Nothing about his work with Poppy was completely alien to him, he was an expert at schmoozing rich people and already knowledgeable about interior design; his college career had certainly prepared him for clerical work like note-taking, transcription, and writing instructional letters; but showing up at nine every morning, ready to answer phones or take notes or harrass contractors was a delightful novelty that did not stale with custom.
The work itself was immensely satisfying: Danny loved getting up with an alarm-clock and driving to work in the mornings wearing a jacket, answering the phone with a brisk and cheerful "Ermengratz Design Associates, this is Danny, how may I help you?" and visiting some of the most beautiful houses in the City with a view of making them more beautiful. He learned an enormous amount from Poppy about interior design, and felt that his suggestions were taken seriously and appreciated.
Danny became very close to Poppy in those weeks, as they were constantly together, visiting clients and having lunch, then working out together before spending the afternoon doing clerical work in the office. Poppy tacitly adopted Danny as a sort of nephew/protégé and constantly advised him on his life and his wardrobe.
Danny found this relationship even more satisfying than the job. Poppy was very wise, having not only lived in different eras but in different lifestyles and several different important cities: he'd come of age in the time of the Stonewall Riots and lived that exciting ensuing decade in the heart of Manhattan; after Toddy Ermengratz died in '81, he'd rocketed around Europe and South America, cravenly (by his own admission) avoiding the worst of the AIDS crisis; he'd lived in Hollywood and Miami and Seattle during the 90s, and moved to San Francisco on the eve of the Millennium. He'd quite literally been everywhere and seen everything, and was fond of reminiscing about all these different times and places.
More importantly, he'd observed and synthesized a great deal about people and the way their minds worked. He was a genius of human behavior, and Danny delighted in having people explained to him... especially himself. Poppy saw through every mannerism and quirk Danny exhibited, such as his tendency to hoard shoes and his insatiable need for attention, and would root out the cause and desire behind each one. It was very much like having a psychiatrist and an agony-aunt at one's beck and call.
Poppy's most aired advice had to do with Valerien. Poppy had met Valerien on the occasion of the latter's eighteenth birthday, when the Comtesse had Valerien's rooms at the Chateau redecorated for him by Poppy. Valerien was enchanted by Poppy's funny camp mannerisms, and Poppy was entranced by Valerien's fairy-tale beauty and innocence. They became good friends during the time of the redecoration, and so Poppy was the obvious choice of decorator when Valerien moved into the "bachelor apartment" that his family owned, where his father and grandfather had each lived before marrying and moving into the family's Pacific Heights mansion.
Poppy understood Valerien perhaps better than anyone, and was indulgent of his foibles to the point of foolishness. For example, Valerien's refusal to learn to drive a car or use a computer, as well as his unblinking prejudice against any form of music or art that came into existence after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, was considered the cutest little quirk rather than a potentially sociopathic eccentricity.
"He's my Little Proust Princeling," Poppy would explain, "Or my Little Prince Proustling? He simply refuses to participate in the modern world, and who can blame him?"
"What about disco and gay rights?" Danny would counter, bringing up two of Poppy's favorite topics.
"That sort of thing is important for people who have to live in this time, or who like living in this time, like you and me. For people like Valerien, who have always had the power to be gay whenever they want and the money to rearrange their reality to the exclusion of anything they don't want, it just doesn't matter. He's like a period movie come to life, isn't he? I love him to pieces."
While Danny wasn't sure that this head-in-the-sand approach to reality was wise, he loved Valerien, too. And though Danny had many affairs, he'd never been in what he and the other party considered a serious relationship. He spent all of his free time with Valerien, and all of their activities were the type considered "romantic."
Every morning, there was a new bouquet of Leonidas roses and alstroemeria lilies waiting on Danny's desk, and Danny always met Valerien wearing one of each in his buttonhole. Every afternoon, Valerien picked Danny up at the Ermengratz offices, then they had sex before preparing for an evening out. Every evening, they dined together in posh restaurants, went to parties and the theatre and the opera together; they even danced together at a charity ball and took moonlit walks along the beach or through one of the City's many parks (with two security goons in close attendance, of course). Every night they slept together in either Danny's or Valerien's apartment, taking turns as host, with Valerien's valet Henri running back and forth between the apartments with one or the other's clothes for the next day.
Unfortunately, Danny realized after only a few days that, though he loved Valerien dearly, he wasn't in love with him and would never fall in love with him. Having experienced the sensation of falling head-over-heels for Marquesa, he knew what it was supposed to feel like, and he knew that this wasn't It.
Nor did Danny believe that Valerien was in love with him. Their relationship felt a little like play-acting, the romantic activities seemed a trifle contrived, and their sex was more fun than fierce... instead of true lovers, they'd become more like fuck-buddies who happened to be monogamous.
There was a certain lack of intimacy in their conversations: though he'd gleaned little bits of biography from passing comments and Poppy's trove of information (such as the touchy subject of Valerien's parents, that his father had murdered his mother during a drug-induced hallucination), Valerien never talked about his own past the way Danny and Marquesa had over that weekend in the hotel.
He chatted freely about his current activities, little experiences at the offices of his family's bank or a new purchase at the auction galleries or something to do with his horses in the country... but never anything about his inner life, his emotions, or his dreams for the future. Nor was he particularly interested in hearing about Danny's; though he asked questions about Danny's activities and listened patiently when Danny spoke of anything important to him, he didn't encourage any kind of conversation that had to do with anything that was not of-the-moment...and so Danny, being a natural people-pleaser, tended not to speak of such things.
There was also the issue of money. Valerien was constantly buying Danny expensive gifts, jewelry and clothes and extravagant little trifles like a sable teddy bear or a case of rare wine; he even gave Danny a credit card, insisting that he use it frequently lest he hurt the giver's feelings. And though Danny most frequently used the credit-card to buy gifts for Valerien, these things put him right back into the Courtesan role he had tried to escape in favor of the role of Lover.
