Romano and Albright 01 - Catch Me If You Can (MM)

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Dedication

To my husband, G.

Chapter One: Keeping It Brief

Jean Luc Pappineau

An Exhibition of Sculpted Works

Friday, 28 April

5:00-8:00 p.m.

Peter Stuhlmann Gallery

NY, NY

I felt pretty damn good about the opening, until Shep McNamara strolled through the gallery door with a fresh new haircut and a spray-on tan and I aspirated the green olive floating in my martini. Fumbling my glass, I watched in disbelief as Shep sauntered by with a drink in either hand. I doubted he was carrying one for a friend. Sure, the drinks were free, but he didn’t need to double fist. I coughed, trying to dislodge the olive, my chest seized, and Shep disappeared. What was he doing here? I coughed again, a little harder this time.

“You need help, Caesar?”

I shook my head at Brandon, our shirtless bartender, and hacked desperately into my soggy cocktail napkin. My nose watered; tears blurred my vision. The fucking olive wouldn’t budge. I tried to expel it as gracefully as I could but it was…
lodged…
or something.

“Put your arms over your head,” Mallory Albright instructed. The woman I most needed to impress this evening examined me through clever Lafont frames, her crimson lips pursed in concern. “That will lift your diaphragm.”

She demonstrated by pulling her shoulders back and lifting her own diaphragm, one slender hand to her ribs. Her jet hair swung forward, making an angled point under her chin.

Normally, I’d have delivered a smart comment. Instead, I gasped, wheezed and banged on my sternum with a closed fist to no avail. That garnish wouldn’t budge.

Brandon jumped the table to whack me on the back—the flat of his hand shoved me into Mallory. I horked up the olive, spitting it directly into her drink. She didn’t flinch at the delicate
plop
it made on reentry or when droplets of gin spattered her bare arm. She merely flagged a waiter, who rushed over with a stack of paper napkins. He handed us both another much-appreciated martini, his silver tray dipping precariously close to the ornamental bust of Mayor Bloomberg.

Mallory set her dirty glass on the waiter’s tray without acknowledging the remains of my olive. She peered over her glasses at me. “You’re fine. Catastrophe averted. All better now, yes?”

“Yes. I beg your pardon.” I dabbed my mouth with the cocktail napkin and then scrubbed the lapel of my new blazer. I glanced furtively around the perimeter of the room, searching the crowd for Shep and his deceitful cousin Poppy. That twit had promised me—
promised me
—she’d never invite him to one of my events.

I set my cuffs straight with a jerk and took a swig of liquor to settle my nerves and soothe my throat. No sign of either Shep or Poppy from my vantage point, but the urge to hide from one and kill the other had me shifting my feet restlessly.

Mallory continued to stare. “You’re breathing fine now?”

Nodding politely, I rasped, “Yes, thank you, Mal,” and carefully cleared my throat. “That olive must have gone down the wrong way.” Much like me on the path to my career. Stuck at twenty-eight and barely making minimum wage. I’d have done better in the men’s department of Saks or working in the restaurant with my pop and my brother. The art world didn’t exactly pay well when you were in lower management.

Mallory looked thoughtful. “I knew someone who choked on a peach pit once—a girl at Smith. She scraped her esophagus and developed a bacterial infection. It turned into meningitis. She nearly died. These things happen sometimes. You didn’t abrade anything, did you, dear?”

Abrade? “No. I’m just a little embarrassed, that’s all. I’m sure the gin will kill any bacteria. Olives are soft. Don’t worry about me, Mal.”

“Oh, don’t be silly. Sometimes we swallow wrong. You need to swallow slowly, dear.” Mallory sipped her martini. She smiled with good humor at the bust of Howard Stern.

I couldn’t possibly comment, although Brandon snickered.

“He could always practice swallowing,” Brandon muttered.

I gave him an
I’m-paying-you
look, and he winked back at me but held his tongue. Brandon’s massive pectorals gleamed with some kind of oil, but under the gallery lights he was beginning to show signs of age. He’d covered his gray, though he couldn’t hide the crow’s feet. Of course, they merely heightened his masculinity. “Shouldn’t you be back at the bar?”

