Friday, November 17, 2006

Chapter Seven (Complete)

Danny sat quietly on his bunk, his ankles crossed in front of him and a magazine in his lap; his hair was neatly combed back to fluff out behind his ears, parted on the side with a rakish wave of loose curls over his forehead; his big wondering eyes were bright and clear, his smooth cheeks blushed becomingly, and a patient smile curled the corners of his cupid's-bow mouth; his t-shirt glowed white and clean against his pale skin, his orange jumpsuit looked crisply ironed, his blue shoes stood neatly beside his bunk — he presented a picture of such patent innocence that the inmates and deputies who glanced in at him as they passed his windows wondered what kind of cosmic injustice had landed such an angel in the county jail.

But Danny had already tired of thinking over the cosmic injustice of his incarceration, and was now engaged in trying to decide if he were bored, or if it was just his impatience with waiting that was marring an otherwise deliciously relaxing morning.

There was a kind of luxury inherent in having no choices: even the smallest decisions require a certain amount of energy and consequence, imagination and responsibility; but Danny hadn't had to make a single decision since entering the jail.

His breakfast was delivered to his cell as his dinner had been, a made-up tray chosen by someone else; and though the morning meal wasn't as well-prepared as the evening meal had been — the scrambled eggs were overcooked, the bacon too thick and hard, the white toast sadly limp, the orange-juice bitter and thin, and the one cup of coffee pitifully weak — it was very pleasant to eat a meal that he'd not had to expend the tiniest effort toward nor take any responsibility for.

After breakfast, a forbiddingly silent deputy named Broussard arrived to take him to the showers; and though he instinctively tried to charm the stone-faced deputy and draw him into conversation, and was a little hurt by his indifference, Danny eventually gave up the effort and adopted the deputy's silence as his own. It was distinctly creepy to do something as intimate as showering while being watched by so disinterested an audience, but it was also very restful to not have to make any kind of social effort, or even pay any attention to anything or anyone around him... all he had to do was wash himself and then dry himself.

Once he was delivered back to his cell, there was no period of wondering what to wear or what to do with his day; he had just the one outfit and absolutely nothing to do until Deputy Broussard returned to take him to court... which would be shortly before eleven, giving him two hours to kill. Danny turned on the television for noise and color, and read the last of his magazines, but he was spared the necessity of actually thinking of a way to kill the two hours — everything was out of his hands.

However, the comfortably structured nature of incarceration left one thing to be desired: the knowledge of what came next. Though he knew that he'd be taken to court at eleven, he didn't know what would happen there, what would be required of him or what outcomes were desired, how to prepare or when it would be over. His sense of adventure had waned in the tedium of the uneventful morning, and now he was left with an impatience to get on to the next thing, a need to have something decided.

Eventually the impatience won out over the relaxation, and Danny started to fidget. He still had an hour to kill, and he'd already read every word in every magazine he had, including the advertisements and mastheads. After remaking his bed with military precision, and carefully fanning out his magazines in alphabetical and chronological order, as well as ordering his toiletries from smallest to largest on the little shelf over the multipurpose plumbing fixture, he started doing calisthenics just to work off the pent-up energy.

After the first few sit-ups, Danny realized that he was going to wrinkle his jumpsuit, and that he wouldn't be able to change his t-shirt if he stained it with sweat, so he stripped down to his shorts, feeling self-conscious doing so in the rather public little cell that people invariably looked into when they passed. After warming up with standard exercises like push-ups and squats, he settled down to go through everything he could remember of his Pilates routine.

His body was grateful for the exercise, since he'd missed his workout the day before (Fridays were usually devoted to thighs and pecs, followed by an hour's swim before he went upstairs for pre-weekend grooming), the ensuing endorphin rush improved his mood dramatically, and the hour simply flew by; he even had time to wash up again at the sink/toilet and get himself dressed and primped before Deputy Broussard turned up to take him to court.

Danny was handcuffed and led through another maze of corridors and elevator trips, or perhaps the same route he'd come the day before... he couldn't tell. He wondered out loud how the deputy knew one long linoleumed hallway from another, but received no answer, nor even a flicker of emotion, from the stolid Broussard. They finally came to a stop at a little barred window in a short narrow passage, where Danny's wrist-band was read and checked against a clip-boarded list; he was told to sit down, not talk, and wait for his number to be called.

There were eleven other handcuffed detainees sitting on the plain wooden benches in the small square room, each one in an orange jumpsuit and blue shoes, each one fidgetty and nervous but sitting silent and still. Two deputies stood guard, one by the door Danny had come through and one by the door at the opposite end of the room, their batons at the ready.

After a few minutes, a third deputy came in through the opposite door and called a number, to which a large and ostentatiously ugly Samoan man responded; he was led out of the room, and returned after only five minutes. The next "contestant" (as Danny decided to think of them) was a rickety old man with leathery purple-black skin and whispy white hair, who was gone for more than a quarter of an hour. And then the next, and the next, working through the twelve detainees at an average speed of ten minutes each; when they came back in and resumed their seats, they looked relieved, or angry, or defeated, but no longer nervous and fidgetty.

Danny passed the time by making up stories about his fellow detainees, trying to guess what their names ought to be, whether or not they had jobs or cars or children, and of what crimes they were most likely accused. In his inveterate niceness, he didn't care to ascribe violent crimes such as murder, battery, or rape; instead he made up stories about minor drug-possession, petty theft, fraud, drunk-and-disorderly, and the like for the ordinary-looking men, and fancifully exotic crimes like operating opium dens, smuggling archaeological artifacts, and unauthorized iguana-farming for the more unusual-looking (the Samoan man in particular was good fodder for such imaginitive crimes, and Danny convicted him of everything from ostrich-rustling to indecent acts with the elephants at the zoo).