However, it was enough. Between the novelty of working and the novelty of Valerien, Danny was very nearly as happy as he'd been during that weekend with Marquesa... not quite bliss, but the very next best thing, and a good deal happier than he'd been before he met Valerien and Marquesa.
During this period, Danny and Marquesa very seldom met. As Danny and Valerien were always a couple at the social events that Valerien and Marquesa had been accustomed to attend together, Marquesa chose other men from their social set to escort him to those events, rather than act as a third wheel. Danny would have worried that he was coming between Valerien and Marquesa, except that Marquesa spent every weekend with Valerien at the Château de Seguemont near Sonoma, where Danny could not follow... the terms of his bail required him to remain at all times within the City and County of San Francisco.
Instead, Danny spent his weekends swimming and being pampered at the spa, going out dancing (to the newest music), chatting with old friends (many of whom had returned, apologetically, after the scandal of his arrest had dimmed in the public memory... though a number of them, including Aunt Tittie, remained distinctly chilly), and catching up on the sleep he missed by keeping such odd hours during the week.
In betweentimes, he shopped for Valerien. The young baron was indecently difficult to shop for, being already supplied with all the world could provide by way of luxuries. But Danny considered that a challenge, and was always on the prowl for little bibelots and curiosities to delight Valerien.
And it was at an auction-house, where Danny had gone to bid on a miniature on ivory purportedly of the Marquise de Pompadour (a favorite historical figure and ancestress of Valerien's), that he was reminded, once again by force and surprise, of his impending murder trial: right beside him in the auction-room was Rodney Casterman, Esquire, bidding on several pieces of seventeenth-century Judaica.
"I wanted to congratulate you," Mr. Casterman said to Danny after that auction had ended and conversation was again possible, "The suggestions for avenues of investigation were very helpful to my son. Several have borne very useful fruit. You may have a future as a detective, yourself."
"That's very gratifying," Danny replied, "I'd like to hear about some of this fruit someday."
"I must arrange a meeting with you and RJ, then. I think your perspective will be useful in piecing together the evidence thus far. Also, I need to meet with you in the next two or three weeks, your arraignment date has finally been set for July 11th, and I have to go over the procedure with you."
"I'll have to ask my boss for time off," Danny laughed delightedly, "I've never had to do that before. It's great fun, having a job!"
"I'm glad you enjoy it," Casterman responded dryly but indulgently, "Shall we say the twenty-third of June? I think that's the Monday. I'll have my secretary call you. And RJ will contact you directly about discussing the evidence. Perhaps next weekend?"
"That would be delightful."
The bidding started up again, and Mr. Casterman took his leave with the receipt for a beautifully jeweled silver spice-box while Danny waited around for his ivory miniature to be snatched away by an absentee bidder at an amount higher than his own credit cards and Valerien's combined could bear.
Danny later discovered, when Valerien gave him the Pompadour miniature, that he'd been beaten by the intended recipient.
Danny was surprised to meet Detective Varajian again, having no knowledge that he and RJ Casterman had been working together for the last few weeks: Varajian was able to supply all sorts of official information to which RJ didn't have free access while RJ was able to provide the footwork and surveillance that Varajian's department couldn't afford. The two had become romantically involved, as well, the older man finally giving way to the forceful flirtations of the younger, and Danny was very amused by the way they treated each-other... like a father and son nursing an embarrassing secret.
They had gathered at Danny's apartment on the Saturday following his chance meeting with Rodney Casterman, and the two detectives spent some time wandering about studying and appreciating its beauties while Danny put the finishing touches on a very elaborate afternoon tea complete with pastries and little sandwiches. This was brought out on an immense silver tray with silver pots and gold-rimmed china, and placed on the large cocktail table in the center of the room.
"Your question about the identity of the parrot-shirted man, and whether or not he and Aunt Tittie were the same person, has yielded interesting results," RJ said around a mouthful of scone, handing Danny a blue leather folder, "They are indeed the same man, and more importantly, Thomas Carmichael AKA Lady Titania Cunard lives in the same apartment building as Marshall and the Baron, two floors above the murder scene."
"Small world," Danny remarked, fascinated, as he flipped through the dossier on Aunt Tittie, which included recent pictures of him out of drag and leaving The Brat in the early afternoon, sometimes with a young man in tow though more frequently alone, which would probably make excellent blackmail material.
"More interesting, considering some of the physical evidence dug up by the Medical Examiner," Varajian put in, "The boy with the purple hair you saw with Mr. Carmichael was his houseboy, Cort Johnson, who'd been living with him for nearly a month. There were purple hairs found in the service hallway that commands a view to both of Marshall's apartment doors, and so he is a perfect candidate for questioning. Unfortunately, he disappeared two days after the murder."
"That seems inconsistent with a murderer's actions, doesn't it?" Danny wondered, looking up from the folder, "You'd think he would want to disappear immediately."
"If it were an unplanned murder, yes," RJ answered, "But there is evidence of premeditation that is extremely consistent with such a scenario. Cort appears on one of the tapes in Marshall's playrooms about three weeks before the murder, it would make sense that he'd sit tight over the weekend after he'd already invested so much time, particularly since you were the prime suspect."
"Well, that's great!" Danny enthused, "Opportunity, access, motive... a perfect alternate suspect."
Varajian coughed and put down his teacup, "Sadly, the purple-haired Cort does not exonerate you, or even shift suspicion from you. Though there's no real reason his hair should be found on a different floor from where he was living with Carmichael, there's also no very compelling reason why it shouldn't. He was just another hustler, which puts him in an entirely different category than you. Plus we can't prove he was even in the building that night, he didn't show up on any of the cameras until the following morning. Unless we can find him, you're still on the hook."
"But that's remediable," Danny shrugged, "I'm just glad to know what movement is going on. Now, you said the purple-haired kid was on the videos... was there anyone else of interest? Anyone else from The Brat?"
