Friday, September 28, 2007

Chapter Nine (Complete)

Danny woke up when the phone rang, disoriented by the unaccustomed location and the unmeasured passage of time. He groggily reached over for the instrument and mumbled into it.

"Monsieur Vandervere?," came a crisp French-accented voice, "Mademoiselle Willard-Wilkes's manservant is here. May I send him up?"

"Mmmph," Danny didn't want to see the man, but knew that Marquesa would want his clothes and jewelry back, "Okay."

"Very good, m'sieu."

Sitting up in the bed, Danny wondered if he should just stay where he was and pretend to be asleep, or if he should hide in the bathroom; but by the time Danvers knocked, he realized he'd have to let the man into the suite. So he put on his bathrobe, knotted the cord firmly, and opened the door.

"Good afternoon, sir," Danvers bowed slightly, though not as crisply as he had before, and his expression was softer, not so disapproving, "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"I was just going to take a shower," Danny walked out of the room with what he hoped was an air of unconcern, locking the bathroom door behind him. He turned on the water but didn't get in; instead, he sat on the little bathroom stool in the corner and listened to the manservant moving around in the bedroom, wishing he would leave so Danny could go back to bed.

After half an hour, there was a quiet knock on the bathroom door that startled Danny out of the trance of blank waiting he'd fallen into. The room had filled up with steam, and he couldn't see anything.

"Is there anything I can do for you, sir?" Danvers's voice came softly through the door.

"I can't hear you, I'm in the shower," Danny lied.

"Very good, sir," the servant said loudly, then dropped his voice to a low rumble that could barely be heard, "Though I can't help but notice your voice came from the opposite side of the room from the shower, and that water makes a different sound falling on a body than on an empty floor."

Danny blushed crimson, humiliated to be caught out in the lie, but didn't answer.

"I've put your clothes away, sir," Danvers resumed in his louder professional voice, "and laid out something suitable in case you choose to go to the lounge for tea, as well as your dinner clothes. Mr. Willard-Wilkes sent some cash for tips and incidentals, it's in an envelope on the table in the foyer. Good afternoon, sir."

"Thank you," Danny called out, getting hastily into the shower so that he wouldn't have to admit that he hadn't been there in the first place; he wanted to say something more articulate in gratitude for Danvers' thoughtfulness, but the words didn't come. When he did finally get out of the shower, he put on a good deal of body-lotion and combed his hair with undue thoroughness before returning to the bedroom, killing time to make sure the man was gone.

Danvers had laid out a very nice outfit on the bed, a snappy blue-and-white striped shirt with a dull red silk sweater and tan linen pants, with socks and underwear lying on top and a pair of cordovan loafers neatly placed on the floor. The dinner-suit was laid out with equal precision on the other side of the bed, with a navy blue satin tie and waistcoat.

Danny put on the afternoon clothes, for no reason other than that they were there, since he didn't intend to leave the suite any time soon. The dinner-suit he put back in the closet, not wanting to look at it... it had happy memories attached to it, and Danny didn't want to think happy thoughts.

The envelope of money gave him a sting of pain: it contained a stack of twenties and another stack of fifties, full inch-thick US Mint hundred-count packets with the denomination bands unbroken, more money than he could possibly hand out in tips if he stayed at the Queen Charlotte all summer. This was clearly the "walking-around money" or "cab-fare" or "pick out a present from me" that stood as a euphemism for the amateur prostitute's fee.

Seven thousand dollars was a pretty good fee for a weekend, and Danny had to smile at the generosity; but this unnecessarily large sum underlined for Danny the fact that this had been just a weekend fling for Marquesa. They could still be friends, as close as Danny usually was with his moneyed tricks; but considering the two packets of cash for "incidentals" along with the hotel bills and the new wardrobe from Saks, not to mention half of the million-dollar bail bond, there was simply too much expenditure involved for Danny to ever feel on equal footing with Marquesa. He was irrevocably cast in his usual role of Courtesan instead of his desired role of Lover.

Dropping the cash negligently into a drawer, Danny lay down on the couch and watched television for a few hours, changing channels with an impatient sneer when anything even remotely romantic came on, slipping occasionally into a deep sleep and waking with a start when something loud happened on the TV.

When he eventually got hungry, he ordered up a selection of canape-sized comfort foods, baby quiches and tiny shepherd's pies and sinfully cheesy crab-puffs, along with a couple of bottles of oaky white wine, so that he wouldn't have to think about food for a while, he could just nibble and sip whenever the mood took him.

The waiter set up some of the food on the coffee table between the couch and the television, and put one of the bottles of wine in an ice-bucket to chill, then took the rest into the little wet-bar/kitchen Danny hadn't realized was there, hidden beside the little foyer behind a folding wall-panel. As soon as the waiter left, with a nice crisp fifty tucked into his pocket, Danny resumed his vigil on the couch, flipping channels pointlessly, occasionally turning over to stare at the ceiling or the upholstery, dozing off every now and then as he'd been doing all day.

He felt (he decided after a long time casting about for the right word) bleak. Bleak and empty, like a Nevada salt-flat in winter... he was no longer especially sad, the hurt of the morning had dulled to a dreary numbness, and he simply didn't want anything... didn't want to eat, didn't want to read, didn't want to talk, didn't want to move, didn't want to feel pleasure, didn't want to think.

But he did think: he thought about how stupid he'd been to believe that Marquesa was falling in love with him as he'd fallen in love with Marquesa; he thought about the matter-of-fact way Marquesa had recommended going after Valerien instead, and the cavalier attitude about the "tips and incidentals"; he thought even more about how that coldness had excited him in the first place; he thought about all the time he'd wanted to fall in love without having the tiniest idea how much it could hurt; he thought about what a fool he was.

Sometime in the very early hours of the next morning, however, Danny finally got bored with his inertia. His was a nature that was ill-suited for wallowing in unhappiness... he could be unhappy, but he was incapable of lying around with it for very long. He had to get up and do something to take his mind off it. He got up and peeled out of the stale wrinkled clothes he'd been wearing for over twelve hours, then opened the window and leaned out for some fresh air, feeling his skin come alive in the chilly damp.

Leafing through the little book of the hotel's amenities, he was pleased to discover the place had a small gymnasium and swimming pool in the basement that would open at 6 a.m. Checking the little clock on the desk, Danny was irritated to find that it was only 4... but then decided that a couple of fifties could probably get a helpful desk-clerk to open them up for him. Calling downstairs, he discovered that the night manager would be delighted to accomodate Monsieur Vandervere regardless of the hour (news of his increased tipping power must have already been circulated among the staff).

Rummaging through the dresser that had been arranged with a neatness that was almost pathological, Danny selected a scandalously brief white swimsuit, a pair of tight underwear-thin grey fleece shorts, and a thin zip-up black hoodie that was two sizes too small and clung to his torso like paint. The sneakers Andrew had sent weren't the kind Danny liked, but they were sufficient, and the little white socks had cute Japanese anime penguins embroidered on them.

Running down the stairs to the basement, Danny felt a rush of physical well-being: his heart might be broken, but his body was still a beautiful perfect machine capable of all sorts of pleasures. The night-manager was clearly taken aback, both by Danny's slutty attire and by the four bills Danny pressed into his hand (he was determined to blow through at least one of the stacks of money, and had perversely settled on the higher denomination), and led a brief tour of the small but luxurious facilities, pointing out the Art Deco mosaic murals imported from a bath-house in Paris, turning on all the lights, the televisions, and the stereo before taking his leave.