And though this sort of mental game-playing was fairly entertaining, it was simply torture for Danny to sit in the little square room without talking to anybody, with nothing to read or watch or do, for the better part of two hours. When his number was finally called, he was so stupefied with boredom that the deputy had to repeat it twice before Danny realized they meant him.

After so much stillness and quiet, Danny was staggered by the noise and movement in the courtroom; his entrance was greeted by the sounds and lights of two dozen cameras going off at once, and an excited murmuring could be heard under the cacophanous snapping and clicking. The judge, irritated by the sudden hubbub but immersed in a file he was reading, banged distractedly with his gavel, merely adding to the racket.

Despite the chaos in the courtroom, Danny's eye was immediately drawn to Marquesa and Valerien sitting in the front row on the aisle; even if they hadn't been directly in the center of his field of vision, he would have been drawn to their bright beauty and radiant glamour... they were dressed in pale brilliant colors with sharply tailored lines and beautifully draped fabrics, and they exuded a sort of expensive aura, almost as if they had their own light-source, that separated them from the dim and uninteresting people around them.

They waved at him discreetly, just a raised hand and a little smile each, and Danny felt overwhelmingly comforted by their presence. Marquesa was dressed in creamy beiges, a slim jacket and skirt of nubby amber-and-ivory silk tweed with fawn boots and gloves and a snap-brimmed natural straw hat, a rich drape of pearls around his neck and a voluminous scarf of shimmering champagne silk dotted with golden butterflies slung around his shoulders; Valerien wore a dove-gray linen suit with a mauve damask waistcoat and a soft silvery tie, with a foppish silver pocket-square and a tiny mauve orchid in his buttonhole... they both looked fresh and cool and absurdly young; and though they were obviously out of their element in that dun-colored, over-lit courtroom, they carried a sense of rightness and belonging with them, as if the room itself and everyone in it was completely wrong.

All the time Danny was studying and taking comfort in Marquesa and Valerien, he was being led through the court to the Defense table, where Rodney Casterman was waiting for him; turning his regard from his glamorous friends, he finally took in the rest of the courtroom and his attorney.

"What a pretty tie!" Danny said to his lawyer, his eyes shying away from the ugly flat panelling and flourescent lighting of the courtroom, and the rather frightening people around him, resting his attention instead on something he could understand, the knot of rich sapphire-blue jaquard silk that plumped forth between the crisp white linen of the lawyer's tall collar and the smooth chalk-striped navy worsted of his high-buttoned suit.

"Thank you, but please focus," Casterman spoke in an urgent undertone, gently grasping Danny's elbow, "There are some answers you'll need to questions they may ask. In particular, if asked, you have a job. I thought it would look better for your bail if you were employed, so the Baron arranged it."

"I wondered what that was about," Danny admitted, "I heard on the news that I work for a design firm?"

"Specifically, you work for Ermengratz Design Associates, you are Theo Ermengratz's assistant. Can you remember that?"

"Oh! Wow," Danny replied, blinking in surprise; Theo Ermengratz was the most important interior designer in San Francisco, so famous that his work would invariably be featured in Interior Digest (frequently on the cover), and he spent much of his leisure time making proud socialites and would-be celebrities grovel at his feet to obtain his fame-inducing services.

"You didn't tell the police you had a job," Casterman went on when he was sure the information had sunk in, "because you haven't started yet, you were just hired... you interviewed with Mr. Ermengratz on Wednesday of last week, you were hired on Thursday of this week, and you're due to report for duty on Wednesday of next week. Do you know those dates?"

"Yes, the sixteenth, twenty-third, and thirtieth."

"Excellent, my clever child. Other than that, you can just tell the truth. Hopefully they won't ask you any direct questions at all. They shouldn't; bail decisions don't usually require any questioning of the defendant. But you never can tell; this judge is a trifle unpredictable."

"But isn't this where I say 'Not guilty, your honor'?" Danny asked, confused that this didn't jibe with the proceedings he'd seen in movies and TV shows.

"No, that's for your arraignment," Casterman explained patiently, "That won't be for a few more weeks. Today is just for your bail."

"I don't see why they can't do both, it would save time," Danny frowned at this information, then smiled again, trying to lighten the sinking feeling he felt in his chest, "And it's really too bad, I've been practicing 'Not guilty, your honor,' all morning... with and without gestures."

"Silly boy," the attorney smiled back at him and jiggled his elbow, "Don't worry, you'll be out of here today, and then we can deal with arraignment in our own good time."

"Docket number 7144588, the People v. Marcus Daniel Vandervere IV, to set bail," the bailiff called out in an admirably stentorian voice, silencing the room.

"About freakin' time," the judge said under his breath, though loud enough for the microphone to pick up, starting a ripple of supressed giggles in the courtroom. Judge Michael Drummond wasn't one of the socially and politically ambitious judges who'd been dragooned by Marquesa and Valerien into working on a Saturday; he was the judge who usually worked Saturdays, all by himself, and he resented all this interference from the public and the press.

A thick and florid troll of a man with great spumes of white eyebrow over fearsome coal-black eyes, Judge Drummond was nevertheless amused by the resentable situation, and was ready to have a good laugh at someone else's expense. Staring portentously at the pretty defendant until he shrank fearfully behind his attorney, the judge called out, "Proceed!"

"The People move that the defendant be held without bail," Assistant District Attorney Reese Moon said in a deceptively vague and distracted tone that was expertly pitched to reach the farthest corners of the room. He was a very shiny man, his round hairless head, salmon taffeta shirt-and-tie set, and sleek charcoal sharkskin suit reflecting a great deal of light; he also had a lubricious voice and an oily manner that went so well with his overall sheen.

"And the Defense will no doubt move that the defendant be released on his own recognizance?" Judge Drummond peered at Casterman over his rimless reading-glasses.