"Just about everyone from The Brat," RJ laughed, "Marshall was prolific and apparently paid well. Most of the kids didn't mind Marshall's antics, his drugs were good and he paid promptly. A few had been upset by being handcuffed and then fucked, but they get a lot worse out there."
"How grimly repetitive, handcuffs and barebacking," Danny sneered.
"Marshall was a creature of defined habits," RJ opened the blue leather folder containing the interviews of the hustlers from The Brat, "He would go on a jag of a particular sex act and repeat it for some three or four months with different boys each time. Then he'd tire of it and start on another one. He was due for a change in routine, which makes the professionals on the circuit very poor suspects... they knew they'd be getting another turn with him soon, and he paid twice the going rate."
"How very vexing," Danny fell back in his chair pettishly, "We need something concrete. Returning to the purple-haired kid, did you get any way of tracing him? DNA or fingerprints or what-have-you?"
"I can't get a warrant on such slim evidence," Varajian admitted sadly, "And Carmichael knew nothing about the boy besides his name, which could very well be fake."
"And I wasn't able to induce Mr. Carmichael to allow me to fingerprint the apartment voluntarily," RJ smiled ruefully.
"Well, I bet I can. She owes me, especially the way he's been cold-shouldering me lately," Danny was quite furious, knowing that Aunt Tittie, whom he'd always counted as a close friend, would withhold this kind of information from him on purpose, "Get your Medical Examiner to meet us at Tittie's apartment at his earliest convenience, and I'll slap the lashes off that old hag if I have to. I'll get Val to threaten her with eviction, or threaten to show these pictures of her leaving a hustler bar in broad daylight alone."
"You're vicious when riled," RJ marveled admiringly at the hot flush in Danny's cheeks, "Remind me not to cross you, ever."
"I'm sorry, I'm not usually so intense," Danny laughed with embarrassment, trying to recompose himself, "I just get so angry when people behave dishonorably."
"As well you should," Varajian said gravely, "I only wish more people had your will to see justice done. Most people in your position would be making up alibis and poking holes in the prosecution, not pursuing the truth. That more than anything else has convinced me of your innocence."
"High praise indeed," RJ rolled his big amber eyes comically at Danny but put his hand over Varajian's affectionately. Varajian blushed as darkly as a fifty-year-old man of Armenian descent can blush, and hastily pulled his hand away and excused himself to the restroom to compose himself.
"Isn't he the cutest thing in the world?" RJ asked confidentially after Varajian was out of earshot.
"You make a very sweet couple," Danny said in a conspiratorial tell-me-everything tone.
"Oh, I wouldn't go so far as 'couple,'" RJ explained, "Aside from the fact that I have heretofore found monogamy quite impossible after a month or two, but also David's embarrassed to be seen out with me, just because I'm half his age. Plus, he doesn't like that I'm bisexual, or that I'm a PI instead of a 'real' cop, or that I tend to bite in the heat of passion."
"It looks like rather more than a fling from where I'm sitting," Danny observed, "I think he might very easily fall in love with you if you're not careful."
"It's a little late for 'careful,' I think," RJ sucked his front teeth thoughtfully, "But I'm a bit of a brat. I have to have what I want, and I wanted him the moment I laid eyes on him. Sexiest daddy ever."
"If I didn't know your father, and know that he's absolutely nothing like Detective Varajian, I'd suspect you of quite deliciously Freudian motives," Danny camped a little in the sing-song voice and purple diction he'd picked up from Poppy.
"Oooh, grrrrrl, you got a dirty mind!" RJ camped right back, which caused another blush of consternation from Varajian, who'd just reentered the room.
"I think we'd better be going and let Mr. Vandervere enjoy the rest of his Saturday in peace," Varajian intoned in a very unpleasantly stern voice, like a displeased father.
"I'm right behind you, Daddy," RJ replied teasingly, "Danny, I'll get back to you ASAP about hassling Aunt Tittie into letting us search his apartment for traces of the mysterious Mr. Cort Johnson. Thanks so much for the tea!"
"Do you have to act like that?" Varajian demanded of RJ when they'd reached the sidewalk.
"Oh, don't come all over closeted," RJ teased some more, "It's not like Danny's going to cause you a scandal. Besides, he'd figured it out for himself. It's pretty obvious I'm crazy about you. And Danny thinks you're falling in love with me. Are you?"
"If you'd stop embarrassing me, I might," Varajian growled, but was secretly pleased to hear that the younger man was 'crazy about' him, "And maybe if you stopped dressing like a jet-set playboy, and got a real job instead of working for your father, well..."
"But then you wouldn't like me at all. Unemployed and badly dressed, I never even would have met you. Unless I killed someone. Did you know Danny only lived two blocks away from your place?"
"Of course," Varajian was suddenly wary of that last question, which not only carried a slight tone of jealousy but came too closely on the tail of a suggestion of murder, "He told me his address when we questioned him."
"Before that, though," RJ persisted, "You've seen him around the neighborhood, haven't you? You must have noticed him."
"Of course I noticed him, I notice everything. I'm a detective."
"So am I, though you like to pretend I'm just Daddy's Little Sinecure. When you first arrested him, you recognized him as a near neighbor, didn't you?"
"Of course. Why are you so interested in whether or not I ever saw Vandervere before?"
"Because I can see you're attracted to him, and that makes my fingernails itch just a bit," RJ stopped walking and grabbed Varajian's elbow to make him turn around.
"You can't possibly be jealous, can you?" Varajian was amazed.
"I can so possibly be," RJ replied petulantly, "And I don't see why I shouldn't be."
"If for no other reason than because I haven't got the money to interest a boy like Danny Vandervere. He'd never give me the time of day. He in fact has passed my door a number of times without so much as looking at me."
"I don't believe you," RJ's eyes narrowed to dangerous slits, "You're a hot man, and he's not blind, or even nearsighted."