Danny stripped off his hoodie, grabbed the biggest bottle of water he could find in the cooler, and got up onto an elliptical machine, bopping his head to the beat of the generic Top-40 dance music that came pouring out of the hidden speakers, and lost himself in the rhythm of his own heartbeat and breathing. It was infinitely more worry-suppressing than watching television, and he wondered why he hadn't thought of this simple expedient sooner.

After forty minutes of cardiovascular exercise, he did a circuit of the weight machines, not pushing himself very hard since he was alone in the gym and didn't have a spotter; and once every muscle in his body had been worked over and was glowing with warmth, he pulled off his gym-shorts and dove into the long narrow pool.

The water was deliciously cool and shocked his sweaty skin refreshingly. He swam laps, freestyle to one end and backstroke to the other, pushing himself until he was so tired that he had to get out of the pool for fear of drowning. He flopped face-first onto a towel-draped chaise-longue, completely exhausted and wonderfully free of nagging thoughts, and went right back to sleep.

"Hey, are you OK?" Danny felt a hand shaking his shoulder.

"Just sleeping," he replied quietly, peeking at the stranger through one eye; it was a rather pretty boy, Danny guessed him to be eighteen or nineteen, with straight black hair and starry blue eyes, spanked pink cheeks and a soft red mouth. His face was square and his cheekbones perfect, but there was an endearing sense of the unfinished to his features that was very appealing.

"Oh," the boy looked embarrassed, his smooth cheeks deepening to carmine, "You were kind of whimpering, I though you were sick."

"Whimpering?" Danny raised himself up on both elbows to take a better look at the boy, running his eyes over the narrow, tight-muscled boyish frame in a pair of very baggy red boardshorts, his luminescent pink skin and charmingly awkward movements, "How mortifying."

"I'll leave you alone, then," the boy sounded disappointed and started to get up.

"Don't go away," Danny heard a note of begging in his voice and strove to master it with a more confident and seductive tone, "What's your name?"

"Jared," the boy happily sat cross-legged on the floor and put out his hand.

"I'm Danny. Pleased to meet you," he rolled over onto his side, artlessly displaying his half-hard cock taking up far too much room in the front of the tiny white bikini, but smiling happily as the boy's eyes bugged out and his mouth dropped open, "Where are you from, Jared?"

Jared tore his gaze from Danny's crotch with some effort, gulped loudly, and stammered out, "Cincinnati."

"Are you here with your family?" Danny reached down and pushed his erection back down under the waistband as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, smirking to himself as Jared's erection sprang up and tented his red shorts.

"He's supposed to be my uncle," Jared murmured, his eyes riveted back onto Danny's cock.

"Supposed to be?"

"Oh! I mean," Jared looked alarmed, his eyes big and the blush deepening again on his cheek, "I mean I am here with my uncle."

"Oh, don't worry, baby, I have plenty of 'uncles' myself. Does your uncle mind you playing around?"

Jared gulped again and stared mutely for a few moments before shaking his head no. Danny pulled him to his feet and led him by the hand through the empty locker-room and into the billowing steam of the wet sauna. Once the door was closed securely, he was on the boy with a passion, raping his mouth and wrapping both hands around the boy's long cock. Jared put his hands on Danny's body, first on his arms, then his waist, then his shoulders, as if he weren't sure where they should be; eventually he settled on the hips and seemed particularly fascinated with the line of the pelvic girdle.

Since the bathing facilities in the Hotel Queen Charlotte weren't the type to keep great bowls full of prophylactics on every table and counter, Danny kept their activities limited to oral and frottage... more the latter than the former, as Jared couldn't keep his teeth out of the way; the boy was passionate but had no skill whatever. Streaming with sweat, they slid around together on the sauna bench like eels; the boy shot off twice before Danny came, making an adorable squealing sound each time that made Danny laugh. Spent and sticky, they lolled in silence for a little while, Jared trying to catch his breath and Danny nearly falling asleep again.

"I really wish you'd fuck me," Jared finally broke the silence in a timid voice.

"I'd love to, baby, but I don't have any condoms here," Danny replied, his face buried in the boy's neck, "and nothing personal, but I'd really rather not take you back to my room."

"Do have a fake uncle in your room, too?" Jared wondered, his mind finally cleared enough of sex to return to their previous conversation.

"Not at the moment," Danny laughed, pulling back on one elbow to look down at the boy, tracing the pretty features with his index finger, refusing to think about why he didn't want to take someone back to the room where he'd fallen in love with Marquesa, "But I just don't feel right about it. Let's go take a shower, we're all sticky."

Crowded warmly into a single stall, Danny and Jared washed each-other carefully and a little too thoroughly; soon they were inflamed to passion, and they thrashed and writhed their way to another climax.

"What's your uncle's name?" Danny asked conversationally, shaking off the sleepiness that was threatening again.

"I probably shouldn't tell you," Jared sighed after a long silence, stepping out of the shower.

"Why not?" Danny laughed, "Is he that closeted?"

"No... I mean, he's not obvious or anything, but he doesn't hide that he's gay."

"Then you must be underage," Danny reasoned, toweling his hair, "How old are you?"

"Eighteen," Jared said without conviction, his eyes darting about with comic guilt.

"You don't lie very well, little one," Danny shook his head in mock exasperation, "But I guess it doesn't matter now, after the fact. You can't unbreak an egg and you can't unfuck a teenager."

"But you haven't fucked me...yet," Jared teased.

"Nor am I going to, Little Miss Lolita," Danny ruffled the boy's hair playfully, "But I will take you to breakfast. Why don't you go upstairs and get dressed, and I'll meet you in the lobby."

Danny felt very nearly happy again as he returned to his suite and selected a kicking-around outfit of artfully distressed jeans, vividly striped narrow-cut dress shirt, and suede sandals. The sorrow had been blown apart by the physical pleasures of exercise and sex, and the bleakness was submerged in the delight of a new person to experience.

He returned to the lobby before Jared, so Danny took a moment to visit the concierge and order immense and ridiculously expensive flower-arrangements sent to Marquesa and Valerien with thank-you notes, as well as more subdued tributes to Mr. Casterman and the Aunt Ems. With a hefty gratuity to Phillipe, the bundle of fifties was satisfactorily dented by this exercise.

Tucking the roll of bills into his pocket next to his loose cock, which made him feel wonderfully dirty, Danny went back out to the lobby to find Jared waiting for him; the boy looked acutely embarrassed, shifting from one foot to the other with his eyes on the floor.

"Where shall we eat, baby? The grill-room here, or shall we go exploring instead?" Danny hooked a finger into the boy's belt-loop.

"I can't go," Jared rolled his eyes in exasperation, "Crosby insisted on meeting you. He wants me to invite you to have breakfast with us."

"Crosby's a smart man," Danny threw his arm around the boy's shoulder and led him into the grill room, a high square chamber paneled in dark wood, with white-clothed round tables and tall windows facing the street, "If I was him, I wouldn't let you out of my sight for a minute. But before I meet him, did you tell him what we did this morning?"

"No, of course not!" the boy blushed again.

"He'll probably know. I mean, look at me... who could say 'No' to all this?" Danny struck a glamorous pose, making Jared laugh, "And I doubt he'll mind. You should never be dishonest in your relationships, Jared. It always leads to trouble. Let's go meet Uncle Crosby."

Crosby Hungerford looked like somebody's uncle... comically avuncular, with a perfectly round little head on top of a perfectly round little body, rendered jaunty by a pointed Vandyke beard on his small-featured face and a bright Tartan waistcoat peeking out of his soft tweed suit. He appeared to be in his mid-fifties, and had the comfortable blasé air of a dilettante with very old family money.

When he rose to meet his protege's new friend, he was clearly taken by surprise... his jaw dropped and his little black eyes widened in alarm. Danny was of course accustomed to such reactions, it was the price of being so shockingly beautiful; and as he always did in such situations, he turned on his most polished social charms to try to put the man at his ease.