"Of course. Though accused of a violent crime, Mr. Vandervere is a model citizen," Casterman declaimed with an elegant blend of grandeur and intimacy, like John Barrymore performing a love scene, "A property-owner, gainfully employed, with many ties to the community. He has no criminal record whatever, nor any record of violent or criminal behavior of any kind. He is furthermore a gentlemen, honor-bound to see his trial through. He should be released on his own recognizance."

"The People are not prepared to prove anyone's honor or lack thereof; but the facts are that the defendant has lived in San Francisco for less than two years and hasn't even started this new job," ADA Moon rebutted, producing a rattling sheaf of papers from his briefcase and gesturing for the bailiff to convey it to the judge, "Though he is indeed a property-owner; the report I am submitting to the Bench is compiled from the defendant's bank records, city tax rolls, and insurance accounts."

"Mmm-hmmm..." Judge Drummond adjusted his reading-glasses and scowled at the paperwork.

"These figures show that the defendant owns almost five million dollars' worth of rental residential property in the city," the ADA continued, handing another copy to Casterman, "He also has substantial liquid assets, over a hundred thousand in cash accounts as well as jewelry, antiques, and other valuables insured to the sum of four and a half million dollars. He is entitled to a quite considerable income on his family's Trust, which can easily be paid to offshore accounts."

"How do they know so much about me that I didn't know?" Danny whispered to his lawyer in amazement, dazzled by the surprisingly high estimate of his own wealth.

"Shush," Casterman whispered back harshly, handling the sheaf of papers delicately by one corner and then dropping them on the table in a prissily disdainful manner that was calculated to irritate the ADA.

"The Defendant is furthermore known to enjoy the friendship of a number of wealthy individuals in the international community," Moon went on, "many of whom have diplomatic influence. It would be far too easy for Mr. Vandervere to abscond to, and exist quite comfortably for the rest of his life in, any of several countries without extradition to the United States. He therefore represents a serious flight risk and should be held without bail."

"My client is innocent, and is anxious to clear his name," Casterman sounded hurt and offended, an eloquent hand laid dramatically on his chest, "And though only resident in our fair city for two years, he has lived in California all his life, as have six generations of his ancestors; he has left the state only three times in all his twenty-three years, has never once been out of the country, and does not even own a passport."

"Passports aren't difficult to come by, if you can pay," the ADA shrugged.

"Be that as it may," the defense attorney continued with a fastidious shiver of revulsion, "To incarcerate a young man who is and must be presumed innocent — a young man unaccustomed to hardship and without even a suspicion of a criminal record — for untold months or even years, for no other reason than that he has some property and a few wealthy friends, would be cruelly unjust."

"Mmm-hmmm..." Judge Drummond looked from one attorney to the other, and then to the defendant (who had turned quite white and was trembling a little at the thought of spending months or years in that tiny cell), "I agree, Mr. Casterman, that indefinite incarceration might, in this case, constitute punishment prior to conviction; however, Mr. Moon is quite correct, in that the defendant could leave the country with greater ease than the average citizen."

The judge leaned back and studied the papers provided by the ADA in silence for some minutes, grunting and huffing as he settled into himself like a sleepy owl. The room started to rustle slightly in the prolonged suspense, but the judge went on reading and thinking as if he were quite alone in the court. Finally, he shuffled the papers together and placed them neatly on the desk, then looked up with dramatic suddenness.

"I think we can strike a compromise: we shall give Mr. Vandervere sufficient material incentive to remain for trial, without having to resort to incarceration. Bail is set at ten million dollars," Judge Drummond banged his gavel and closed the docket folder with a decisive gesture.

"Ten million?!" Danny screamed in disbelief and horror, "I haven't got ten million dollars!"

"Shut up!" Casterman gave Danny a savage pinch on the arm that made him yelp.

"I could make it 'cash, not bond,' if you prefer," Judge Drummond smiled viciously.

"I'm sorry, your honor, I didn't... mean to..." Danny's meek apology petered out in confusion as he tried to puzzle out what 'cash, not bond' meant.

"I didn't think so," Drummond chuckled grimly, "And that makes a nice dozen. Court is in Recess for lunch."

"All rise!" the bailiff bellowed.

"But how am I going to make bail?" Danny moaned to Casterman under the covering noise of the court shuffling to its collective feet, "I really haven't got ten million dollars! The Trust won't pay that much, and I'll never be able to sell everything to raise the money from in here!"

"Pull yourself together, child," Casterman chucked him lightly on the chin, "It's already taken care of, the Baron and Mr. Willard-Wilkes have arranged your bail."

"What?" Danny's knees buckled from surprise, and he put out his hands to steady himself against the table, "Why?"

"I really couldn't say why," Casterman turned to place his papers into his briefcase, "Except that they like you, they believe in you, and they have the resources to help you. Now don't keep the deputy waiting any longer. You're to be released immediately, I'll meet you at the other end."

Speechless with gratitude, Danny waved weakly at his benefactors as he was led out of the courtroom. Valerien waved back excitedly, and Marquesa blew a big movie-star kiss, before they were lost to view.

The Release process was almost exactly like the Intake process, but in reverse, and Danny met many of the same deputies as he was led back through. Though he tried to be cheerful with them, he had far too much on his mind, and the effort was a little strained; and now that Danny's identity and background were known, the deputies were a little more distant with him as well... a pretty boy in trouble is one thing, but a pretty rich-kid in trouble is something else altogether, something to instinctively resent and distrust.

His first stop was his cell, to strip his bed for the laundry and retrieve whatever he'd bought from the commissary, then back down to the booking rooms to relinquish his prison clothes and retrieve his own garments. The deputy in charge of Property had rather more to give back than Danny had given up the previous afternoon, as his wallet, keys, and PDA had been entered into property by Detective Spevik while he was being booked; it was the money from his own wallet that had been deposited for his use in jail (though the money from his boots had blood and oil on them and so were still considered evidence).