"I'm hot, am I?," Varajian tickled him to make him lighten up, "You're the only one who seems to think so anymore."
"Can I help it if the rest of the world is stupid? And seeing as how we're so close to your apartment, I want you to show me exactly how much I shouldn't be jealous of Danny Vandervere."
"You are a spoiled brat," Varajian said evenly, though the light of sex was already glowing in his eyes.
"That's why you maybe-love me," RJ pecked him on the mouth and led the way up 16th Street to Varajian's door.
The Invasion of Aunt Tittie's Apartment, or "T.A. Day" as Danny called it, started with an informal meeting over afternoon coffee in Valerien's penthouse on the following Friday. Detective Varajian and Medical Examiner Griggs gawked openly at the eighteenth-century splendors of the vast salon, while RJ Casterman and Charlie Putnam merely appreciated them with the vaguely blasé air of people who'd grown up among similar splendors.
"Do you think Aunt Tittie will mind all of us showing up like this?" Danny wondered, a sense of misgiving infecting his desire to get the truth out of Tittie... it was one thing to threaten her, another thing entirely to come banging on her door backed by a delegation of five men.
"I don't care if Carmichael minds it or not," Valerien responded quietly but angrily over the edge of his cup, "I'm the majority owner of this building, I'll do what I like in it. I only wish I'd put 'obstructing justice' as a termination clause in his co-op agreement. Then we could evict him."
"Oh, don't do that," Danny pleaded for his friend, completely reversing his own stance of the Saturday before, "She probably didn't mean any harm, she's just protecting her privacy."
"Privacy, faugh!" Valerien responded, a little more heatedly, "This practice of bringing strange boys into the building and giving them keys and letting them run loose is dangerously idiotic and has to be stopped. I pay a lot of money for security, and I want this building secure, goddammit, not infested with purple-haired hustlers. Especially if they're going to go around killing the other tenants."
"I'm sure Mr. Carmichael's intentions were not dishonorable," RJ put in soothingly, "And I do agree that perhaps we might not all have to interview him at the same moment. Perhaps if you and Danny would go talk to him first, while we wait in the wings to take his statements and hunt for traces of Cort Johnson afterward, things might go a bit more smoothly."
"I suppose so," Valerien put down his cup and stood to leave, "But never underestimate the power of intimidation."
"Unfortunately, it's illegal," Detective Varajian said, "And I certainly wouldn't want to put you in a tenuous legal position by being present and having to take official notice of an illegal act."
"Besides," Griggs piped in, "an unwilling witness is an unhelpful witness. Mr. Carmichael is more likely to cooperate, and less likely to hold things back, if you soft-soap rather than hard-ball him."
"Hmph," Valerien snorted contemptuously; he'd be damned before he'd pander to the likes and dislikes of Thomas Carmichael.
"Are we sure he's home?" Danny wondered, finally shrinking from the confrontation that he'd been spoiling for all week.
"We've been watching him ever since we connected him to your visit at The Brat," RJ replied, "I know when he farts, if you'll pardon my language, much less leaves his apartment. He's home right now, most likely at the makeup table."
"Oh," Danny sighed reluctantly and followed the angry Valerien out of the apartment to the elevator; it was nearly four, Tittie was bound to be in the very middle of making up for the evening, and wouldn't relish the intrusion. But the thing had to be done, and with everyone else waiting, he certainly couldn't put it off to a more convenient time... besides, once he'd gotten Valerien involved, the whole thing had gone out of his control: Valerien was accustomed to treating the residents of his building as tenants rather than co-owners, and was more enraged by the hustler/houseboy part of the matter than Aunt Tittie's betrayal of Danny's friendship.
"Mr. Carmichael?" Valerien knocked loudly on Aunt Tittie's door, which was on the tenth floor and at the opposite end of the building from Marshall's, "It's Baron de Seguemont. I want to talk to you."
"I'm indisposed," came an irritated voice from far inside the apartment, "Bugger off."
"I will speak to you now, if you please," Valerien seemed to grow larger with his rage at being treated so dismissively, "Don't make me get the passkey."
"Well of all the motherfucking nerve..." Danny heard Tittie banging about in the apartment and swearing as he made his way to the door, "I own this goddamned apartment, how dare you threaten me with passkeys? What in the hell do you want?"
Aunt Tittie threw the door open and then stepped back, more than surprised to see Danny standing just behind Valerien. He was dressed in a very large silk kimono with cranes painted all over it, his sparse hair covered with a stocking cap, his face a blank mask of foundation with one eye dazzlingly lined and painted in peacock hues.
"Oh, hello, Danny," he had the grace to smile uncomfortably and lower his voice, "What's this all about?"
"I'm sorry to barge in on you at this hour, Aunt Tittie," Danny said apologetically while smoothly entering the apartment and giving him a peck on the cheek, "But we need your help."
"It's not a very effective way of winning friends and influencing people," Aunt Tittie observed dryly, trying to regain her cool, "Threatening people with illegal entry."
"I could swear I heard you calling for help," Valerien said in an offhand way, "And your behavior is not going to sit very well with the co-op board, of which I happen to be the president, as you well know."
"Val, please," Danny gave Valerien his most potent puppy-dog eyes, "Don't be antagonistic. Aunt Tittie will understand once I've explained it to her. See, the thing is, we need your help finding your ex-houseboy, Cort Johnson."
"Are you responsible for those PIs and SFPDs harassing me about Cort?" Aunt Tittie nearly bellowed, "I would have thought better of you, Danny Vandervere."
"Honestly, I didn't know about the detectives until recently, and you've not spoken to me once since that weekend when I was arrested," Danny turned the puppy-eyes on Tittie and evinced a welling of tears, "I would have come to you directly if I'd known that was you in The Brat with the purple-haired boy."
"I'm sorry, but that's not good enough," Tittie was regretting his behavior but didn't want to admit it just yet, "You could have come to me directly with your questions, even if I was cold-shouldering you, which I assure you I was not."