"Good morning, Mr. Hungerford," Danny put out his hand enthusiastically, "It's so good to meet you after hearing so much about you from Jared."

"Thank you," Crosby said somewhat shakily, then made an obvious effort to pull himself together, "Won't you sit down, Mr... Vandervere, was it?"

"Please, call me Danny," he took the chair Crosby indicated, "Thank you so much for inviting me to breakfast. One gets a little lonely staying in a hotel on one's own."

Conversation became less strained and rather general quite quickly; between Crosby's and Danny's combined breeding and manners, the interaction remained on a very smooth surface of small-talk and pleasantries. But all the while, Danny was watching Crosby, wondering what it was that was making him so uncomfortable underneath his Society veneer... for the little man was unmistakably anxious about something: his eyes darted back and forth between Danny and Jared, and his hands fiddled nervously with the tableware. Was he anxious that Danny was going to steal Jared away from him?

It didn't seem likely, though, that Crosby would have attained the age and suavité required to keep a young boyfriend without understanding that kept boys don't leave their keepers for other boys, they don't give up security and luxury for mere hot sex. It simply isn't done. Was Jared so unpredictable that Crosby would fear losing him to a beautiful stranger in a hotel?

On the other hand, Danny understood that he wasn't the usual pretty-boy one meets on the circuit... he was expensively dressed and expensively educated, he was staying in an expensive hotel alone... to all appearances, he could be someone who could provide both the hot sex and the security that a boy like Jared would want.

And so to alleviate his fears, Danny focused most of his attention, with a subtle undertone of flirtation, on Crosby; he included Jared in the conversation and the flirtation, but he did everything he could to indicate that he wasn't interested in stealing Jared away. He actually started plotting how he could get a three-way going with Jared and Crosby together, which would certainly make the rest of the day pass rather pleasantly.

But it was not to be. When he had finished his very French breakfast of dense bread and soft cheese, and downed the last of the very strong coffee, he offered to take the pair sight-seeing... though they had probably been all over town during their vacation, it's always special to be shown around by a local who knows some of the hidden beauty-spots and interesting local history.

"No, thank you, Danny," Crosby said, wiping his mouth fastidiously and smiling uncomfortably, "We're leaving soon, and I need to get to the packing."

"Oh, come on," Jared protested, "We're not leaving until tomorrow afternoon. Besides, the valet will do the packing, won't he?"

"I need to supervise," Crosby offered lamely.

"Well, can I go?" Jared asked, a tone of impatience in his voice.

"I'd really rather you didn't," Crosby said in a very parental tone, a tone that begged a child to stop pursuing the question.

"Why not!?" Jared demanded.

"Well, really, Jared, you put me in a most awkward position," Crosby finally relaxed a little and shook his head, "I didn't want to hurt Danny's feelings. But I cannot let you go out alone with a suspected murderer."

Silence engulfed the little table after this bombshell. Danny was completely staggered... after all of the emotional upheaval of his weekend with Marquesa, he'd quite forgotten about that problem. Jared stared thunderstruck, and Crosby looked horribly embarrassed to have said something so inescapably rude.

"I am sorry, Mr. Vandervere," Crosby eventually turned to Danny, "You're a very charming young man, and I am loath to suspect you of such a foul crime; but I have a duty to protect Jared, and that has to come first."

"I completely understand," Danny breathed out, still reverberating from the shock.

"What are you talking about?" Jared almost screamed, "Danny's not a murderer! I've been with him all morning!"

"Jared, please," Crosby pleaded quietly, reaching across the corner of the table and taking the boy's hand, "I'm sure he's innocent, but the suspicion is there, and I can't take a chance with your safety."

"That's ridiculous, I'm not in any danger," Jared shook off Crosby's hand and crossed his arms sulkily over his chest, with a little pout of impatience that was so completely adorable that Danny wanted him even more. It made him sad that he wouldn't be able to experience more of the boy.

"No, Jared, Crosby's right," Danny slowly pushed back from the table and dropped his napkin on his plate, "He's responsible for you, and it would be remiss of him to let you go out with someone he has reason to suspect. I understand completely. And Mr. Hungerford, I hold you no ill will; in fact, I hope we can meet again once my innocence has been established. Thank you very much for breakfast."

With all the sangfroid he could muster, Danny got up from the table, gave Jared a little peck on the cheek, shook Crosby's proffered hand, and left the grill room; leaving the room, he could hear Jared's continued protestations and Crosby's quiet refusal to be budged. Passing the concierge's desk, he ordered a fruit-basket to be sent to Mr. Hungerford, along with his calling card, and asked that a valet be sent to pack up his clothes: he was going to check out immediately.

"Murder Suspect," Danny sneered at himself in the mirror upon returning to his suite, mourning the cozy adventure with Jared and Crosby that he'd been planning but which was snatched away from him by those two nasty words, "Danny Vandervere, suspected murderer. God damn it!"

Danny kicked hard at the wainscoting, forgetting that he was wearing sandals, and fell cursing to the floor when the pain of a stubbed toe shot up his leg. He was huddled up on the floor crying and swearing, more from temper than from hurt, when the valet came in and silently started packing Danny's clothes for him in the two Vuitton suitcases Danvers had left for him.

The valet was done in a matter of minutes; the clothes had been folded so neatly by Marquesa's manservant that is was only a matter of transferring them from closet and drawer to suitcase; Danny pulled himself together enough to tip the valet, and leave a few more bills on the dresser for housekeeping. He put all his loose objects, his handheld and the rest of the money, into a small shopping bag, and said farewell to the suite with a sad little sigh. Making his way back to the lobby, he asked for a cab to be called, then sulked into the dark and empty bar; it wasn't actually open, but Phillipe took pity on the obviously depressed young guest and slid behind the bar to pour Danny a generous brandy, then left him alone to wait for the car that would take him home.

But while Danny was depressed by his situation, the many unhappy upheavals of his recent past, the sadness was quickly being subsumed by a simmering rage... not toward Crosby Hungerford, whose behavior was completely reasonable, but rather toward whoever had killed Drayton Marshall.

He hadn't thought about Marshall for days, but now that the murder had been brought back to his attention, he was simply furious: killing the unsavory Marshall he could understand, and maybe even forgive; but pinning the murder so securely and deliberately on an innocent bystander bespoke a disregard for other people that should not go unpunished. Danny was enflamed with a desire to hunt down the killer, not just for his own sake, either for establishing his innocence or exacting his revenge, but for the sake of Justice itself.

Warmed by the resonance of this sentiment, as well as by the large brandy, Danny felt his anger resolve into a purpose. Fishing his handheld out of the little shopping bag, he started making notes to follow up on various questions concerning Marshall's life and death, such as the whereabouts of Marshall's son on the night of the murder, as well as some barely-remembered oddities about his meeting with Marshall in The Brat... the identity of the parrot-shirted man, the peculiar behavior of the purple-haired boy who stared at him so, Marshall's well-known predilection for hustlers, and the wide variety of drugs in his apartment.

This sense of purpose carried Danny all the way out of the hotel and into the waiting towncar without a backward glance at the Hotel Queen Charlotte. He continued making notes as he rode home, and was a little bit startled when the car came to a stop.

A lone reporter was lurking outside Danny's door, beside an enormous man who could could best be described as a "goon," an impressively ugly hulk in a dark suit and darker glasses standing at ease right in front of the gate.

Danny had to produce identification before the goon would let him pass; and all the while Danny was rummaging around for his wallet and producing his driver's license, the weedy little reporter threw importunate questions at him in a small whiney voice.

