"What the hell possessed me when I agreed to be part of this?" Chris said, restless.
"From what I remember it was a bet you made and you lost," his neighbor answered with a mocking smile.
That made Franois-Ren laugh out loud.
Franois Duch'ble had been a friend of Chris since the early days; one of those who'd kept defending him when he was in prison, one of those who wouldn't believe his friend had killed a man, no matter the suspicions and the evidence built up against him.
Chris stretched his legs under the table and got ready to listen to the next candidate, the last one hopefully because he didn't think he'd be able to sit here one more minute without punching something or someone.
"C'est une enfant," Franois said in Chris' ear and Chris who took some pride in speaking absolutely no other language than his own and Italian understood nonetheless. A kid. A little girl of... Eleven? Twelve? Long blond hair tied neatly behind her head, clear blue eyes and... Fuck. Chris watched her sit behind the piano, very straight, very serious. Too serious, he thought. Too young. She brushed long thin hands against the keys and did something no other candidate had done yet; smiled a bright sunny smile, so familiar that Chris leaned forward, his heart pounding in his chest.
The candidates didn't have any choice in the program. Franois Duch'ble had chosen three "themes and variations" by Faur; sensible choice for a difficult selection. The little girl was surprisingly good; too young maybe to convey all the subtleties and nuances of such a highly difficult piece but good enough to give Chris a thrill of excitement; perfect technique and a lot of feeling.
"She's great," he told his neighbor and on his right, the director of the theatre nodded.
"I didn't think she'd come; her father was very reluctant but the girl put up somewhat of a fight and she won."
Color me surprised, Chris thought, double checking the name on the program.
"Is her father here?"
"No, I think her great grandmother accompanied her."
A last bow to the jury and the little girl left; Chris walked down the stairs to the hall.
Cordelia heard the call, the voice, the footsteps behind her and let go of Holly's hand.
"Mrs Beecher, I'd like to talk to you, please. About Holly."
Christ she looked like an old duchess granting a special favor to a humble subordinate; She gave him a thoughtful look; but then she smiled and it was Toby's smile on her face too, in spite of the wrinkles and the visible weariness. She nodded and a minute later they were sitting in the foyer of the theatre, drinking tea, coffee and chocolate for Holly whose eyes didn't leave Chris' face.
"Holly won't win; there's that young Chinese player who's everyone's favourite."
"Yes but I think Holly's potential is much bigger."
He saw the little girl blush and smiled.
"You'll be a great pianist if you work hard enough."
"Thank you," Cordelia said and giving a look at Holly "Would you leave us alone for a second, honey, please? I see that this English boy you met yesterday is smiling at you."
They watched her leave.
"Fine; he's doing fine, thank you."
"Good. Listen, I don't want you to believe that I'm doing this because I feel like I owe Toby. I do, all right but I wouldn't let this interfere with music; piano is the only sacred thing I know. Holly's very good. Is Toby still teaching her?"
"Yes. He thinks she's too young to work with anyone else; and Toby's a very good pianist. Did you ever listen to him?"
"I listened to a tape some years ago but he never played for me."
"Such a shame. He wanted to be a pianist as a kid and he was as gifted as Holly is but... I'm afraid we somewhat discouraged him. Toby gave up most of his dreams while growing up; managed to convince himself that playing for fun was best for him."
"Is he trying to discourage Holly too?"
"I don't know; he'd tell you he doesn't but sometimes he tells her what it's like to be a professional musician and it scares her."
"He didn't want her to compete, did he?"
"No. I insisted and Holly was very adamant; she's a stubborn and strong little girl. But you weren't supposed to be in the jury, were you? Toby would never have agreed then."
"I took someone's place, but maybe it happened for some reason." Chris took a deep breath. "I'd like to talk to Toby about Holly."
Cordelia Beecher's look lingered on Chris' hard features; trying to read the thoughts hidden behind.
"Please, Mrs Beecher; it's important."
"Ah, all right...He'll be here tomorrow morning; he called me earlier and told me he'd take a late flight tonight," she said.
"Thank you; I could take Holly to meet him at the airport."
Smart man, Cordelia thought and smiled, Chris smiling back.
"That would be great! I'm sure he'd be delighted."
Well let's hope so, Chris thought.
Lousy flight, Toby thought as he walked across the hall, lousy town, lousy weather; hope Holly did well; not that I want to feel proud but because she was so excited about it and she's still so young and...
"Earth to Toby Beecher?"
He froze at the sound of the voice like a trained pointer and turned his head to look at the man standing three feet in front of him.
"Daddy!" Holly threw herself in Toby's arms, warm and silky load.