"I'm sorry, but who comes to whom with questions is beside the point," Valerien inserted himself into the conversation hotly, "The point is that you had an unauthorized tenant of unknown origin on the weekend that a murder was committed in this building; furthermore, you withheld that information even though it would help someone who considers you a friend, for reasons I cannot comprehend. That is the point."
"Well, how the hell was I supposed to know it would help? Cort isn't even connected to this. And what do you want me to do about it, anyway?" Tittie was defensive again, "I don't know where the little shit went, and if I did I'd happily turn him over to you. He stole money from me."
"But you can still help," Danny put himself between Tittie and Valerien and grabbed Tittie's hand pleadingly, "You can let the medical examiner and my detective friend look for traces of Cort, so that if he is found we can place him at the scene with forensic evidence."
"You want to turn my apartment upside-down for fingerprints? I think not."
"I'll pay for the cleaning, naturally," Valerien said scathingly.
"You wouldn't find anything if I did let you," Tittie huffed, "I have cleaned during the last few weeks, I'm not a pig. And besides, he didn't leave anything behind."
"Still, please let them look. I'm desperate," Danny almost cried, "Please?"
"Oh, all right," Tittie relented and walked back into his apartment, "You might as well get on with it. I'm going to go finish putting my face on."
Valerien went off to fetch the detectives while Danny followed Tittie through an apartment crowded with beautiful antique furniture and cluttered with a multitude of movie-themed porcelain collectibles ranging from Gone With The Wind plates to Wizard of Oz figurines.
"Why have you been so distant with me, lately?" Danny asked gently as Tittie settled down at a messy and brightly-lit dressing table in a very untidy bedroom, "I thought our friendship meant something to you."
Tittie looked at him steadily in the mirror for some moments before answering, "I didn't know what to think, whether you were a killer or not. So I decided it was best to just wait and see without getting involved. I'm sorry if that hurt your feelings."
"If it helps anything, I am innocent," Danny offered with a small forgiving smile.
"You think Cort killed the guy? Why?" Tittie was intent on painting his other eye.
"There were purple hairs found in the stairwell near Marshall's apartment, which had been bleached down immediately after the murder. The entire stairwell and all the hallways between that floor and this were bleached, which suggests Cort was watching Marshall's apartment, and didn't want anyone to be able to prove it."
"Well, maybe Cort is your killer... he cleaned this place spic-and-span before he took off with the contents of my wallet and a few of my favorite silver antiques, leaving not a wrack behind."
"You didn't ever take a picture of him?" Danny wondered.
"I did, when he was sleeping, but he found it and took it."
"What about underwear?"
Tittie gave Danny a long, somewhat angry but also begrudgingly admiring look, reached into a drawer at his right, and pulled out a pair of generic white briefs with a few telltale stains of wear, size Medium, "I was hoping you wouldn't ask for that, but since you did, I hope they help."
"You're the best, Aunt Tittie. When you're done getting dressed, can I take you for a drink? I have my car here."
"Some other time, perhaps. But why don't you get going so I can finish putting on my face, I don't want to be here when your myrmidons are tearing my apartment apart. And if they break the tiniest bit of lace off the meanest piece of my Royal Doulton, I'm going to bill your prissy little Baron for it."
"Oh, Valerien's not that bad, he's just a bit autocratic when he's angry. He'll make it up to you when he's calmed down," Danny stood and kissed Tittie on the top of his head, "Thank you so much for your help. I'll take you to dinner any time you're free, OK? And I'll send over a pair of my underwear in exchange for these."
"Mmm-hmmm..." Tittie was putting on lip-liner so couldn't make a more distinct answer.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing," Griggs nearly screamed in disgust the next morning when he reviewed the last report of the evidence taken from Aunt Tittie's apartment.
Nothing in the way of hair or bodily fluids was found in Aunt Tittie's apartment, but the smell of bleach still lingered in some of the crevices and corners. The DNA samples found in the underpants had looked so promising, but they didn't match anything in any of the identity databanks; and after dusting every single surface in a fairly large apartment crowded to bursting with surfaces, only four sets of fingerprints were recovered: one belonging to Tittie, two belonging to known hustlers whose movements on the night of the murder were easily established, and a fourth set found on a lightbulb in a closet belonging to someone completely unknown to law enforcement agencies. The mysterious Cort Johnson was, forensically speaking, a non-person.
Nevertheless, the evidence was sealed and stored in connection to the Drayton Marshall files, just in case Cort Johnson ever turned up... which didn't seem very likely. Medical Examiner Griggs reluctantly turned his attention to the several other cases on his desk and put the plight of Danny Vandervere out of his mind.
Danny took the news lying down, literally and figuratively. He was enmeshed in his latest pastime, posing for a portrait with Jacky Alvarado, when RJ Casterman and David Varajian came to tell him about the outcome of the forensic search of Aunt Tittie's apartment and the complete lack of identity for Cort Johnson.
"At least we know he was there," Danny shrugged from his position on the dais; he was lying face-down and nude on a velvet-draped mattress in the pose of Waterhouse's Narcissus, staring at the painter through the mirror that lay beneath his head, "And if he does commit a crime somewhere, it will show up in the database, won't it?"
"That's a pretty big 'if,'" Varajian sighed sadly, resting his eyes on Danny's perfect back and buttocks; he couldn't decide if he was more turned on by the nudity or by Danny's complete disregard for who saw him, but was more interested in keeping his arousal hidden from RJ, whose jealously now knew no bounds. Varajian could see, out of the corner of his eye, the younger man flexing his fingers angrily as if wishing to crush somebody's windpipe.
"But isn't it a truism that criminals can't help but get caught eventually? Don't they always get sloppy or return to the scene of the crime, or something?"