Danny was also given another brief medical examination to make sure nothing untoward had happened to him in jail; but instead of fresh fingerprinting and DNA-sampling, he was given a multi-page questionnaire to fill out, requiring every conceivable address at which he could be reached, as well as soliciting his opinion of how he had been treated, whether or not he had been given his proper rights and offered services in a timely manner... he was even invited to share his thoughts on what the San Francisco Sheriff's Department might have done to make his stay more pleasant. After filling out all the bubbles in glowing affirmatives, Danny was officially released.

Once again dressed comfortably and elegantly in his new earthtone cashmere and linen, with his belongings in a large paper envelope and the white wristband still attached to his wrist, he wandered dazedly into the Release lobby, where he spotted Casterman waving at him near the door.

"There, now," Casterman greeted him warmly with a handshake and a pat on the head, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"No, it was a lot nicer than I expected," Danny allowed with a smiling shrug, "The only really painful experience I've had so far is when you pinched me. You left a bruise!"

"I'm afraid I forgot myself," Casterman laughed, putting his arm paternally around Danny's shoulder and leading him toward the exit, "And you were being a jackass, yelling like that in a court of law. The news media is going to serve your outburst to the hungry millions for dinner tonight. You simply must remember the cameras from now on!"

"Sorry," Danny looked at his feet and blushed, ashamed of his undisciplined behavior; he had completely forgotten about the cameras, and had not considered what effect his perfectly understandable but quite inappropriate reaction might have on his case.

"It's absolutely no fun scolding you, my dear child," Casterman relented, reaching out to tug gently on Danny's forelock, surprised at the warmth he felt for the young man, "You're so charmingly submissive."

He didn't like to get attached to his clients, but Casterman couldn't help falling a little bit in love with this boy. There was something so trusting and beatific about him, something tender and fragile that was neither weak nor insipid. The attorney, inured over long years of criminal defense to mankind's turpitude and wickedness, responded to the beauty in Danny's nature that was even greater than his physical beauty; and the thing that separates the civilized man from the barbarian is the desire to adore and protect beauty rather than consume and destroy it.

"Now," Casterman stepped back and straightened Danny's hair and sweater fussily, as he would for his own son, "there will be reporters outside: do not speak to them. Just act confused by all the voices and flashbulbs... which should be easy, as you no doubt will be confused by all the voices and flashbulbs. Any sane person would be. Be careful to not look frightened or guilty; hold a smile, nod graciously, shrug apologetically as required."

"Like so?" Danny asked, nodding graciously and shrugging apologetically while holding a benign and noncommital smile.

"That's perfect, you're a born actor. If we get separated, just head for the Baron's car, it's that brown-and-gold Rolls parked out on the street, do you see it? Bascombe will let you in and ward off any reporters who get too close. Don't run under any circumstances, just walk steadily and don't talk. Ready? Break!"

The deafening, blinding maelstrom of voices and flashbulbs took Danny by surprise, despite Casterman's warning, and it was very easy for him to not talk to anyone as he was hustled through the clamoring throng to the waiting car... he didn't even understand any of the questions, they came so fast and furious. He felt Casterman's arm slide off his shoulders and heard the attorney's distinctive voice adding itself to the din, but he slipped through the crowd like a greased fish and found himself quite suddenly enveloped in quiet as the car-door closed behind him.

"This is so exciting!" Valerien cried as he pulled Danny down onto the deep divan-like seat between himself and Marquesa, then grabbed his neck and kissed him passionately on the mouth; when Valerien eventually pulled back, he looked up into Danny's eyes with his heart-fluttering worshipful expression, "I've never rescued anyone from prison before!"

"It's just a county jail, you daft frog, not the Château d'If," Marquesa drawled, putting out a gloved hand to touch Danny's cheek gently, "Are you all right, darling? They didn't hurt you in there, did they?"

"I'm fine," Danny said, the tears shining in his eyes again, "I can't thank you both enough for getting me out of there. I mean, ten million dollars! It's too much!"

"Nonsense," Marquesa dismissed the magnitude of the gesture with an airy wave of his hand and rummaged in his handbag for cigarettes, "It's just a bond, we only had to put ten percent on deposit. We were prepared for worse, Val's bank had everything set up for several contingencies before close-of-business yesterday."

"Still, it's an awful lot," Danny took Marquesa's flashy diamond-crusted platinum lighter and held the flame steady for him, "Taking even a million out of circulation will represent a net loss of tens of thousands of dollars, if this trial drags on."

"Hark at you," Marquesa laughed, blowing out a cloud of smoke, "'Net loss,' indeed... you sound like an accountant! Darling, the amount of money we stand to lose is less than what I routinely give to grovelling little charities I've never even heard of. Ten thousand here or there isn't going to break either of us."

"But you could lose the whole ten million if I skipped bail," Danny reasoned, "I am so grateful I can't even express myself. You have to let me sign over my property, or some kind of promisory note, as security."

"We know perfectly well you'd never skip bail. You're our friend," Valerien turned Danny's face to his, "And we know you're innocent. The money simply isn't important, you're to put it out of your mind this instant. Marquesa, peek outside and see if Casterman's finished with the press yet; I want my lunch."

While Marquesa pulled back the window-shade an inch or so, Danny was able to look around at the car; he hadn't seen it very clearly from outside, but was pretty sure it was a Silver Cloud limousine of 1950s vintage. The interior was cavernous, plush with camel-beige velvet and gold fittings, with a sheepskin rug and two jumpseats facing the deep backseat on either side of a walnut cabinet containing a stereo system and a miniature wet-bar; all the windows were covered in parchment shades, and the driver's seat was sealed off beyond a padded partition inset with an elaborate enamel coat-of-arms.

"Here he comes," Marquesa called out after a few moments of watching, "Bascombe is elbowing out a passageway for him. Where should we have lunch?"