/ my precious little girl. /
"Daddy it was great; Mr Keller says I'll be a great pianist if you only let me!"
She looked delighted, pink cheeks, shining blue eyes and he saw her give Chris an adoring look.
"Oh and what makes Mr Keller believe I won't let you?" He said, glaring at Chris "and what the fuck are you doing here, by the way?"
"Good morning Toby, I'm glad to see you too."
"OK; I was persuaded to take someone's place, lost a wager, whatever. I listened to Holly yesterday; she did great; great technique, great feeling, great confidence. After that I can as well retire, next generation's ready."
Toby looked down to his daughter and felt fear and bitterness and anger... I don't want to lose her.
"Do you seriously think I'd let you lay a single finger on my daughter?" he said with cold anger, blazing eyes, his face pale with sickness. Chris didn't understand at first; then he stepped back, looking shocked.
Toby's look didn't waver. Does that hurt, fucker? Does that hurt you as much as it hurt me 3 years ago? I hope it does.
"How can you... How can you imagine I would... Toby..."
"I know what you're capable of, Chris; you're capable of anything. Now come on, Holly, let's go, grand-mother's waiting."
Chris saw the little girl give Toby a weak smile, saw her puzzled gaze; then she grabbed her father's hand and left, trying to follow Toby's wide stride.
Later he was shoving his stuff in his suitcase when Toby walked into his room unannounced.
"Beat it," Chris said, his voice shaking with rage.
"I'm sorry I implied..."
"Too late. You did. How did you say that? I'm capable of anything, even of abusing your little girl. Now fuck off, Toby."
"No. Not this time; don't even try; you spoke the words in front of her, Toby; how's that for an insult?"
"I was shocked; I didn't intend to see you, it's been three fucking years, Chris and when I saw the way she looked at you..."
"Doesn't matter, Toby; we're done anyway. Let me give you an advice, now, before I leave. Don't do to her what your parents did to you; Holly's got a dream, don't kill it; remember what your life was like before they killed yours."
"I remember how it was when you killed mine, Keller. "
Chris threw his bag over his shoulder and walked past him; Toby didn't try to stop him; he didn't think he'd be able to.
I fucked up. Congratulations, Toby.
It was the first of a series of five, five concerts in 7 days; two dates in New York as a coronation. Difficult program, exhausting schedule but Chris was at his best from the first day, looking like he was about to pounce on the piano, muscles bulging under the tight white shirt, sweat rolling down the bridge of his nose; his talent dragging a stunned audience in a whirlpool of passion. Rachmaninov, Brahms and Scriabin and in the end a very nostalgic piece by Debussy, to show once for all that subtlety and sensitivity weren't out of his reach.
There he was, engrossed in the music, his shoulders hunched, his fingers stroking the keyboard with unusual softness, pulling the sweetest and purest emotion and when the last note had finished dying Keller let his hands slide off the keyboard regretfully, staying absolutely still, lost in a faraway world; and no one even dared to applause before he raised his head again and looked around with a tentative smile.
That night Chris Keller received the loudest and longest ovation of his whole career and those who were close enough thought maybe they'd seen him wipe away a tear.
He didn't stay late at the party, walked up to his lodge, read some cards, asked a woman from the staff to get him rid of the flowers that crowded the little room and was about to leave when he saw him standing at the door. Too slim, his hair too short, dressed in a rumpled suit, looking too awfully young like that.
"Who the fuck let you in?"
"No one. I just slid in," Toby said in a thick voice.
Young and very drunk, Chris realized, coming closer, smelling the booze all over Toby. Drunk and out of his mind and already lost; lips parted, breath too short, eyes too bright, hands shaking. Chris pulled him inside and slammed the door, locked it while Toby stood there, looking around, his hands in his pockets.
Well when did he ever turn down a good fuck? Especially when it was so openly offered?
They didn't say one more word; Chris just stripped Toby out of his clothes without much finesse, pushed him against the little sofa, down to the floor on his knees, refusing to think about what that all meant and knelt behind him, pulling his pants down, freeing his cock while Toby pushed his ass back against the hot hardness.
"Slut," Chris said and retrieved some cream he'd put on a bruise, sooner; hoping that would do; well anything was better than a dry fuck, anyway.
"Here we go," he said in Toby's ear and felt him shiver, stiffen, waiting.
Chris pushed his cock forward mercilessly; Toby's flesh felt like a tight sheath around his cock. Too impatient, too angry, he didn't give him any time to adjust, thrusting fast and hard, hearing Toby's breath catch painfully and thrusting, losing his mind, desire burning him like a devastating fire, his fingers bruising the slim hips to keep Toby still, setting the pace, until he couldn't hold back anymore and came, wrapping his fingers around Toby's cock, squeezing hard, listening to Toby's desperate moan, hot come splashing his hand...