"Only in fiction," RJ said, trying, in his turn, to decide if he were more angry at Danny for continuing to pose nude in front of David, at David for continuing to stare at Danny like a hungry dog, or at himself for being jealous of either of them, "In real life things aren't usually so tidy."
"Still, it's better than nothing," Danny shrugged a little but was hissed at by the painter for moving.
"In the meantime," RJ continued, "My people have been canvassing the Tenderloin and all of the customers of The Brat about our mysterious young Cort. It seems he never tricked while he was there, he was just hanging out, pretending to be a hustler. The only person he was ever seen leaving with was Carmichael, I mean Aunt Tittie, and that one time with Marshall. He lived in a cheap hotel before he hooked up with Tittie, so the boys all assumed he was a runaway and hadn't completely used up all his money yet."
"And absolutely nobody has any idea where he went," Varajian put in, "He never said where he was from, or where he wanted to go. But hustlers are like that, they're very of-the-moment, no past, no future, so nobody thought it was odd."
"Gentlemen, do you mind?" Jacky Alvarado came out from behind his painting, his hazel eyes flashing with irritation, "You're breaking my concentration."
"I'm sorry, Jacky," Danny apologized without moving, "RJ, David, thank you for coming by and letting me know about the results."
With a few more words of good-bye, the two detectives left, and Danny lapsed back into the indescribable boredom of sitting for an oil portrait.
At first, spending time with the artist was a lot of fun. Jacky was a very handsome young man, with an admirable Latin-American angel's face, delicate bones, big eyes and a succulent mouth, all on top of a small wiry body simply bursting with energy most of the time. When they'd first met, Jacky rhapsodized over Danny's beauty, photographed him for three hours solid, and threw out a thousand ideas for portrait poses.
But then came the actual posing, first for sketches as the artist tried out different compositions and styles (Jacky had declared him a "pure pre-Raphaelite" and tried out Burne-Jones, Leighton, and Morris Hunt before deciding on Waterhouse); at those times, Jacky lapsed into an intensely still concentration, neither talking nor allowing Danny to talk. And though the recumbent pose that was finally decided upon allowed Danny to go to sleep whenever he got too bored, the minute he moved Jacky would yell at him irritably and spend a few minutes making sure he was back in place before returning to the silent painting.
When the two- or three-hour session was over, Jacky would come alive again, snapping pictures with his camera as Danny moved around the studio getting dressed (all of the pictures he shot belonged to Valerien, by the terms of his contract for the painting, and so Danny was able to relax in the knowledge that they would never get out to the general public). He was a wonderful chatterer, and could spin running jokes out of the most mundane pop-culture material; Danny just wished that this liveliness was part of the posing as well as the before and after.
Danny was also worried a little by the fact that these sessions were cutting into his early evenings with Valerien; he didn't miss the hour or so of Valerien's company, but had to wonder if Valerien missed him... or if this portrait were an excuse to have time away from Danny. He didn't dare ask Valerien to declare his intentions, for fear that their escapade would come to an end; and though he was not in love with Valerien, either, he loved their relationship and feared its cease... and so he let the worry fester inside of him, especially during the still hours of his posing.
More worrisome was the fact that his filial relationship with Poppy had turned carnal a few days after the painting was started. One afternoon when he and Poppy were working together in the studio, Poppy had let out a low growl and, as promised weeks before, pounced on Danny without so much as a by-your-leave. Despite all his previous protestations about his preferred type and his rule against fucking employees, he stripped Danny naked and fucked him silly on the couch, and then repeated the performance, with a number of variations, almost daily thereafter.
This new sexual relationship, though wildly enjoyable (Danny discovered that he really liked being held down, and Poppy kept him laughing all through the strenuous act with jokes and tickling, which lent another element of pleasure to sex that he'd never before experienced), worried him on two counts: first, how would Valerien react if he found out; and second, what had Valerien told Poppy about their relationship that made the older man feel free to pounce on Danny... would Poppy do something that might conceivably take away from Valerien something that Valerien valued, or did Poppy know that Valerien was no longer particularly interested in Danny and was just letting things ride until someone better came into view?
However, even with these worries and the boredom of posing, Danny's life was satisfying enough to keep him quite happy... all of his worries were new worries, and his boredom was a new boredom, and all of it kept him distracted from thinking about his uncertain immediate future. His remaining time spent with Valerien was still carefree and romantic, and his work with Poppy was developing into something that Danny considered he might actually make a career of. And he looked forward to the completion of the painting, a form of immortality that he'd always wanted (though he was aware that the immortality would depend largely on whether or not posterity would think as much of Jacky Alvarado as he and Valerien did).
As the date of his arraignment neared, however, Danny had new worries to consider in his still hours: Mr. Casterman painted a very bleak picture of the evidence that would come out at that proceeding; and also outlined the extremely slim but still real chance that Danny's bail could be revoked at that time if the judge were to come to believe Danny was dangerous or that he was more of a flight risk than the ten-million-dollar bond could guarantee.
Though he would ordinarily be inclined to keep the arraignment restricted to a simple plea of Not Guilty, Casterman was aware that the Prosecution was going to call character witnesses to underline their conviction that Danny was the killer; with such a ploy already on the board, Casterman had decided to take it a step further in hopes that a parade of character witnesses could lead to a dismissal before a plea had to even be entered.
The downside of this ploy, however, is that the Prosecution could turn some character witnesses to its own ends, and undermine Danny's respectability... especially since it was known that they already had wind of his past filled with mercenary romances.
"While this is certainly not my usual advice," Casterman advised Danny in the Victorian mahogany-paneled confines of his downtown office, "I want you to be perfectly candid about the gifts your various lovers have given you. The Prosecution will use those gifts to paint you as vicious and conniving, and I want the judge to get a load of you at your most disarmingly honest... you're a good enough actor to lie well, but you tell the truth so much better. And besides, you've done nothing illegal, only morally questionable."