"Why did you kill Drayton Marshall?" was the one question out of many that actually caught Danny's attention. He turned to look at the little man, sweeping his eyes disdainfully over the rumpled dust-colored clothing, scrawny awkward phsyique, and a face that made Woody Allen look downright pretty by comparison.

"I didn't kill Drayton Marshall," Danny said slowly and clearly, as if speaking to a recalcitrant child.

"Then why were you hiding? Where have you been all week?"

"I've been staying in a hotel, avoiding people like you. Good afternoon."

"Then who do you think did kill him?" the reporter called after Danny as he passed through the iron gate onto the outside stairs.

"I really don't know," Danny said, turning on the last step and facing the reporter with some interest, "But I'll tell you what I do know: I'm going to do whatever I can to find out who did kill him. Print that in whatever ghastly little rag you represent."

Smiling happily to himself, though realizing that Mr. Casterman would probably scold him fiercely for that overly dramatic statement, Danny hurried into his apartment and closed the door behind him. The air smelled stale, as if nobody had been through the place in a while. His cleaning-lady probably hadn't come since she knew he'd been away and there was nobody to clean up after, but he'd assumed she'd come in and air the place anyway.

Danny went through the apartment opening windows, shaking curtains, and shuffling objects around on tabletops to get rid of the stale feeling, then poured himself a glass of his most expensive red wine and settled down in front of his computer to do some research.

With his wine on the right and his handheld on the left, he started following up all the questions he'd jotted down since leaving his hotel room; unfortunately, he lacked the search-engine skills, not to mention the legal and illegally hacked access to confidential data, that Detective Spevik possessed, and so his research was frustrated more often than not by a complete dearth of information that would be of any use to him.

The information on Drayton Marshall III was little more than he'd already gleaned from the news broadcasts. Absolutely nothing about his rather baroque sexual tastes had ever appeared in print, not even a gossipy blind item in a giveaway paper. The latest available photograph of Marshall's son was ten years old, and showed only a peculiarly nondescript boy with his father's medium hair and his mother's squinty eyes. Mrs. Marshall, who was rather more frequently photographed, was a typical Society matron with a death's-head grin and turkey-neck, whom Danny knew by sight from the Social circuit. Nothing he was able to find out put him any farther ahead in his understanding of Drayton Marshall's life, nor who would likely want him dead.

Giving up on Marshall and pouring himself another glass of wine, Danny settled down to find out if he could discover anything about Aunt Tittie's male identity. But nowhere was any connection made. With the proper access, Danny might have been able to track down the title or the liquor license on the Parrot Pub, but such access is not readily available to the average citizen.

The third glass of wine accompanied Danny through a lengthy email to Rodney Casterman detailing all of the questions he'd thought of. He was fairly sure that the investigators working on his case would have already thought of most, if not all of those questions, as well as a good many more, but Danny felt that he needed to do something before he gave up on his thwarted investigation.

By the fourth glass of wine, Danny was feeling fairly sorry for himself, a mood frequently brought on by a surfeit of frustration and the drier reds, and so he decided to get good and drunk, decanting two more very expensive bottles into a sangria pitcher to breathe while he finished off the large decanter he'd already started.

Shedding his clothes on the way, he carried the wine and two glasses (in case he broke one) back to his bedroom, opened the mirrored closet doors to reveal the enormous television that took up the entire space, put on a variety of porn in the DVD-changer, and crawled under the covers to have a nice long binge of self-pity and -abuse.

*****


"So, what exactly are you proposing?" Detective Varajian asked the young private investigator who'd invited him and his partner to lunch at the noisy local cop-filled diner.

"A pooling of resources, of course," R.J. Casterman, Jr., shrugged in a graceful palms-up gesture that showed off his long elegant hands. He was a strangely beautiful man, with his father's aquiline profile, wild auburn hair, and dramatically elongated figure, but his mother's strong pointed chin, wide voluptuous smile, and slanted amber eyes...his resemblance to a young wolf was startling, especially since he elected to leave his eyebrows unplucked so they met in the middle and crept down toward his nose; his unusually long canine teeth completed the picture of sly lupine menace.

"We know what we have," Detective Spevik mumbled around a mouthful of hamburger, his small eyes darting distrustfully over the young man across the table, hating him passionately, particularly hating his stainless-steel Rolex watch and his tan goatskin Gucci shoes and his brown superfine Cavalli suit and his dark orange Donna Karan cashmere sweater; Spevik didn't know any of those names, but was uncomfortably aware that the combined cost of the outfit nearly equaled his own annual salary, "But what can you offer us?"

"Let's put it this way," R.J. leaned forward onto the table eagerly, "You have the might of the law behind you, and you have one of the best forensic scientists in the world working for you. But you have limitations, checks on your activities, which do not bind me. You have to justify your budget, while I have access to nearly unlimited funds; you have to turn in full reports that become public record, and to comply with a lot of rules about harassment and brutality, under the scrutiny of your superiors and the press, while I have the freedom to bend those rules in complete anonymity, so long as I stay within the letter of the law. You have other cases on your desks, and only yourselves to rely on; but all I have in the world to do is work on this one case, and I have five investigators to do my footwork and three librarians to do my research. I have a lot to offer you."

"But why do you need us if you have all the money and freedom we don't?" Spevik wondered.

"Because you have an authority that I do not possess, witnesses are likely to spill information to a cop that they would hide from a PI. You also have access to information that I do not possess. Now, you have to disclose everything you find to the Defense, that's the law; but you don't have to do it gladly, or in as timely a manner as my father might wish. You don't have to devote as much attention to this case as Mr. Vandervere might require. What I'm proposing is cooperation instead of contest."

"What happens if you find something that implicates Vandervere?" Varajian smiled at young Casterman, enjoying the charisma and enthusiasm that radiated from him like an inner light.

"Ah, a very wise question, sir," R.J. smiled warmly at the older detective, "I am naturally duty-bound to report all of my findings to my father, who will of course have Attorney-Client Privilege with Mr. Vandervere, so I can't just give you anything non-exculpatory; but as a mere adjunct to my father's case, that Privilege becomes a very gray area: my information belongs to the client and is therefore confidential, but I am not exactly under the Seal of Confession, as it were. Between us, as a gentlemen's agreement, if I do learn something that you might have found out, if you'd only known where to look or whom to ask, I can drop a few five-pound hints over a friendly burger without compromising anybody's position."

"But what guarantee do we have?" Spevik insisted, his suspicious nature picking persistently at the offer, "Everything we find will eventually get to you; like you said, it's the law. But how will we know you've been giving us what you find out? You could keep quiet until the trial and we'd never know."

"Well, gentlemen, I really don't believe that's going to happen," R.J. leaned back against the banquette with a smirk that was somehow friendly and vicious at once, "My father didn't get where he is by not knowing whether or not his clients are guilty, and he is absolutely confident that Vandervere is innocent. However, if I did find evidence of Vandervere's guilt... well, I have a vindictive nature. My Dad believes in this kid; if it turns out that he's managed to pull the wool over Dad's eyes, I'll want revenge. Family honor, you know: nobody makes a fool of a Casterman and gets away with it. Does that comprise a satisfactory guarantee?"

"Honor!" Spevik snorted, "I don't believe in honor."

"Do you believe in trust? I'm going to trust you; you can trust me in return."

"I believe in facts. Give us something we can use."

"Naturally," R.J. pulled a thick sheaf of bound paper out of a Fendi leather messenger-bag that no messenger in the world could possibly afford, "Would you be interested in a complete breakdown of who was and wasn't in the apartment building the night Marshall was murdered? My team has already reviewed all of the security tapes, that's about two hundred and fifty hours of video, and can account for the exact population of the building for nearly a week before, and forty-eight hours after, Marshall's death. Plus a few transcript interviews with anybody in the building who might have had a motive, however dim."