"You like that, uh?"
Chris rose and walked out to take a leak. When he came back Toby was asleep on the sofa. Shit; what am I supposed to do now? He managed to wake him up just enough to dress him up, shoved him into a cab and Toby seemed to remember the name of the hotel where he was staying; looked like some fresh air had sobered him a bit. Or maybe it was the sex.
Jesus it's official; I have a groupie. He wanted to laugh about it, feel the sweet taste of revenge but failed; just felt tired and worried. Before leaving his hotel suite shortly after dawn he tried to call Toby's room but got no answer; probably Beecher was sleeping it off.
That morning Toby woke up late.
He rolled on his side, winced, his body hurting like all hell, sore and bruised and what the hell had he been doing, exactly? Closing his eyes he tried to remember. Remembered actually deciding to drink himself stupid; the bar where he'd spent the evening but after that... Nada. Niente. Nichts. Nothing at all. But, he thought, sitting carefully on the bed, feeling the room spin around him and nausea strike, his body obviously remembered. He stumbled to the bathroom, stood in front of the big mirror.
Which was probably the right word considering the bruises on his hips, the side of his thighs and his shoulders. His knees were burning and his ass...
Now he remembered; well not all the embarrassing details, but the breath against the nape of his neck and the rough thrust and the delirious pleasure and... Ah great, Beecher, that was just brilliant.
He managed to shower; threw up twice without feeling better, got dressed and went down to the hall.
"How did I come back here last night?" he asked the puzzled clerk. "I don't know, Sir; I wasn't here last night; do you want me to ask?" "Please."
Toby seemed on the verge of collapsing and the young clerk gave him a worried look.
"From what I know a taxi took you back and the driver had been tipped to make sure you'd get to your room safely. You looked a little..." "Yes I guess how I looked like. Thank you."
Just walking back to his room made him nauseated. He sat in front of the phone thinking he should call but didn't. Call and then say what?
Eventually he stretched out on his bed and tried to get some more sleep.
Later in the morning just as he was about to board the plane, Chris got a worried call from McKenzie.
"Beecher's office phoned this morning; Toby just... left, a week ago or so and no one heard of him since then."
Was it worry or wariness Chris was hearing in McKenzie's voice? He wasn't sure.
"Tobias Beecher's a grown up man; I suppose he has the right to spend some time on his own."
"Actually it's a little more complex; he vanished after losing an easy case he was pleading; his brother and his father tried to call him to know exactly what had happened but he didn't answer his phone."
"Yeah, and then what? He lost cases already; he tends to lose easy cases a lot; you know that. Come on, he's hiding somewhere, nursing his wounded pride. That's Toby, right?"
"The case was a big one; the client is furious."
"Yeah?" Chris shrugged, "and why do you tell me that? Why should I care?"
"I wondered if you'd seen him."
"No; and if I had I wouldn't call the Beecher family, anyway. Anything else?" "Well... I guess not."
An idea struck Chris as he was about to hang up.
"I'm surprised he left the kids for a whole week, though." "They're in Europe with their grandparents; Toby's parents in law."
Aw Toby, Chris thought, what the fuck is going on?
Around the same time, after a long shower, several cups of coffee and a lot of painkillers Toby packed his clothes. At noon he left his room, not too sure about what he'd be doing after that, where he'd go; settled the bill and asked for a cab.
"Mr Beecher, someone called and left a message, just a moment ago," the clerk said.
Toby unfolded a small sheet of paper and frowned.
"Calling McKenzie would be nice; just to let him know I didn't whack you in a dark alley; looks like the Beecher family got a little worried about you. Chris."
And with the note was a by-pass for the next concerts.
A little peace offering.
Four nights later he was in New York, listening to Chris, something he should've been used to but yet stunned at how wonderful the music sounded; emotions pouring out of the piano, Chris' profile chiseled by the lights falling down on him. In the audience the complete silence, and silence still when Chris finished Debussy... When the applauses exploded, flowers raining all over the stage Toby was grabbed by behind, pulled back further into the wings.
"Where the hell were you all those days?" McKenzie's voice in Toby's ear sounded upset, he was shaking Toby like a disobedient kid, his eyebrows furrowed, indifferent to the triumph greeting Keller's genius.
"I took a break. What the hell? Can't a man just spend some days on his own?"
"Ten days? It doesn't look like you at all; your family was about to call the cops and I myself..."
Toby freed himself brutally, pushed Francis back.