The noise of reporters and cameras exploded into the luxurious cabin as the door opened and the lawyer darted in, and stopped just as suddenly when the door slammed shut. The car rocked a bit as it started up, though no noise of a running engine could be detected, and the chauffeur nudged the great Rolls carefully out of the crowd.

"I was thinking L'Aurente," Valerien answered before turning to the attorney, "You'll join us, Mr. Casterman?"

"L'Aurente?" the attorney repeated the name in surprise; it was the most expensive and exclusive French restaurant in town, perched atop a little-known but extremely posh hotel on Geary halfway between Union Square and the Theatre District, a favorite after-shopping or pre-show destination for the see-and-be-seen element of Society, and sure to be crowded on a Saturday afternoon, "Isn't that awfully... public?"

"It would be absolutely fatal to be thought to be hiding at this juncture," Marquesa intoned seriously, gesturing with his cigarette, "Danny must be seen lunching with us quite innocently in order to be believed innocent. The rumor mill must be controlled immediately."

"You don't mind, do you?" Valerien asked Danny, concerned for his feelings.

"Of course not," Danny smiled happily, not understanding why everyone was worried about it, "I love lunching at L'Aurente!"

"Grenier, we're going to L'Aurente," Valerien spoke into a little gilded microphone he'd plucked off the wall by his arm, "Please call Annalise and let her know there will be four of us for lunch; and a table by the door for yourself and Bascombe, of course."

"Oui, M'sieu," came a crackly voice from the little device, "Merci bien."

"Who is Bascombe?" Danny wondered about the person he'd heard mentioned so frequently without ever seeing.

"My driver and bodyguard," Marquesa told him, practically whispering the second descriptor as if embarrassed by it, twiddling distractedly with his pearls, "He's following in my car. He goes with me everywhere, especially if I'm wearing good jewels."

"Oh," Danny replied, wondering suddenly where Bascombe had been when they'd all spent the night at Valerien's, and if he'd know anything about who killed Marshall. But he was too overwhelmed with new ideas and worries to really consider this information, so he filed it away for later use.

"What fun!" Casterman enthused, clapping his hands gleefully to mask the strange burning anger he felt at the knowledge that, despite his own hard-earned fame, he'd have had to make reservations at L'Aurente a week in advance, and would have been given a table in the rear beside the bussing station if he did get a reservation; yet the Baron de Seguemont, twenty-five years his junior and without a single known accomplishment to his name, could just have his chauffeur call in at the last minute and expect two separate and excellent tables, "A Saturday lunch at L'Aurente! I'm thinking of the ris de veaux with a lovely crisp Meyer-Fonné. And I hope you'll let me expense-account this... I love taking things off my taxes!"

"You're very kind," Valerien accepted the offer with a gracious nod.

The rest of the ride was dominated by a discussion of various wines and the practicalities of reds or whites with organ meats. Danny wondered why they were riding with the blinds down, feeling a little claustrophobic (though after his night in jail he no longer feared small spaces with an immediate panic, he still didn't like being closed in) but he didn't dare ask that they be opened... he felt too raw and shaky to talk, and too deeply indebted to ask any further favors, so he just sat quietly and looked at the three people who had taken it upon themselves for their own mysterious reasons to save him.

"You're all so kind," Danny whispered, a grateful tear spilling down his cheek; but nobody heard him, enrapt in a tense argument about the relative adaptibility of French versus Italian whites for fusion cuisines.

***

"This is useless," Marriott Griggs growled at the oil-stained berber carpet covering the late Drayton Marshall's hallway.

"Uh-huh," Charlie Putnam mumbled from the nearby darkened bathroom, where he was crouched beside the toilet, scrutinizing the area behind the fixture with an ultraviolet flashlight in search of any clues that might have escaped notice during the initial investigation; a pitiful few of such had surfaced during this second investigation, the kinds of seemingly insignificant bits of human detritus, hair and skin and dried fluids, that make such impressive appearances in television crime dramas but don't do much to further a real-life investigation. A small heap of plastic evidence bags and swabs had already been sealed and labeled, the niggardly reward of looking under every cushion, behind every picture, around the edges of every rug, and within every book and dish and box in the apartment.

"Damned inconsiderate of him," Griggs complained of the dead man, "putting a flat woven carpet right next to a crime scene. But I suppose if you plan to have a lot of vegetable oil trailing around, you don't want to put down a deep pile that's hard to clean."

"Uh-huh," Charlie repeated, reaching a long swab into the crevice between the baseboard and the tile floor under the toilet, a spot most people neglect in their cleaning; but it yielded nothing, not so much as a speck of dust, thanks to the maddeningly thorough Mrs. Espinosa.

"But here’s something odd," Griggs stood up creakily and examined the wall, first with his eyes and then with a camera, "there’s a smudge in one of Vandervere’s handprints on the wall… like two fingertips, but no print, just a smudge. One of those flatfooted cops might have done that yesterday, but it looks like a gloved fingertip."

"Mmmm," Charlie crawled into the bathtub and started spraying the drain and fixtures with Luminol, but found nothing, "Damn that cleaning-woman! I’ve never seen such a sterile bathroom!"

"Did you Luminol the toilet bowl?" Griggs appeared in the bathroom doorway, switching out the memory card in his camera.

"The toilet bowl?" Charlie sat up and stared at the fixture in question, pushing his glasses up on his nose, "Why the toilet bowl?"

"We've been going about this all wrong, groping about for evidence of any other persons in this apartment," Griggs crouched down beside the toilet and peered at it inquisitively, "So let's take a different tack, let's create an alternate theory and see if we can make it fly."

"Okay," Charlie crawled out of the bathtub.

"Let us posit, for the sake of argument, that Vandervere was telling the truth, that he didn’t kill Marshall; it would naturally follow that someone killed Marshall, because the man is inescapably dead; therefore, there had to be a second visitor that night, and it appears that this second visitor did not leave any obvious clues behind. To achieve such a dearth of evidence, the second visitor would have to want to leave no clues to his or her identity behind."