"And what would you like in exchange?" Varajian asked, dumbfounded by such a valuable gift... the video analysis alone saved him a requisition of resources that would be impossible to get approved by a cash-strapped police administration.

"All of your evidence to date, including the complete forensic report, and some face-time with Dr. Griggs. Extra tissue samples, if they exist, the tapes of your interviews with Vandervere, and complete records of all criminal activity in and around that building, and the bar where Vandervere met Marshall for, say, six weeks before the murder?"

"Are you fucking nuts?" Spevik almost shouted, shocked by the sudden feral gleam in the young investigator's eyes, "We can't give you confidential police records!"

"Look," Casterman dropped all pretense at friendliness, "my father can subpoena those records, just as the DA can subpoena this dossier I'm giving you. But that will take weeks, and I don't think you want to wait through all the delaying tactics my father is capable of employing when he chooses. I could very easily mail this document to Kazakhstan instead of the Hall of Justice, 'oops, silly me', and none of us would be any farther forward than we are right now. I'm offering you cooperation in exchange for cooperation. You have nothing to lose."

"Except our badges," Spevik retorted.

"Nonsense!" R.J. resumed his engagingly casual facade, "While I would never suggest anything as filthy as blackmail, I do happen to have a taped conversation between my predecessor in the firm and your chief from her days as a detective, doing exactly what I am proposing you do. She will, I'm sure, applaud rather than censure your efforts in furthering this case. And if she doesn't, you can always gently remind her of her not-so-distant past: I happen to have a copy of that tape right here in my pocket, if you're interested."

"We have work to do," Spevik was so disgusted by this conversation, hurt by the revelation of corruption in his captain's past and sickened by the idea of blackmailing a fellow cop, that he only barely restrained himself from punching the contemptible young man in the mouth. He stood abruptly and started toward the door, "Come on, Varajian."

"I'll catch up with you, Spev, the bill hasn't come yet," Varajian answered smoothly.

"Your partner is a trifle hot-headed," R.J. smiled at the retreating Spevik before returning his attention to Varajian.

"I think you offended his sense of honor; he does believe in honor, but only ours. Lawyers and PIs are automatically dishonorable in his eyes; and I have to say, you are a very slippery young man," Varajian said with a certain note of admiration, "but I like the way you think. I believe we can arrange to have the records you request sent over. But let's keep this as above-board as possible: have your office draft a subpoena, and I'll make sure the records are ready for transport on its arrival, and on their way to you before anybody thinks to stop me. Fair enough?"

"A dream come true," R.J. arched an eyebrow in a manner that looked, to Varajian, like flirtation, "I'm very glad you don't share your partner's rather monochromatic views of right and wrong. Would you like the tape?"

"I'd love it," Varajian replied with a sly smile of his own, "I've been wanting something to hold over Captain Morris's head for years."

"I like the way you think," the young man dropped his voice and bit his lower lip gently; nobody could doubt that he was flirting with Varajian.

"But just so you know," Varajian pulled himself back, almost bodily, from the young man's furtive advances, "If you cross me, I will make it my life's mission to have your license revoked and your father brought under Bar review. Neither of you will be able to cross town without getting pulled over for speeding or suspicion of DUI, and bright lights will be shone into every corner of your lives. I know quite well how to avenge myself on someone 'within the letter of the law,' trust me. And if I find out that you've recorded this conversation for leverage against me when I'm captain, I will wring your pretty head off your skinny neck with my bare hands."

"My, but you really know how to sweet-talk a boy, don't you?" R.J. licked his teeth hungrily.

"I know how to watch my own ass," Varajian smiled sweetly as he stood up and buttoned his jacket, "Thanks for lunch."

"Woof," R.J. whispered to himself, watching Detective Varajian's nicely compact ass as he strutted manfully out of the diner with that peculiarly self-assured gait that all policemen share, "I could seriously fall for that one."

*****


Danny swam up through layers of unconsciousness, worried by the sound of a woman screaming in terror; but when he poked his head out of the covers, he realized it was his own doorbell screaming for his attention at ten-second intervals, eight seconds on and two seconds off. Cursing freely, he stumbled painfully out of the bed, pulled the duvet around himself for warmth, and went shambling down the hall, losing his balance twice, to make the noise stop.

"What in the hell do you want?" he bellowed into the intercom.

"Why, to come in, silly! Isn't that what a doorbell usually indicates?" the voice was deep and gravelly but lilting with a fruity sing-song quality that one ordinarily associates with very old queens.

"Who are you?" Danny wondered, a little less angrily.

"Theo Ermengratz," the responding voice had dropped its fruitiness and sounded a little intimidating.

"Oh!" Danny exclaimed with surprise, which made his head throb, "I'm sorry, please come up."

Danny turned toward the hall closet to get some clothes on, but didn't have time before his visitor was pounding loudly on the door. He wrapped the down-filled duvet more closely around his naked body and clutched the edges together with one hand, reaching out to open the door with the other.

The man standing on the doormat looked a great deal like Marlon Brando circa Last Tango in Paris, but much smoother; he had a large square head with craggy Roman features, and receding iron-grey curls carefully arranged in the Caesar style, but his olive skin was sleek and supple, making it impossible to discern if he was forty or sixty or somewhere in between. His double-breasted buff shantung suit was extremely baggy and draped on him much like a toga, the wide legs of the pants nearly obscuring the beautifully crafted snakeskin shoes, and a flowing scarf of golden damask closed the floppy collar of the sky-blue silk shirt instead of a necktie. His overall mien made Danny think of one of the nellier Roman emperors.

"Well, are you just going to stand there gawking," Theo said in his queeny sing-song voice, one hand in his jacket pocket and the other floating airily at shoulder level, "or are you going to invite me in?"

"Oh, sorry," Danny apologized again, stepping clumsily backward to allow entrance to this strange apparition, "Please do come in. Would you like some coffee?"

"No thank you, dear, I've had mine," Theo Ermengratz swept past him like a ship in full sail, looking Danny up and down as he did so, before stopping to study the living-room with a practiced eye, "But this room is lovely! Who did it?"

"Stan Ogilvie," Danny answered vaguely, following in the wake of the famous decorator as he flitted through the room, trying to figure out if the man was fat or if it was an illusion caused by all that drapery: there was an awful lot of fabric covering an awful lot of body, but the way he moved was not the way a fat man moved, his gait was sturdy and even his airiest gestures carried a threat of power.

"Stan Ogilvie is a contractor, darling," Theo turned and pinned Danny with an interrogative eye and a return to the intimidating voice, "I meant who is your decorator?"

"Oh, I didn't have a decorator," Danny admitted with a touch of embarrassment, "But Stan did the paint and the fixtures and the upholstery."

"So you're telling me you did this yourself? The colors, the arrangement, the actual objects?" the decorator was busy sneering at the carved caryatids on the Victorian desk chair.

"Most of it. Some of the pieces were gifts."

"Please tell me this unspeakable chair was a gift. Yes? Oh, thank God. And now tell me that you aren't terribly attached to it and won't mind if I take it outside and set it on fire?"

"A very good friend gave that to me."

"Was he an oil-rich cowboy who liked to pretend to be an Old West cattle baron?"

"No, a computer programmer. He knew of my love for antiques, but he didn't know what kind. I think it's sweet."

"Hmph. Well, with the exception of your weakness for sentiment in the form of questionable Renaissance Revival desk-chairs, I see a very promising eye at work here," the hand was fluttering again, big and square but rendered effete with glossy nails and a pinkie-ring glittering with small diamonds, indicating the room around them.