Mallory didn’t spare Brandon a word. “It’s a good turnout, Caesar. You’ve done a magnificent job putting together Jean’s…
pieces
…” She said this as if she should finish her thought with the words “
of shit
” but was too cultured to do so. “I’m sure something will sell. The gin is flowing freely enough.”

“It’s flooding rather than flowing. Hopefully that will loosen people up to purchase.” I needed for them to sell. Not for my boss or for Jean, but for myself. For my future. I wasn’t proud of this, but I’d ride Jean and Peter’s coattails to a better job if I could.

And tonight was the night. The gallery was clogged with well-lubricated art enthusiasts. Everything had been planned accordingly: the music festive yet discreet, the food excellent, the booze plentiful and the waiters mostly naked. Poppy and I had hoped that every girl and boy present would be amused. I was scheming to impress my targeted future boss, Ms. Mallory Albright of The Albright Gallery of Fine Art. She had no idea, but her assistant was about to give notice on Monday. I knew this because Steph had pulled me aside two weeks ago, at her own catered event, and said I could land a lucrative job if I didn’t fuck up. My plan appeared to be working—until the olive.

I looked around for Shep. If I had a do-over, I’d aim that olive at his head.

Mallory took a delicate sip from her fresh glass, leaving a blood-red mark on its rim. Her fingers pinched the stem precisely. “This event must have cost a fortune. Did you adhere to your budget?”

“Somewhat,” I hedged. “I called in a few favors.”

That much was true. My family and friends may never speak to me again.

“I’m impressed. I don’t think Peter understands how good you really are.”

“He’s been kind to me,” I fibbed.

“Well, you let me know if he’s unkind to you, and I’ll set him straight.” She patted my hand and floated away in her black eveningwear.

I took another look around the room. Brandon had returned to his station behind the bar, mixing cocktails with great flair. “Brandon, if you see Poppy, you inform her that I need to speak with her. Tell her to drop what she’s doing and find me.”

“Any message?” He speared an olive on a toothpick and flipped it into the air. It landed neatly in a martini glass.

“That was the message.”

“Ah. Right.”

I headed to the kitchen. I was five steps from the hall when a hand clapped me on the back, propelling me forward again. I caught myself on a patron, juggled my drink and pasted a smile on my face. “Oh, excuse me!” Somewhere in the room a camera shutter clicked.

Jean Luc Pappineau, the man of the hour, swayed drunkenly on his feet beside me. He’d lost his shirt, but his bow tie remained. His nipple rings gleamed in the gallery light. He might be in great shape at forty, but Jesus, what the hell was he doing? His smile was unguarded and his eyes were unfocused. Maybe we should cut back the flow of gin.

“Romano, what a night,” he crowed.

“Yes. Congratulations. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen no fewer than six critics here.” God help him. “Your name is getting recognition.”

“Oh that’s all shit, buddy. What we need is to make some sales.”

“Excuse me?” I croaked. He was completely plowed. He had to be.

“You know—the dough. I need cash.” He made the universal sign of money grubbing—that roll of his thumb along the flat of his blunt fingertips. Jeez, there was nothing like a little avarice to make a true artist shine. He gave me a curious look. “What’s wrong with your voice? You sound froggy.”

“Must be the night air.”

“Sounds like you choked on something.” He offered me his drink. “Need to wet your whistle.”

“Jean. Focus. You need to go charm some of these people so they’ll buy a bust for their front entry or their house in the Hamptons.” I had no clue what I was saying. I was from Brooklyn. “You need to create buzz—think big picture. It’s not simply about sales.”

“It is when the rent’s due, boy-o, and the ex says that the kid needs braces.”

Well, he had me there. Before I could respond, my ex passed by the door again—this time with one of the half-dressed waiters. Shep was decked out to party—black jeans and a cashmere V-neck sweater in vibrant sapphire blue. He had on a tooled silver belt and black cowboy boots, which were frankly ridiculous. He preferred being ridden. His platinum hair was nearly white in the down light—and that dick still had a drink in either hand. He glanced through the doorway. Eyes the color of caramel found Jean Luc, and then his gaze locked on to mine.