"I see,” the young man followed the train of thought while turning off the water supply and draining the toilet bowl, "So we try to think like the second visitor, and wonder how best to avoid leaving evidence that anyone would find, looking for a pattern in the method."

"Precisely. So say this Second Visitor managed to get into this apartment, sneaking up on the victim without leaving any bits and pieces behind, or even disturbing the numerous bits and pieces Vandervere left behind — which can't have been difficult, they were so plain; but when he or she drives a knife into the victim’s chest, some blood will undoubtedly spray out, staining the killer’s knife-hand at the very least. There are no serious bloodstains anywhere in the apartment except in the vicinity of the victim, so that blood had to go somewhere. The techs tested the sink yesterday, that’s the obvious place, but nothing in the drain, just the same tiny traces Vandervere left all over the apartment after breaking Marshall’s nose. You just tested the bathtub with no result at all. The only place left, the only logical place to wash off blood without taking a chance of dripping it anywhere else, would be in the toilet."

"Well, I’ll be damned," Charlie breathed, delighted by the dim ghost-blue glow emerging in the toilet bowl, dimly at first as the Luminol picked up the blood trace, then brightly as it cross-reacted to the other chemicals in the toilet, "Blood. But very faint… and it wasn't solid, it looked like streaks down from the rim."

"The blood came down from the tank!" Griggs exclaimed, "Now, that is clever! Who would think to look for evidence of blood in a toilet tank? Get that lid off… gently, and spray it before we get into the tank… hmm, nothing on the lid at all. Let’s see if our Second Visitor left anything in here! I suppose a bloody glove would be too much to ask."

"A bit," Charlie agreed, peering into the tank. It was quite clean, as he had come to expect, and smelled strongly of bleach; but with the water drained, the Luminol revealed that there had been a fair amount of blood in the tank.

"Is that a hair beside the drain?" Griggs reached out with a long tweezers to pluck an almost invisible thread away from the pipe, then held it up under his flashlight magnifier, "It looks like it’s been bleached all to hell, no chance of DNA. But it appears to have some color left? Gray? Blond? I can’t quite tell."

"Dark blond, I’d say, but faded out from the bleach," Charlie suggested, leaning over the ME’s shoulder.

"And perfectly straight, it can’t be Vandervere’s, it must be the victim’s. The second visitor didn’t leave any hair anywhere else, there’s no reason to believe he or she would leave one here. There’s no reason to believe that anyone would leave a hair in the tank, except maybe a plumber or the maid. We know it's not the maid's hair, hers is quite black, I guess we'll have to check and find out if any plumbers have been in here."

"The post-mortem indicated that the killer grabbed Marshall’s hair with one hand and stabbed him with the other. He would be bound to have hair on that hand, which would be washed off in this tank along with the blood."

"He or she, Putnam. Let’s not jump to any conclusions yet, even if only semantic. You start calling the killer ‘He’ and you start believing that the killer is a man; then you start subconsciously excluding the possibility that the killer is a woman," the Medical Examiner took a round of photographs of the toilet, though the bleach cross-reaction had already rendered the toilet tank useless as evidence, and then gestured to his trainee to replace the lid, "This is becoming very interesting, indeed. So we can posit now that the theoretical unknown killer washed his or her hands, which we can readily assume were gloved in surgical latex (hence the complete lack of prints), in this toilet tank; he or she must have known that there would be blood to wash off after the murder, and so removed the lid in preparation, as there was no blood trace on the lid. Then he or she threw in some bleach, maybe flushed a few times to get rid of the visible traces like hair and clots... such a clever and far-thinking person would have brought the bleach, no?"

"Or more likely just took it away with him... or her," Charlie corrected himself, "There are no bleach bottles in this bathroom, nor do I recall seeing any in the kitchen; a place this ridiculously clean would be bound to have at least one bottle of bleach in the cupboards."

"That's very suggestive," Griggs sat down on the edge of the bathtub, "Let’s think about why someone would take the bleach away. Aside from possibly leaving blood evidence on the bottle."

"Perhaps it was needed elsewhere?" Charlie hazarded.

"Perhaps, perhaps. But where? And why? Let’s say that the killer, after washing his or her hands in here, scampered out of the apartment, being very careful to not touch anything on the way. What need would he or she have for bleach after that?"

"To clean up someplace else? Someplace where he or she might have left evidence behind? Perhaps the area where he or she waited for the opportunity to enter the apartment?"

"Of course!" Griggs jumped up and started towards the front door, Charlie trailing him closely, "Let’s say the killer knew that Vandervere was here, knew somehow that the boy would leave at some point and the door might be left open. Or suppose that he or she had been staking out this apartment for some time, waiting for an opportunity to enter. If he or she is as clever as we are being led to believe, there would be a need for the bleach to clean up any evidence of lurking. So let’s look for a good lurking-place and see if we’re right about the bleach. If I were waiting for an opportunity to enter this apartment, where would I lurk?"

"That service door," Charlie pointed to the narrow door with a frosted-glass upper panel just past the bend of the corridor, which if left ajar commanded a clear view of the apartment’s front door as well as the kitchen entrance around the corner.

"Perfectly placed, isn't it? Let's have a look," the ME and his trainee entered the the service area, an odd-shaped hallway with concrete floors and walls, a plain sash window leading onto a fire-escape at one end, a laundry room and janitor's closet on the right, and the straight narrow service stairs along the left wall, "One could lurk here for hours, all you'd need for a cover-story is a load of laundry."

"It stinks of bleach," Charlie sniffed the air.