Danny continued to follow Mr. Ermengratz as he stalked into the dining room, examining the antique silver on the sideboard as if it were for sale. After nodding with grudging approval at the rather whimsical chandelier of wrought iron and mismatched antique French crystals, the decorator began examining Danny the same way he'd examined the rooms.

"And you're really remarkably beautiful," Theo grasped Danny's chin in a soft-skinned but surprisingly strong hand, "Perfect Italian features and flawless English skin. You know, if your eyes were blue, you'd be hatefully dazzling, but those puppy-eyes have an air of innocence that one cannot but forgive."

"One does one's best," Danny answered, blushing slightly at the arousal he felt at being handled and described so objectively.

"Saucy," Theo slapped him playfully on the cheek and turned toward the kitchen, "Why don't you go take a shower and drink a lot of water, you smell like the bottom of a wine bottle. Expensive wine, but stale dregs all the same. I'll amuse myself in the meantime."

Danny showered as quickly as he could, without once thinking it odd that he was following rather peremptory orders from a perfect stranger. He gulped down half a gallon of water with a fistful of aspirin, brushed his teeth, and practically ran into his dressing room for some clothes. Much to his surprise, he encountered Theo Ermengratz there, riffling through his closets and tossing garments out onto the ottoman in the center of the room.

"You have excellent taste, child," the decorator sang out from the depths of Danny's suit closet, "Ah, here's what we need, the classic navy blazer. I hope you don't mind, I took the liberty of choosing an outfit for you."

"I don't mind," Danny admitted, dropping his towel and stepping into the white boxer-briefs that had been laid out for him, then the crisply tailored tan chinos.

"I like you," Theo confided as he buttoned Danny's shell-pink Oxford shirt for him, "Custom-made but machine-washed and un-ironed, very preppy. No, don't tuck it in, you want that basket to make cameo appearances only. You're so wonderfully docile, but you've got a brain and good taste, a perfect combination in an assistant. If you weren't so disturbingly beautiful, I think I would have hired you without Baron de Seguemont's asking me."

"You mean, I really do have a job with you, Mr. Ermengratz?" Danny smiled, "I thought that was just a cover."

"Are you telling me that you're letting me push you around in your own home without knowing that I'm your boss? You're delightful! And call me Poppy, all my friends do," Poppy Ermengratz helped Danny into the blue blazer, "Cuffs out, don't button them, I love that look, The Sloppy Fop. But I'm an honest man, surprising as it may seem... if I can turn a lie into the truth, I will, and I wouldn't say I'd hired an assistant without doing so... if I could help it. Now, what kind of shoes? Ah, here we are, some nice airy huaraches, no socks... my dear, ostrich huaraches? You are an expensive article. I won't be paying you anything near enough to keep you in ostrich huaraches... but I will introduce you to enough horny old millionaires to make up for the shortfall. Do you swing both ways? That would be ideal, so many of my clients are women."

"What?!" Danny flushed angrily, surprised by the man's matter-of-fact crudeness.

"Ah, there's your boundary. I knew I'd find one eventually," Poppy ran his fingers proprietarily through Danny's wet hair, "Don't mind me, I'm just pushing buttons to see what happens. I know all about you, punkin': some of your elderly beaux are my clients, and old queens always kiss and tell."

"I'm not a whore," Danny said, sullenly defensive.

"Potayto-potahto, honey. Oh, my, but you are devastating when you pout! Don't for a moment think I disapprove. If it weren't for rich old men, and one rich old man in particular, I'd still be Theo Popadopoulos, most likely slicing souvlaki with my brothers in the Bronx. But if you're fucking a lot of trolls, it doesn't matter if you do it for loose change or for ostrich huaraches," Poppy dropped the sing-song, took Danny by the shoulders and looked him squarely and commandingly in the eyes, "Celebrate what you are, lovebucket, and don't quibble about the words."

"You were a...kept boy?" Danny asked, taking back possession of his person by turning to the mirror to comb his hair.

"I like the word 'whore' better," Poppy replied, moving off to rummage in the dressing-table drawers, "But yeah, I started hustling when I was eleven... I was an early bloomer. A little Greek godling with just a touch of the peasant for flavor, Ganymede with a big dick and a little feather mustache. Old Toddy Ermengratz of the Fifth Avenue, Newport, and Palm Beach Ermengratzes adopted me when I was seventeen. And left me a rather considerable fortune. He was a hideous little thing, like something a cat's been chewing on, but he was a sweet dear old man."

"The same story as Parker Weintraub," Danny thought aloud, "Adopted by a wealthy older man."

"You know Parker? Of course you do, nobody of your beauty lives long in this town without meeting Parker Weintraub and being invited to decorate his little spa. Nowadays you become domestic partners, I suppose, and before that it was 'palimony,' but in my day adoption was the usual arrangement. It's a recognized paradigm of homo history, the old man with money and the young man with beauty. And if they're good at what they do, the young men with beauty turn into old men with money. Like me, like Parker... it has a lovely symmetry, don't you think?"

"But I already have money of my own," Danny defended himself; he liked to think of himself as a gold-digger, but he didn't like for other people to think of him as such.

"Not nearly enough," Theo shrugged, taking a seat at the vanity table and sniffing at the bottles of cologne, "Your trust fund couldn't possibly have paid for all the clothes in this room... WASP trusts are to make you independent, not wealthy. But it does keep you in a state of want, rather than need. I suspect that's why you haven't settled down into a nice kept-boy position. You don't need to be taken care of, you just like it."

"I'd rather be in love," Danny said, more to himself than to Poppy.

"Love is very nice, but if I had to choose between love and money, I'm pretty sure I'd take the money. But maybe that's just because I've never been in love and don't know what I'd be giving up. Are you quite ready?"

"I need to take my vitamins, and I can't function much longer without coffee," Danny admitted.

"Well, then, let us retire to the kitchen, where I can nose through your cupboards and insult you some more."

While Danny put on a half-pot, assembled his bowlful of capsules and tablets, and mixed his fruit-and-supplement smoothie, Poppy rummaged around without restraint, critiquing the china, admiring the appliances, and keeping up a running commentary on the history and nobility of amateur prostitution.

“My dear, is all that really necessary?" Poppy demanded, swirling a finger through the bowl of pills, "Or are you just a hypochondriac?"

"I guess I like to feel like I'm keeping myself in good condition," Danny answered, "And this is easier and more pleasant than eating healthy all day."

"Good point, I might just try that philosophy sometime," Poppy replied thoughtfully, "But I always feel such an old man when I have to take pills. Now, are you quite up and running? I need to take you by the office first, and I'm putting you immediately to work with one of my clients. I want you to sneer politely at her current furnishings in a purebred WASP manner that will fill her with shame, and dazzle her with your beauty at the same time, so she doesn't notice the numbers at the bottoms of the invoices I need her to sign. She's got more money than God, but she hasn't got anything better to do with her time and energy than quibble about pennies."

Danny followed obediently as Poppy led him downstairs, past the morning-shift security goon (who accorded Poppy a respectful, even fearful nod) to the flamboyantly blue vintage T-Bird convertible that was parked arrogantly across Danny's driveway. Poppy drove at a terrifying breakneck pace, chattering all the time (now on the topic of rich women who can't tell the difference between bargain-hunting and chiseling) and fiddling with the stereo while casually flipping the bird at anyone who dared chastise him with blaring horn or screaming voice.

Eventually the car pulled up at a blank wall of corrugated iron that rolled back to reveal a hidden driveway between two derelict-looking warehouses.

"That's my rental warehouse," Poppy said, indicating the warehouse on the right while unlocking a heavily barred door to the warehous on the left, "One of the services I provide is temporary fabulousness for the transient rich. I see it as a grand way to put my acquisitive nature to work, I've been buying furniture and decorations since God-knows-when, and with this service I can use it without selling it. But here is where the real work happens."