"You what? What right do you have to step into my life and talk to me like that." "Believe it or not but I was worried about you; I thought maybe something bad had happened. I heard that Chris Keller and you had a fight about Holly some weeks ago and..." "Don't. Don't you dare talk that; you don't know shit about Keller and I, never did. So what? You thought he'd slit my throat? Is that it?"
For a second McKenzie was taken off guard; he looked around, hesitating; like a believer about to commit a sacrilege.
"I always suspected Keller to be the one who trashed my car 4 years ago because of you; because he was jealous."
"And even so; it makes a big difference, you know; trashing a car isn't the same as killing someone."
"Always defending him, uh? He can do whatever he wants, he's always right."
Ah that hurt; that really did hurt and when the curtain opened upon Chris Toby nearly ran away, but a strong hand grabbed his arms and he was pulled, pushed, half-carried up the stairs and thrown upon the bed...
"So," Chris' voice said against his ear, "let's take things where we left them."
"So what the fuck happened?" Chris asked.
"What do you mean?"
"OK. You don't want to talk about it?"
"There's nothing to say. I send my resignation to the Beecher practice..." "Because of that case you lost?"
"Fuck the case. I'm just fed up with the life I've been living for the last 30 years, period. I decided to make some changes." "Meaning get drunk and the rest?"
"Do we have to talk?"
"I didn't think I'd hear those words from you one day. Has fucking become your only field of interest, lately? Not that I complained but some weeks ago it seemed to be my specialty."
Toby stiffened and closed his eyes.
"I never implied that."
"The fuck you did."
"No. What I implied was that if I let you teach Holly, I'd lose her. I already lost a lot of people; I don't wanna lose her." "You will, whatever you do. The choice you have is let her go or try to keep her until she fights hard enough to be set free. She has a life to live; so have you. Come on, you know you have to. And you're lying, Toby, to me, and to yourself -or maybe just to me. You implied much worse than that."
Toby opened shiny eyes, tears clinging to his eyelashes and Chris looked away; the sight of a man crying had something deeply obscene, one of the worst things he'd ever seen.
"OK, I implied worse. Can we just stop talking, now, please?" "I don't even deserve an apology, then?" "When it comes to you apologies aren't enough; and I have nothing more to offer; until I do I propose we just keep things the way we have it now."
"You're one tough bastard. OK then, just tell me how good I was tonight." "I especially loved the Debussy part, it was..." "No, not that. In bed. My ego needs a little boosting." "You got an ego the size of King Kong; if I boost it you're going to explode." "I take it you liked it."
Toby stretched, glanced at the clock.
"I have to go, I want to be home before Gen's parents bring the kids back."
"Toby if you stop working in your father's practice, what are you going to do?"
"Tell you what? I don't have the slightest idea. But no more legal stuff; I'm done with that; I didn't want to do it from the beginning; I should've fought harder long ago. I don't know; Susan thinks I should run a gallery somewhere and take care of her work but I'm fed up to work for others and especially Susan, or you; fed up to be the man you need by your side to make things possible, tired to live in someone else's shadow. I want to live for myself."
"Wow, for someone who didn't want to talk, that was quite long."
"Done already. When will I see you again?"
"You know what, Keller? You call and if I'm available, I'll be there."
Chris listened to the water running down, thought maybe he'd join but didn't, feeling tired; watched Toby as he got dressed.
"We have to find a way to spend more time together, Toby; I'm not getting any younger. Why not spend a month in Italy with me from time to time?"
"I'll think about it."
"I'll think about it very seriously."
"No business. Just sex and reading and... Holidays?" "I said I'd think about it."
Toby was almost dressed up when Chris pounced, standing between him and the door.
"Don't drink again and if you need to fuck, call me."
"Please don't forget me."
"I won't. I spent 3 years trying hard; you're a very difficult man to forget and not only for the sex." "Even so don't forget me. Time runs by very slowly without you; I get easily bored."
Holding out his hand he grabbed Toby's wrist.
Toby looked at him for a long time, gave him one of those smiles which pulled up the left corner of his mouth; self deprecating hesitant smile and nodded.
"I'll call you."
"If you don't I'll sleep in front of your door and howl."
Toby looked down at the nimble fingers locked loosely around his wrist and snorted.
"Please don't. I have neighbors and some ragged remains of reputation." "And let Holly take the way she's made for." "OK, now you fucking let me go. I'll do that; I'll call you."
Chris' fingers slid along his arm very slowly in a lingering caress, freeing Toby at last. He smiled.
"You'd better. Don't forget; I'm capable of anything, you said it yourself," he said, his voice very low running a shiver down Toby's spine.
"See you, Toby."
He watched Toby walk out, open the door, turn to him and smile again; smiled back. Then the door closed and Toby was gone. But he'd call. He'd said he would and Toby always held his promises.