"And rather more than the adjacence of a laundry room can account for. Unfortunately, this scene has most likely been contaminated," Griggs sighed, "Though this wasn't the stairwell used in the general stampede yesterday morning, it's still a public space… there's no way of knowing how many people have traipsed through here since our mysterious Second Visitor might have mopped the place with bleach."

"But that makes it easier, doesn't it? Anything with bleach on it will predate the bleaching."

"A very good idea... unless, of course, bleach is routinely used to clean these service areas. I'm inclined to doubt it, but we'll have to consult the maintenance staff. Still, we may as well have a look around and see what's here. My old knees can't deal with this cement, so I'll take the high road and you take the low road, and we'll both get to Scotland sooner or later."

The next half-hour passed in relative silence as the two men scrutinized the hallway's surfaces, first with the unaided eye, then with ultraviolet flashlights, and then with fingerprint powder. Griggs was uncharacteristically quiet, only grunting occasionally with disgust, unable to find anything; Charlie found a few things of interest but, accustomed to speaking only when spoken to, he didn't mention them.

"Not one single solitary fingerprint!" Griggs finally exclaimed after completing the circuit of the hallway, "Not on the doorknobs, not on the windowsills, not on the railings, not on the walls or light-fixtures. Somebody cleaned this place but good, and nobody but us has touched anything since. Anything down there?"

"A couple of hairs stuck behind this conduit pipe," Charlie indicated a small painted-over metal pipe that ran alongside the baseboard, carrying either gas or old electrical wires, "Different colors but similar lengths, so I bagged them separately. Some white fibers caught in the corner of the stair-tread there, I think it's from the mop. And a tiny corner of a black foil wrapper, I can't tell what it wrapped, but it was lodged under the wood of the doorsill. It all smells of bleach, there's no chance of DNA."

"Well, let's see about the laundry room," Griggs shrugged and hauled his kit into the sweet-smelling triangular room, "Luminol that sink, see if anything bloody was washed there. And the insides of the washers, too. I'll dust for fingerprints."

"Nothing," Charlie reported after spraying and examining all of areas where someone might conceivably wash something.

"But there are a zillion prints. Overlapping, smudged, every possible size, impossible to separate. I don't think our mysterious Second Visitor was in here at all."

"So where did he or she get the water for the mop? Not from another floor, surely."

"That's a good question," Griggs went back out into the hallway and looked up and down the open stairwell, "I assume there are laundry rooms on every floor, it wouldn't be too difficult. Let's see how far up and down the bleach-cleaning goes."

Charlie went up the stairs, sniffing for bleach and dusting the railing as he went, and counted three floors without any fingerprints, and a sudden plethora of indecipherably overlapping prints starting on the railing of the last flight of the staircase, rising from the eleventh floor and ending at an access to the roof of that wing. Griggs, however, found fingerprints on the next floor down.

"The cleaning stops at the seventh floor," Griggs shouted up the stairwell as he began his ascent.

"And the eleventh," Charlie shouted back down, "Why farther up than down, do you think?"

"Because he or she came from up there, would be my guess, and was anxious to not leave any evidence of his or her identity. If the Second Visitor holds to a pattern, I would say that he or she entered this stairwell on the tenth floor, and cleaned up one and down one to confuse things. But a truly clever person would have mopped out the entire stairwell, or equal distances in each direction. Perhaps he or she is a trifle lazy."

"Or didn't have time," Charlie suggested, rejoining his mentor on the eighth floor, "Though nobody has been through here since it was cleaned, there's no guarantee that nobody would come through here. Or perhaps he or she was counting on traffic through this stairwell to cover the evidence of cleaning."

"Oh, I don't think so... if he or she knew there was a lot of traffic, that would make this spot undesirable for staking out the victim's apartment."

"But doesn't the cleaning leave more evidence of his or her clandestine presence?"

"I think that our Second Visitor was more anxious to leave nothing traceable behind, rather than to leave no evidence at all. He or she seems to be particularly sensible to the properties of DNA and fingerprint evidence. Perhaps he or she has a police record. Let's have a look at those fibers, I wonder if they came from a household mop or an industrial mop."

"They look industrial to me," Charlie offered the clear plastic evidence bag, "Coarse cotton, more gray than white. Household mops are usually whiter and finer."

"We'd better get the keys and look through all the janitors' closets up and down this stairwell and find out if bleach had been used on any of the mops."

"They're not locked," Charlie observed, opening the nearest door.

"There's no mop in here," Griggs peered into the dark and jumbled space, "Try the floors above and yell if you find a mop."

The Medical Examiner found the light-switch and began examining the contents of the closet while the trainee leapt up the stairs to investigate the other closets. He found several bottles of clear green cleaning fluid that were most likely what the maintenance staff used to mop the building, and wondered briefly why the Second Visitor hadn't used it to wash away the evidence... but then discovered upon reading the ingredients list that it was mild organic cleanser that might not properly break down DNA evidence with the alacrity of bleach.

"Very clever, very clever," Griggs murmured admiringly. He began dusting for fingerprints, but again found none... though it didn't appear that the inside of the closet had been bleached, and hadn't even been cleaned in a good long time. Finding a small stool in the corner, the Medical Examiner sat down to think.

"There are two mops in the tenth-floor closet," Charlie reported breathlessly, skittering excitedly down the stairs, "And one of them not only reeks of bleach, but had some hairs in it! And they match one that I found behind that pipe down here! Look!"

"Very good, Charlie, my boy!" Griggs clapped the young man on the back and took the evidence-bag from him, holding it up to the light to see the hair inside better, "What color is that? Blue? Red?"

"It used to be dark purple, I think," Charlie squinted at the bag, glowing with pride, "It's faded, but I think it was once dyed a deep violet, maybe a wine color. We'll know once we get it under a microscope. And unless these hairs belong to a janitor, I think this very likely belongs to the Second Visitor."

"Were there prints on either of the mops?" Griggs wondered, thinking again of the dirty but strangely printless eighth-floor closet."