Poppy led Danny into what looked like a combination furniture showroom and airplane hangar: it was a vast open space with spots of light pouring down from a high black ceiling onto precious little tableaux of gorgeous antique furniture.

"And this is my 'testing kitchen,' where I try out different combinations and effects. I have a sadly deficient imagination when it comes to balance and scale, so I like to arrange things before I deliver them to a client. And over here," Poppy led the way through a sliding hangar door to a bright and airy loft space, with raw cinderblock walls and a glass greenhouse ceiling; on the right was a kitchen underneath an exercise loft, on the right was a glass-brick-walled bathroom and dressing room with a bedroom above it, and in the center was a living room/office; the furniture, in strange contrast to everything else about this man that Danny had seen so far, was stark and modern and masculine, chrome and glass and black leather furniture, dazzling electronics, stainless steel and black granite fixtures, "This is where I live."

"Wow," was all Danny could think of to say. Though he preferred the fussier antiquity of the 'testing kitchen' styles, he was quite impressed by the sense of balance and light, but even more impressed by the intimacy and comfort elicited in this too-airy space with such hard materials. For all its industrial modernity, it was strangely inviting.

"Through that door is the shopfront and offices, but we're not going in there today," Poppy settled himself at a glass-and-chrome desk and shuffled some papers on the black leather blotter, "I can't let the fussy old queens get a look at you and then leave them alone for the rest of the day. No work would get done. Do you have a driver's license and Social Security card? How about a passport? I'll copy these for your personnel file, and you fill out that W4 form and sign that contract and confidentiality agreement, and you'll be an honest-to-God wage-earning employee."

"That's very exciting," Danny replied without much enthusiasm, puzzling out the language of the W4 form.

"Would you like some more coffee?" Poppy fluttered off into the kitchen area and started banging around among the appliances.

"Yes, please," Danny sat down on the cube sofa to read carefully through the very simple contract that outlined his schedule, salary, and responsibilities, all of which sounded fairly straightforward and simple.

"I only have espresso," Poppy brought two demitasses and sat down next to Danny on the sofa, "I've never had the patience for brewing coffee, it has to be practically on tap."

"I love espresso," Danny replied, taking the cup and sipping gratefully.

"Of course you do, darling," Poppy cooed, massaging Danny's knee in a bedroom-comedy manner, "I'm sure you like everything anybody gives you."

"Well, I don't like cheap gin," Danny replied, casting about in his mind for something he really didn't like... Poppy had read him well, there was very little in the world he didn't like, which made him both adaptable and popular.

"Does anybody? Cheap booze is for people who need it, not those who like it."

"Is this where I'll be working?" Danny asked, indicating the vast space with its lofts and glass, "Or in the front?"

"Ah, of course, back to business," Poppy squeezed his leg again, a little farther up this time, "I think you'll work wherever I am. I'll bring in a desk here for you, and one in my office out front. Do you have a laptop? Well, I'll get you one, a handheld isn't quite enough, though that is a handy little gadget you have there. May I see it?"

Danny handed over his handheld computer and Poppy admired it lavishly, then went on to chatter aimlessly for a few minutes about how hopeless he was with technology.

"It's very easy to use. The computer programmer who gave me that desk chair programmed most of the applications in there. I found it very easy to learn."

"Yes, well, you're young," another grope on the leg, close enough to the crotch to brush Danny's fly, "your mind is still flexible."

"Are you trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson?" Danny asked coyly, looking down at Poppy's hand practically in his lap.

"Oh, heavens no, child," Poppy gave Danny's thigh a fatherly pat, closer to the knee, "I would never try to seduce you. For you, I would just pounce, like a hungry tiger. But don't worry your pretty little head, you're totally not my type. I prefer little roughnecks, young and stupid with callused hands. Besides, I never fuck my employees. But if I ever fire you... whoa, Nellie! Hang on to your hat!"

Danny laughed with delight, and the tension passed; he was starting to get used to the strangeness of Poppy's conversation, his alternations between intensity and silliness. And knowing that their relationship would not be sexual allowed Danny to relax and enjoy the flirtatiousness without plotting the next appropriate response, as he normally did with someone in whom he was interested.

After finishing their paperwork and coffee, Poppy led Danny back through the warehouse and into the Thunderbird, and they were soon rocketing off toward Presidio Heights, where Poppy's newest client lived. The car came to a screeching halt in front of a large five-story house on a corner, built in the 20s but with huge and uncomfortable-looking picture windows on the top stories that had obviously been added sometime later.

"I particularly want to convince this broad to replace those sheer horrors with proper paned installations," Poppy advised as he went up the steep front stairs like a springbok, "So sneer like hell at the windows."

"I won't go anywhere near those windows," Danny panted, "They'll give me vertigo."

"Even better...and if you can turn a delicate shade of green, I'll give you a raise. Oh, and don't forget her heirlooms... they're unspeakably tack-o-rama, suggest putting them in the pool-house of her weekend place."

Mrs. Derrick Stempler ("please, call me Marjorie") was so typical of her class, age, and location--complete with rictus grin, flat yellowy-brown hair, and scrawny neck, David Yurman jewelry and Anne Klein loungewear--that Danny was sure he'd never remember having met her; he found a small kidney-shaped mole on her neck to memorize so that he would recognize her if he met her again socially, and hoped that she wouldn't have it removed.

It wasn't remotely difficult to sneer at the furnishings already in place as Danny followed Poppy and wrote down his ideas ("I see chintz here, with pickled pine... Here there must be a hooded porter chair... you'll want cherry for the dining-room table but ebony for the chairs"), as the furniture was extremely ugly, Edwardian pretending to be Georgian and only succeeding in being frumpy.

Neither was it difficult to turn white (though he couldn't manage green) and stagger shakily away from the windows: the view was spectacular, but the drop was terrifying; the entertaining spaces were on the top floor of a very tall house perched atop a very steep hill, and there was a hundred-foot drop under the living-room windows.

And Mrs. (Marjorie) Stempler was absolutely fascinated by Danny, watching him instead of Poppy as they wandered through the really beautifully proportioned house, hung on his every word (few though they were), and very nearly apologized for the furniture and windows when she saw his polite but unmistakeable reactions to them.

All of which worked exactly as Poppy had wished: not only had Marjorie agreed to replace the huge plate glass sheets with costly custom-made eighteen-paned windows, she also agreed to little French balconies to mitigate the sheer drop; she agreed wholeheartedly to ship her grandmother's treasured furniture off to the retreat in Bohemian Grove, and didn't even look at the contracts and invoices she was signing.

"You were brilliant," Poppy crowed when they returned to the car, planting a big sloppy kiss on Danny's mouth, "She was putty, absolute putty! A hundred thousand dollars of construction before we even got to the furniture, on your delicate complexion alone!"

"Well," Danny temporized, "Your suggestion that other guests would feel the same way is what convinced her. Lots of people get vertigo from windows like those."

"Funny thing is, she probably bought the house thinking to impress people with those vertiginous views, and paid a premium for them, too. This calls for a celebratory lunch. Where do you like having celebratory lunches?"

"The Palm Court," Danny answered without thinking, "at the Palace Hotel."

"You're going to break me, you are," Poppy laughed, "But then you also just made me an extra thousand or two in commissions and fees for those balconies and windows, so I guess it evens out."

Once they'd arrived at the historic hotel, Poppy turned on his fruity demeanor full-blast, flirting outrageously with the male staff and camping loudly at the females; nevertheless, he commanded and was accorded a good table, in a corner with privacy and a good view of the room, and the service was deferential to the point of servility: it was clear that Poppy was known and respected in this place.

