, "when I was five. He and my mother had a skiing accident in Gstaadt; there was a rock-slide on the slopes and they went over a cliff. Their bodies weren't found for several days."
"Oh! I'm so sorry!" Danny was dismayed to have brought up such a painful subject.
"Don't be... they died instantly, and together, which I'm sure is what they would have wanted. Aside from not dying at all, of course. And they left me a whole shitload of money, well-invested, four houses, and some really spectacular jewels. These were my mother's," Marquesa flashed his right hand, displaying a big square-cut sapphire flanked by starbursts of baton diamonds on his finger and a rock-crystal bracelet set with cabochon sapphires on his wrist, "I didn't know about any of it until I was eighteen, though. My aunts considered Father's fortune tainted and refused to touch it while raising me. My father was a Jew, you know; he was born Herschel Finkelstein. The second half of my name is entirely made up."
"What's wrong with that?"
"To the Last of the Willards (meaning my crazy old-maid aunts), being a Jew is about the worst thing you can be without stooping so low as to be Black or Mexican; and taking a pseudonym is even worse, it absolutely reeks of the wicked stage. They're just old-fashioned bigots; they don't really mean anything by it, they're simply set in their outdated modes of thought. They're both in their nineties, you know, so their thinking is practically Victorian. They're really my great-aunts, my grandfather's much older sisters. My grandfather died young, too, in the War, and Aunt Eugenia and Eulalia raised my mother, as well as raising me. I can't say they did too bad of a job, nutty though they are."
"I was raised by great-aunts, too!" Danny enthused, "Well, not really raised by them, I lived with my parents, but I spent every afternoon and most weekends with the Aunt Ems... Mathilda, Myrtle, and Maude. Myrtle and Maude are twins, and Aunt Mathilda left me her money when she died two years ago."
"That's quite a coincidence," Marquesa observed, smiling warmly, "and perhaps the root of my and Val's instant liking for you. It's one of the things Val and I have in common, you know, losing our parents young and being raised by elderly relatives. And though you didn't lose your parents, you have got the requisite great-aunts. I've noticed that young men raised by elderly women have a certain something, a courtly gentleness and a maturity beyond their years, that is very appealing. Ah, here we are again!"
Further conversation was curtailed by the business of disembarking and reentering the hotel, where they were greeted immediately by an exquisitely tailored middle-aged Frenchman, Philippe the concierge. He behaved in a manner that perfectly blended obsequiousness and pomposity while Marquesa took charge and led Danny through the formalities of signing the register and explaining what kind of charger his PDA required; Marquesa also directed Philippe to send to Andrew at Saks for an overnight selection of fresh clothes, and all the necessary toiletries as well. Danny was amazed by the speed and ease with which every minor detail was resolved; and with very little fuss he was ushered into a front-facing suite on the sixth floor, which overlooked the roof-garden of the hotel across the street.
The rooms at Hotel Queen Charlotte are spacious and well-proportioned, but not grand in any way. There are no acres of parquet flooring, no elaborate marble fireplaces, no crystal chandeliers or dazzling artworks or ormolu mountings; the furniture is of the highest quality, but quite plain, crisply upholstered and highly polished but unexceptional, and only the vaguest of patterns can be observed in the hangings and carpets. The colors are all soothing pale earth-tones, which made Danny feel quite at home, and the decor consists mostly of wood-framed mirrors, parchment-shaded bronze lamps, and small glass vases of simple cream-white roses.
"This looks quite adequate," Marquesa pronounced, taking the keys and dismissing the concierge with a lavish tip.
"It's beautiful!" Danny exclaimed, wandering into the bedroom and peeking through to the bathroom, which in keeping with the style of the rooms was quite simple... no sunken whirlpool tub or gold faucets or telephones in the shower, but well-appointed for comfort and paved in creamy marble.
"Well, why don't I leave you to rest, and I'm sure you'll want to have a nice hot bath after the day you've had," Marquesa pulled his gloves back on and started for the door, "And I'll go home and change. I'll be back at eight to take you to dinner upstairs. Philippe will have a dinner-suit delivered to you by seven so you can dress."
"Please don't leave me!" Danny begged almost hysterically, sudden panicked tears choking his voice at the very thought of being left alone; and for the third time in as many days, Danny completely broke down, a wellspring of stifled emotions dissolving him into a soggy mess of saline and mucus.