"OK," Danny said vaguely, more intent on the notes he was taking of the meeting than of the tone of Casterman's remarks; his time with Poppy had habituated him to writing everything down and then thinking it over later.
"I also want to bring your great-aunts down from Vandervere, but not without your consent."
"Oh, I don't know about that," Danny looked up from his notebook, "I'm not sure I would want them to hear all those details about my sex-life, you know?"
"They'll read about them in the papers next day, anyway," Casterman reasoned, "And they and your former nanny would, I think, be the best witnesses to your character."
"Aren't my friends enough?"
"Your friends here in town have all known you less than two years," the attorney got up and walked aimlessly around his office, "and none of them really knows you all that well, you must admit. Besides which, many of them would look a little shady to a judge... no, I think that we should concentrate on people who've known you a good long time."
"But you should know that the Aunt Ems and Mademoiselle Marnie are all just a bit touched in the head. They don't do reality, if you know what I mean."
"Nevertheless, they've known you since you were a child, and would be in a position to know your character better than anyone else. If there were other people we could call with similar knowledge, I would certainly do so."
"Just don't ask my parents," Danny shrugged and returned to his notes, "I doubt they'd give a very glowing report of me."
"Unfortunately, the Prosecution might drag them, and some of your more disreputable friends, into the courtroom to give an account of you. What would your parents say about you?"
"That I'm lazy and sneaky, probably," Danny sighed, "That's what they always accused me of. They assumed I didn't get in trouble, when my brother always did, because I was better at subterfuge... it would never have occurred to them that I was simply well-behaved. My brother Tay was an absolute terror. He still is, as far as I can tell."
"That's another thing that will come up... it's being whispered that your family has the town of Vandervere in such a grip that you could have run around killing babies and eating puppies in the town square without official notice being taken."
"Well, that's true to an extent," Danny laughed at the image of a baby-and-puppy barbecue in the gingerbread bandstand of Vandervere Town Square, "Though nobody ever did more than speed a little or get rowdy in a bar. We are WASPs, after all; even our sins are boring."
"Nevertheless, it would be convenient to have a bad report of you from the Vandervere Police to balance that out. Were you ever caught doing anything?"
"Having sex with another boy in the park at night," Danny answered immediately, "The officer let us both off with a warning and never said a word about it to my parents. But I bet he'd be willing to talk about it if it would help me. He's something of a friend."
"How close of a friend?" Casterman asked sternly.
"Just a friend. I was nice to him when he was new on the job and gave him a tour of the town once; Vandervere can be a very hostile place, and I made him feel welcome. Nothing sexual. He's straight as a board."
"I have a feeling that even boards bend a little when exposed to you," Casterman joked.
"Can I help it if I'm lovable?" Danny joked back, though he wondered if he were bending his attorney in any way... he really didn't have the energy, between Poppy and Valerien every weekday, and the casual tricking he'd recently resumed over the weekends, to entertain another affair.
Soon after the painting was finished, Valerien organized a party to celebrate and unveil the masterwork. Though it would eventually be hung in Valerien's library, due to its greenish color scheme, it was displayed for the first time in the very center of the long salon, a pair of bright lamps on either side of it and a drape of golden damask over the top.
The painting itself was breathtaking, soft and yet dramatic, filled with dappled light that looked quite real: one felt as if there were slight warmth coming off the canvas. Danny was represented in a perfection that was almost impossible, but the artist swore that he had not idealized one square inch, it was all exactly what was there; and since it was an angle he'd never seen of himself, Danny was fascinated by this new facet of his own beauty.
The painting was not a copy of the original, but rather an homage: it showed Danny laying out on the sloped bank of a clear pond, his chin resting on his crossed arms, his legs splayed negligently, a wisp of silky vermillion material draped over his left shoulder and lower thighs and spread out under him like a blanket; his face was reflected clearly in the pond's mirror-like surface, and the whole attitude of the body and face was one of relaxed enjoyment rather than intent study.
In his usual manner, Jacky Alvarado had inserted a few sly additions into the painting that Waterhouse's original lacked: first, the subject was not staring at himself in the reflection of the pond, he was regarding the viewer intently, and the dark brown eyes had been painted in such a way that they seemed to follow the viewer quite eerily; the background vegetation was shaped in such a way as to suggest inorganic objects, vases and pictures and bits of furniture that actually existed in Danny's living room, and there were pieces of Danny's own jewelry secreted in the grass and the bottom of the clear pond. The artist himself was mum on what these little additions were supposed to mean, preferring to let the viewer draw his or her own conclusions.
To Danny it was a revelation... he had always thought of himself, in his darker moments, as vain and materialistic, and the pose of Narcissus certainly reinforced that opinion of himself. But this Narcissus, gazing out at the world through a mirror of vanity, or rather through a window of beauty, seemed much more interested in the people who looked at him than in himself or the things people gave him. It rang of truth, and it made Danny like himself a little better.
The reception, however, brought him crashing right back down. It was attended by the very highest cream of society, the outside hall was crammed with bodyguards, and people who were famous for never going anywhere were seen there that night; however, though everyone was perfectly charming to him, Danny overheard whispers about himself, and the whispers weren't very flattering. Nobody said anything outright against him, nobody would dare speak in opposition of Valerien's and Marquesa's sponsorship and support; but there was an undertone to their private conversations that demonstrated a widespread belief that Danny had "hooked" Valerien, that he probably had killed Marshall and would also probably get away with it because of his looks and his willingness to grant sexual favors in exchange for whatever he wanted.
Though the Alvarado portrait showed him as a sensitive and lonely soul, the portrait Society saw was the same old surface of the high-end hustler, more whore than courtesan, sharply on the lookout for what he could get, and not very nice at all. To drown the sting of this unflattering interpretation of the painting, Danny drank far more wine than was good for him and was quite drunk only halfway through the evening.