He had to go.

“If you’ll excuse me. I need to find the caterer.”

“Poppy? That’s a hot piece of ass right there, I tell you what.” He made a crude gesture with his hands at breast level as if he were dialing the knobs on some…well…on some woman’s chest. I checked to see if anyone was photographing us. He was all about the big hand gestures tonight, which wasn’t exactly what we needed for the papers. Jean winked at me conspiratorially. “She’s got a set of tits on her I’d love to cast in bronze. If you hear me. Sweet mouthwatering nuggets. Perfectly proportioned. I thought you didn’t swing that way.”

“I swing howsoever I choose,” I answered stiffly. “Now, I need to find the
caterer
to discuss the
canapés
. She’s a friend. Please, spare me. And you need to find your shirt and go make nice. You look like the hired help. You need to impress these people.”

“Are you not impressed?” He flexed with pride. Those nipple rings were bloody huge. Admittedly I was impressed. He laughed, his sloppy hair wavering around his head in an unruly, unkempt mass of gypsy curls. This time he managed to spill most of his gin on my good shoes. “Sure, Romano, but when you’re done, you send our little friend this way.” He winked.

“I just may.”

My little friend. I considered her my dearest friend—the closest thing to a sister I had. After the final nail had been driven into the coffin of my relationship with Shep, she’d sworn to me that she’d keep our paths separate—and I had sworn to Poppy McNamara, launched debutante and Greenwich’s most likely to land the cash cow, that she could fade into obscurity in the city. She wanted to be a caterer, much to the disapproval of her silver-spooned parents, and I promised to set her up. Over the past few years she’d managed pretty well. Christ, she made five times what I did these days because she cooked as good as she looked.

I pressed forward, dodging as guests snatched delicacies from the bare-chested waiters, swilled gin and laughed without restraint—I had to presume it wasn’t at the artwork.

The gallery overflowed with friends, critics, buyers and freeloaders. I could barely move. Another photographer popped by, flash flashing in my eyes, and lumbered up the stairs. His bag smacked the wall, the clod. An ugly black smear marred the wall I’d painted early in the week.

Across the hall, the North Salon was even more crammed than the room I’d come from. Inside, Pappineau’s sculptures stood on simple pedestals. Each bust was constructed from a bizarre and often shimmery jigsaw of men’s accessories: shoe buckles, colorful condoms, odd tie clips, cuff links, watchbands. Anything Jean Luc could lay his nimble hands on, he’d used to create the heads. They were weirdly lifelike.

With discretion, I craned my neck, hoping to spy Shep. I sipped gin and watched as faces swirled by. Where was he? Not that I knew what to do once I found him. I couldn’t toss him out of New York—well my cousin Joey would know someone who could, although that wasn’t the done thing, particularly since Joey was retired from crime now and was in law school. But I could damn well toss Shep from the gallery without making a scene.

A man stepped out of the restroom in a Peter Falk overcoat and a rumpled beige dress shirt. His tie was plaid flannel, and by his stance I knew he was a cop. His hair was ungodly thick. He was a tall, masculine dude with peppered five o’clock shadow and a strong jaw. His coloring spoke of Italian heritage—irises and hair as dark as my own.

There were droplets of water clinging to him. Even his eyelashes were wet. Either he’d taken a quick rinse in the men’s room sink, or he’d just come in. Evidently, the drizzle hadn’t stopped. It was going to be a long ride back to Brooklyn tonight.

The door closer trapped the man’s coat against the frame, and he struggled to turn around. I freed him from the door and offered my hand. “Caesar Romano. And you are?”

He peered at me without expression. “Detective Dan Green.”

We shook, his long fingers wrapping around my hand in a grip that was warm and firm, but not bruising. He nodded, as if he knew who I was. He probably did if he was in the gallery. Maybe he had a fondness for Jean’s work? Christ, wouldn’t that be something? A fan. He didn’t seem the type to appreciate more than an Escher print or a tapestry of dogs playing poker. Maybe I was being unfair.

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