Marquesa responded as he had the first time, taking a firm hold on Danny and pulling him down onto the sofa, rocking him back and forth and making little cooing noises to calm him down. But bawling naked in a running shower and bawling fully dressed on a hotel sitting-room sofa are entirely different things, and Danny made a heroic effort to pull himself back together when he noticed he was staining the shoulder of Marquesa's silk tweed suit.
"What an ass you must think me," Danny croaked into a great wad of tissues that Marquesa had pulled from the box on the side-table, "crying my eyes out at the drop of a hat. I swear I'm not like this all the time."
"Don't worry about it, darling," Marquesa soothed, his arms still around Danny's shoulders, his right hand combing slowly through Danny's curls, "A good cry is just as good as a hot bath for washing away the horrors of the day. In fact, I envy you your ability to vent your emotions so readily. I don't even remember the last time I produced so much as a single tear, it must have been years ago."
"I still feel like an idiot," Danny sighed, "Thank you for being so kind to me."
"It is my absolute pleasure," Marquesa replied, standing up and pulling Danny to his feet, "Now you go take a bath like I told you, and I'll call Danvers and have him bring my dinner things here, OK?"
"OK," Danny moved closer to hug Marquesa and give him a quick affectionate peck; but the moment their lips touched, Danny's entire body caught fire, and the kiss became intensely passionate. He wanted to kiss Marquesa so hard that they would meld together, he wanted to force his entire self into Marquesa's mouth; but Marquesa pushed him away after a few short moments.
"Whoa, boy," he laughed, putting a finger to Danny's quivering wet mouth to wipe off a smudge of his own lipstick, "Plenty of time for that after I take care of my business. Go take your bath."
Danny went obediently into the bathroom and started drawing a bath, choosing white-linden-scented bath salts from the array on the shelf, and pulling off his clothes and folding them neatly on the rack provided for the purpose. Sinking into the hot bubbly water, Danny tried to order his fevered racing mind by making lists, an exercise that always saved him from the curse of disordered thinking.
The hotel bathroom was well-supplied for such exercises, the bathtub being fitted with a wire tray straddling the tub and equipped with a notepad and pen as well as the usual shaving mirror and book-holder. Armpit-deep in hot scented water, Danny drew a pro-and-con table on the pad, delineating his current position in life in as much detail as his shattered mind could summon.
I’m under suspicion for murder.
I have the best defense attorney money can buy.
I spent a night in jail.
I’m out now... and it wasn’t all that bad.
I’m going to lose a lot of friends.
I have two great new friends who believe in me.
I can’t even get into my own apartment.
I get to stay in a suite at the Queen Charlotte.
Life as I know it is over.
Something new is beginning.
It all looked pretty even, every bad thing balanced by a good thing, and not so terribly confusing in black and white. Danny felt much calmer, felt the anxiety swirling down out of him like dirty water down a sink drain. He took a deep breath and sank farther down into the tub, closing his eyes and letting the water cover his ears, blocking out the entire world outside of his body.
Danny floated like this for some minutes until a shadow crossed his closed eyelids and the sound of a distant voice crossed his conscience. Opening his eyes and sitting up, he saw Marquesa standing over him, naked, his face clean and shiny from washing, his coppery hair loose and wild, his shocking horse-cock canting out heavily from his pelvis.
"Do you think this tub is big enough for the two of us?" Marquesa asked, removing the wire tray and setting it on the floor.
I love you, I love you, I love you sang through Danny's mind. He'd always wondered how one would know that one was in love, and had been told by experienced friends that one simply knows; he'd never really believed that one can simply know something, until he himself knew, that very moment, gazing at Marquesa and knowing, completely and unambiguously, that he was indeed in love.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Marquesa asked, noting Danny's silence and the stunned look on his face.
"Like what?" Danny wondered, still staring.
"Like you've been hit on the head."
"That's pretty much how I feel," Danny admitted, not adding that he also felt as if his heart were being pulled out of his chest through his ribcage with a stout fishing-line.
Pulling back his legs to make room for Marquesa to get into the water, Danny tried to rationalize and analyze his feelings, trying to encompass these unfamiliar emotions with familiar intellect. He realized that when armored in his couture and jewels and makeup, Marquesa was amazing, fascinating, and powerful, a goddess to be worshipped; but naked, he was all of those things, but also loveable, with touching vulnerabilities, a hero to be adored. Summing up the whole thing into a phrase with which he could label the affair, he decided that he stood in awe of Marquesa Willard-Wilkes, but he was in love with Marc-Antony Finkelstein.
With that piece of logic filed away for future reference, he gave himself over to the business at hand, namely making love to a fairly tall man in a rather narrow bathtub.