Another sting that sent him running for the bottle was seeing Marquesa there with Richard Allenwhite; though they had arrived separately and alone, they spent their time at the party together, side-by-side, an accepted couple. It was vividly clear, even from the furthest distance of the vast salon, that Marquesa was besotted with Richard, insanely happy just to be standing next to him in a public place; Danny felt the unfamiliar gnaw of jealousy in his heart.
Richard Allenwhite was so godlike that Danny couldn't blame anybody for being in love with him. He was extremely tall and broad with muscle, with golden skin and bright gold hair, bright gold eyelashes around brilliant blue eyes, so dazzlingly handsome that it almost hurt to look at him; he was in his mid-forties, his face lined with laughter and outdoor sport, but he was so vital in his personality that he seemed much younger. He fairly glowed with divine light, and Danny could imagine himself falling in love with the man.
But at the same time he hated him intensely: for no matter how much he tried to convince himself otherwise, he was deeply and painfully in love with Marquesa, and Richard stood implacably between them. Marquesa seemed almost diminished by his proximity to Richard: though they didn't touch or in any way act like a couple, Marquesa's whole attitude was one of devotion to the godlike creature beside him; the stunning black satin sheath dress and galaxy of diamonds he wore were presented as an offering rather than the frame and fitting pedestal for the intense personality that Danny loved. It hurt him to see Marquesa like that, and he foolishly tried to drown the hurt in champagne.
By the time everybody had gone home and Valerien and Danny were in bed together, Danny was so drunk that he couldn't perform. Frustrated and depressed, he broke into tears and spent half an hour just wailing inconsolably into Valerien's neck. And though Valerien tried his best to comfort Danny, he was unequal to the task... he'd never himself experienced an emotion so strong as to inspire such heart-wrenched weeping, and felt rather inadequate in the face of Danny's obvious pain.
"Nobody loves me," Danny finally said pathetically when his tears had slowed enough to allow speech.
"I love you," Valerien said, trying to soothe him.
"But you're not in love with me, are you?"
"No, I guess not. But I do love you."
"I love you, too; but I'm not in love with you, either," Danny sat up, suddenly feeling almost sober after his tantrum, and accepted the towel Valerien handed him.
"I never thought you were," Valerien said seriously after a period of thought, "Why are you bringing it up now? I thought things were going well."
"I thought so, too, until I saw Marquesa with Richard tonight. They're in love with each other and I'm in love with Marquesa, and it hurts like you wouldn't believe."
"I'm sorry," Valerien put his arm around Danny's neck and kissed him gently, "I didn't know."
"I didn't know either, until tonight," Danny said, though not entirely truthfully... he'd known all along that his love for Valerien was a pale shadow compared to his love for Marquesa, but he tried to talk himself into loving Valerien just because he was available while Marquesa wasn't. But he didn't like to admit he was using Valerien in such a manner, so hadn't allowed himself to think about it.
Valerien was silent for a long time before asking in a small, unsure voice, "Do you think about him when we're together?"
"Oh, God, no!" Danny was quick to reassure his friend, "I only think about you when I'm with you. And myself, of course. Why, who do you think about?"
"Nobody in particular," Valerien answered with a sly smile.
"Does this mean we're breaking up?" Danny wondered after another long silence.
"I don't see why we should. I'm happy. Are you happy?"
"Mostly. It's 'the next best thing to love,' isn't it?" Danny sang the lyric to one of his favorite torch songs.
"Then let's make a pact: we'll go as we are until we get bored with eachother or 'until the real thing comes along,'" Valerien sang back, surprising Danny with the knowledge of a pop song's lyrics, something he wouldn't ordinarily admit to knowing.
Danny had discovered that Valerien secretly liked a lot of things that he pretended not to for some strange reason... once Danny woke up in the night to find Valerien listening to music on Danny's handheld, demonstrating both an enjoyment for pop music and a knowledge of how to operate a small electronic device, two things he publicly disdained. Danny found this strangely endearing, though he was always puzzled by why Valerien would bother to be so vocally against something that he actually liked. And since they were being so candid with each-other, Danny decided to ask.
"Why do you pretend you don't like pop music?"
"Oh, I don't know," Valerien replied, "I'm just proud and stubborn. And I guess I just don't want everyone to know all about me. I like to have secrets."
"Really? I never would have thought anybody'd make a secret of anything so everyday as music."
"Well, I don't have any big secrets, I have to make due with little ones."
"Tell me another little secret," Danny nestled down beside Valerien like a small child asking to be told a story.
"My father isn't dead, or institutionalized," Valerien said quickly, "He lives at the château with a nurse. He's completely insane, but harmless."
"That's a pretty big secret," Danny said, admiringly, pleased that Valerien had entrusted him with something like that.
"But it's not really my secret, it's the family's; so I make mysteries of my likes and dislikes," Valerien shrugged and turned off the light, then settled down in the bed to go to sleep, "Do you have any secrets?"
"I've been sleeping with Poppy for a few weeks, now," Danny admitted warily.
"That's not a secret, I've known about that all along. In fact, Poppy very cutely asked my permission to, as he put it, 'take a poke' at you. I never considered sexual fidelity a part of our relationship. Tell me a real secret."
"Well, I guess I don't have any. I can keep other people's secrets, but I can't keep any of my own. If it happens to me, I have to tell someone. I've always had a problem with chronic disclosure."
"I think it's cute," Valerien said, smiling in the dark.
"I think your secrets are cute," Danny smiled back, his cock finally behaving as it was supposed to, his hands drifting around Valerien's waist, "I think your ass is cute, too."
"Incorrigible little satyr," Valerien laughed, turning the lights back on; he loved to watch Danny making love to him.
"Who're you calling little?" Danny teased, climbing on top of Valerien and pressing their cocks together. Suddenly Danny was happy again, all his doubts, fears, and worries forgotten as he frolicked in bed with his wonderful fuck-buddy friend.
9,688 Words ~ 16 Pages
John William Waterhouse's Narcissus.