"I bring so many of my old-lady clients here," Poppy said when Danny remarked on this, "It's such a wonderfully old-lady room. I'm surprised you like it, young buck that you are; but then again I'm not really surprised... I've come to see in such a short time that you're a hopeless romantic. And speaking of Romance, tell me all about you and Marquesa Chillard-Chills."

"There's not much to say," Danny instantly threw his guard up at the mocking name applied to his beloved.

"Is it as big as I've heard?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Danny said frostily.

"Oh, come, don't be coy with me," Poppy slapped Danny's hand playfully, "I'm just being crude, as is my wont. My point is, do you love him?"

"Yes," Danny answered truthfully before he could stop himself, then thought better of it, "I mean, I thought I did. I don't suppose I really did. Just infatuated."

"As big as that, eh? As you may have guessed, I'm not in Marquesa's fan club. She's such an ice-queen, she never lets her hair down... she never lets herself have feelings, as far as I've seen. I find that very off-putting."

"I find it very attractive," Danny defended, "An air of mystery, a sense of reserve and elegance."

"Valerien, on the other hand, is a perfect pet. I've done both their apartments, but I feel like a mother toward little Val, and his happiness is important to me. That's why I'm asking you about how you feel about Marquesa... I want to know what chance Val has with you before I let him fall in love with you."

"Could you stop him?" Danny wondered, smiling at the very maternal tone Poppy had adopted the moment he'd turned the subject to Valerien.

"No, but I could stop you, I think. Threats of bodily harm if nothing else. I'd go for the face, too, if you hurt him... that's how I feel about Valerien."

"And do you know how Valerien feels about me?"

"He's fascinated by you, and he is attached to you. That's enough to be getting on with, don't you think? What are your feelings?" Poppy toyed with a butter-fork in a stagily threatening manner.

"I'd say it was mutual... fascinated attachment," Danny replied after giving the question a few moments' honest thought, "I think I could love him, but I don't know for sure. I would certainly never hurt him, regardless of your threats."

"Threats? Moi?" Poppy camped, putting down the butter-knife and picking up a menu, "I wouldn't hurt a fly. Except maybe yours. The very idea! Now tell, how big is Marquesa, really? Is it the true foot-long?"

"As near as makes no difference, I expect," Danny replied, laughing and blushing a little, "But I didn't have a ruler with me."

"And you can still walk after a whole weekend of that? You're made of stern stuff. So, shall we be utterly sinful and have the fondue appetizer? Then we can work out at my place before I start getting you settled in the office."

"Sounds perfectly divine."

The luncheon passed happily, Poppy ate voraciously without ever interrupting his conversation, which revolved mostly around Valerien's many charms and endearing qualities, which included loyalty, kindness, generosity, and an innocence that only the rarest of infants would be able to equal. He kept Danny laughing the entire time, and insisted on ordering dessert, "We've already sinned unforgiveably, we might as well make a day of it... to sin only partially is like cheating on your lover with an ugly person... no point to it whatsoever."

After lunch, they drove back to Poppy's apartment between the office and warehouses, where they changed into workout gear and performed a quite grueling regimen on the equipment above Poppy's kitchen. Undressed, Poppy was incredibly impressive: though thick around the middle and barrel-chested, which lent to the illusion of obesity when he was dressed, he was solidly packed with huge muscles that stopped just short of body-builder bulk. The fact that he was hung like a bull seemed expected with such a physique.

And though Poppy flirted and even groped a little, it was the kind of flirtatious groping that straight athletes indulge in the lockerrooms after a game: his attitude toward Danny was distinctly nonsexual, which Danny found very refreshing and fun.

Dressed and fresh, Danny was led into the office, where he was introduced to Poppy's staff, a quintet of very thin middle-aged men with high fluting voices, prissy clothing, and hair that had been altered in some way or another, either dyed or completely replaced by fairly obvious toupees. They all goggled at Danny comically, giggled when he spoke to them, and behaved like a gaggle of undersexed geese introduced to a young new gander.

Poppy had ordered a beautiful and delicate Queen Anne writing desk installed in his own office behind the larger front office, which was decorated in the florid cluttered English Country House style that he professionally espoused, with a heavily carved walnut desk and battered biscuit-tufted leather chairs and sofa, its walls lined with books and its ceiling painted with a fifteenth-century map of the "known" world; Danny's desk in the Spartan loft apartment, however, was a gorgeous piece of Louis XV marquetry, liberally encrusted with ormolu and cameo mounts, which glittered in the midst of all that black leather and chrome like a drag queen at the Eagle.

The young men who brought these things from the warehouse had also been dispatched to the nearest electronics store to procure a laptop computer, a top-of-the-line jewel that Danny loved to just hold, it was so pretty. Danny was instructed by one of "The Boys" (all, Danny later found out, ex-lovers of Poppy's) how to use the various programs; he was instructed by some of "The Girls" (all of whom had worked for Poppy since he opened his interior design business twenty-five years before and were deadly loyal to him) on how to access the building and what verbal formulae to use when answering the phone.

The whole thing was very bewildering to Danny, who'd never held a job in his life and found the whole thing very adventuresome. He took lots of notes in the leatherbound notebook Poppy had bought him, made a point of remembering everybody's names, and wore himself to a nub ingratiating himself to everyone.

When five o'clock rolled around, the Girls started packing up, gossiping about their plans for the evening ahead, and watering plants. Poppy had a huge album of fabric swatches open in front of him on his desk, grumbling about trying to make plaid and French Provincial come together peacefully. Danny felt at rather a loose end suddenly, not knowing when he was expected to leave, whether or not Poppy expected him to make his way home alone or planned to drive him back.

"Oh, Valerien wanted to give you a ride home," Poppy said when Danny asked him what time he was expected to clock out, "though in general I'd expect you to stay until six, assuming you start at nine and take an hour for lunch. But we can work that out as we go, some days I'll need you longer, some days I'll let you go early. But Val told me he'd be here at five, and it's five, so I suspect he's out on the curb waiting for you. See you in the morning."

Leaving the office by the front door, his notebook and laptop tucked under his arm, Danny saw Valerien's chocolate-and-gold Rolls Royce parked right in front. As soon as the office door closed behind him, the chauffeur stepped out and opened the car door, revealing Valerien lounging back against the camel upholstery in a mauve silk three-piece suit and a white straw hat.

"So, working-boy, how did your first day go?" Valerien asked after planting a warm kiss on Danny's mouth.

"It was kind of confusing, but satisfying," Danny admitted, "Thank you for arranging this job for me."

"Poppy should thank me, I think you'll be a brilliant assistant for him. Where would you like to have dinner? Though I should warn you I just flew in from Brazil this afternoon, so I'd rather not deal with anything elaborate."

"Why don't we stay in, then?" Danny asked, the first sultry note of seduction surfacing in his voice... he had decided at lunchtime that a relationship with Valerien was the best route to pursue, and he intended to pursue Valerien hotly.

"That's good. I've been away for several days; my chef gets rusty if I don't eat at home at least three nights a week. Do you need anything from your place first?"

"Would an overnight bag be presumptuous?" Danny purred, his hand on Valerien's thigh.

"No, not presumptuous at all," Valerien's violet eyes glowed in the dim cab of the limousine as he moved closer to Danny, "Though I'd rather send Henri for some things rather than wait while you pack."

"That suits me right down to the ground," Danny pushed Valerien down onto the seat and kissed him passionately, while Valerien reached out and pressed the button that caused the enameled coat-of-arms to rise up and screen them from the chauffeur.

*****


20 Pages ~ 12,578 Words

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