"No, it's the wierdest thing," Charlie explained, "Not one fingerprint on the door, inside or out, nothing on either mop, nothing on the buckets, nothing on the cleaning supplies. But I don't think it was cleaned out, it looks simply as if the person who ordinarily uses the closet always wore gloves."

"Ah, that would explain it," Griggs resumed his stool and thought for a while, "The concierge wears gloves; I bet the janitors wear gloves, too. A building like this would have gloves and well-pressed uniforms and hypoallergenic cleaning solutions."

"I wonder why the Second Visitor didn't just wear gloves as well... why go through all the trouble of bleaching the floors and walls and railings?"

"If the Second Visitor isn't a janitor, he or she wouldn't want to be seen lurking around with gloves on. But I nevertheless find it very suggestive that such care was taken to remove DNA evidence, but I can't quite see what it suggests."

"At least it lets Vandervere off," Charlie shrugged, putting his kit back together.

"You jump ahead too far!" Griggs admonished his protege with an impatient stamp of his foot, "All we've proved is that some blood was in a toilet tank, that somebody bleached that tank and that somebody left a hair in it. We can't even prove that they were the same somebody. We've further proved that somebody bleached several floors of this stairwell using the mop from this closet, who might very easily have been an entirely different somebody. We have not proved the slightest connection between this stairwell and Marshall's apartment... the presence of something as common as bleach doesn't prove anything at all, more's the pity."

"But doesn't this show that somebody else was in that apartment? Doesn't anything we found support Vandervere's story?"

"I'll let you crawl the floor between this stairwell and that apartment door and find out if any bleach was spilled between here and there, it's the only way to prove such a thing. You can also take some swabs of this bleach and of the inside of the toilet tank, on the outside chance that the bleach was unusual in some way. Otherwise, there isn't the tiniest connection between these two scenes."

"But why else would anybody mop up and down stairs like this, destroying evidence so well, without having something important to hide?"

"My dear Putnam, there are probably hundreds of different people who have some degree of access to this stairwell... residents, visitors, staff, servants, delivery-people. Any one of them could have a hundred reasons for doing any number of even more bizarre things. Marshall himself might have dumped blood into that toilet-tank, for all we know. The man was obviously a freak, and I don't use such terms lightly. Until we know more about the evidence we have, and until we know a lot more about the people who live in this building, all we have is some theories that wouldn't stand ten minutes of outside scrutiny."

"And what about the blood? Vandervere didn't have enough blood dripping off of him to be consistent with a stab wound, you said yourself that the blood in the apartment was in very small amounts."

"That doesn't let him off, either. Remember, he was already covered in oil and had already left DNA in the playpen; all he'd have to do is wiggle his hand in the oil to remove most of the blood from the stab-wound, only a little would remain trapped in the oil already on him, and we'd never know the difference. He also already had Marshall's hair on him, we found it in his clothes, he could have gotten it when he pulled the victim up by his hair in the portion of their interchange that was videotaped, and he might have got them while gripping the victim's hair while stabbing him. Both scenarios are equally likely, but the body of evidence still points to Vandervere and no one else."

"Why couldn't the Second Visitor have washed his or her hand in the oil as well?" Charlie wondered.

"Because there would be dripping. If the Second Visitor is a different size from Vandervere, we'd have noticed the difference in oil-stain placement. This Second Visitor is smarter than that. If he or she even exists, which we simply cannot prove."

"Well, fuck!" Charlie kicked the plastic-bagged mop he'd brought down from the tenth floor.

"All is not lost, my boy," Griggs struggled to his feet and helped gather up the evidence bags, "We haven't got any proof of anything yet, but we have opened up a number of new lines of investigation. Who mopped this hallway? Who bleached that toilet? How might a person enter an apartment, commit a murder, and leave no trace behind? And, I think most importantly, why would someone be so sensitive to the possibility of leaving DNA evidence behind?"

"It's a lot more work," Charlie sighed.

"Hard work is good for the soul," Griggs said with mock gravity, "Besides, I feel a lot better about our evidence now that there are more questions than there are answers. Yesterday's 'slam dunk' never really felt right, although it was very exciting at the time. Now I feel fully confident that we have retrieved every possible piece of evidence from this scene. If anything of even the tiniest import has escaped our attention this time, I will eat my lab coat."

***

L’Aurente buzzed like a kicked beehive; a sensational entrance in that vertiginously exclusive eatery was extremely rare, populated as it was by a class of people who mostly knew each other socially and would rather die than admit otherwise, and was usually marked by a mild susurration of well-bred whispering, comparable to a light breeze in a willow-tree, rather than an agitated roar better compared to the audience of a hotly contested prize-fight.

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 mauve-bellied 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 unusually large 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 a lady's 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 wish to 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 had also 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? Your 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 an advantage while Valerien was forced off the field by family duty struck the latter as unsporting and the former as perfectly fair.

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. Vandervere'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 elderly relatives. I've noticed that young men raised by old 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, whose windows 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, sliding open the double pocket doors 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 Italian tile.

"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, the same way that Deputy Lasciewicz had done as well, in fact the only thing one can do with an hysterical child of twenty-two years: he took a firm hold on Danny and pulled 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 an 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 clothes. Go take your bath."

Danny went obediently into the bathroom and started drawing a bath, choosing a hyacinth bubble-bath from the array on the shelf, and pulling off his clothes. Sinking into the hot foamy water, Danny tried to order his fevered, racing mind by making a list, 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 jumbled mind could summon.

CON

PRO

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 floating away from him on the scented hot water. 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 human frailties, 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.

____________________________

14,287 Words ~ 24 Pages

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi there! I could have sworn I've been to this site before but after checking through some of the post I realized it's new to me.
Anyways, I'm definitely delighted I found it and I'll be
book-marking and checking back often!

Have a look at my page: weight management