With so many adult pleasures at hand, the guests were at first reluctant to play a children's game. But when the nineteen-year-old actress let herself be blindfolded with the bra of her bikini, people began to get into the spirit of things.
Kessel watched with satisfaction and amusement. He sipped at his Scotch, one arm around Catherine. Someone behind him said, "Happy birthday, Dennis. Great party!"
Kessel only nodded in reply. He didn't want to miss anything.
A laughing fat man took the actress by her bare, tanned shoulders and spun her around several times. He let go, and she stumbled twice before finally catching her balance. Giggling, she patted her stomach and said, "Don't make me toss my cookies, Harry!"
Brian Levesque, Kessel's friend and bodyguard, handed the girl a sawed-off length of broom handle. "Good luck," he said, then got out of the way as the actress began swinging the stick wildly.
The guests laughed and clapped. The actress lashed out, missing her unseen target by a good two feet.
"Where is it?" she squealed.
Kessel looked at Catherine and saw his enjoyment of the scene reflected in her pale grey eyes. He smiled broadly, something he rarely did.
"Warm! Warmer! Cooler! Cold!" The group chanted hints at the girl, wanting the game to go on, but also wanting her to end the suspense.
It had been thirty years since Kessel last had a pinata at his birthday party. When he was ten, his family's cook, Gloria, gave him his first, a beautiful papier-mache donkey filled with treats and trinkets. It had seemed a shame to break such a beautiful thing, but he loved it when his friends from school scrambled for the treasures it held, shrieking with glee and greed. It had been a genuine hit, and his popularity on the playground skyrocketed afterward. Gloria brought him a pinata every year until his thirteenth birthday. After that, his parents were dead, and there were no more family parties.
The bare-chested girl homed in on her target, grazing it with the broom handle, but not with enough force to shatter the pinata. "Dammit!" she laughed, as those around her groaned with disappointment.
This pinata, too, was a donkey, but made from hand-fired clay, instead of paper. Senor Gutierrez, ninety-five if he was a day, had made it himself in his small, cluttered studio in the barrio. He did it as a personal favor to Kessel. Painted in brilliant reds, blues and greens, the pinata was truly a work of art, worthy of a spot in a museum.
"Mr. Kessel? Can I talk to you?"
Kessel kept his eyes fixed on the girl, the stick and the pinata. "Not now."
"It's kind of important --"
"Not now, Michael!"
The actress, sure now where the pinata hung, leaned back and smacked it a good one. The pottery broke, and all the goodies spilled out onto the carpet.
The crowd fell on the prizes, as raucous and avaricious as his grade school playmates. Today, however, the stakes were higher, and the partygoers had to scramble to snatch the choicest items. For among the Tootsie Rolls, lollipops and plastic party favors lay other, more significant surprises: Godiva chocolates, Cartier wristwatches, wads of rolled-up currency, bindles of white crystal.
Kessel watched his guests trampling each other and laughed. He pulled Catherine to him and kissed her deeply.
The guests crowded around to express their gratitude. The actress, able to see now but still half-naked, giggled thanks for her watch. The mirthful fat man held up his dust-filled baggie and winked. While other guests patted him on the back and chattered about the lovely surprise, Kessel reveled in their pleasure. The party was a success.
"Mr. Kessel, I really must talk to you."
Kessel sighed, knowing it useless to resist. Michael Wheaton would not go away.
Excusing himself from the party, Kessel draped an arm around the kid's thin shoulders and steered him into the den, shutting the door behind them. "OK, Michael," he said, "what is so important that it can't wait, that I have to hear about it on my birthday?"
Wheaton slumped onto the sofa, a tall, sandy-haired farm boy with bad posture and big feet. He looked as if he belonged on the third string of a second-rate Minnesota basketball team. Instead, he was a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at one of the nation's most prestigious universities.
Pulling at the cuffs of a sport jacket too small for him, Wheaton said, without looking at Kessel, "I'm having problems with analog D-9."
Kessel poured himself another drink, offering nothing to Wheaton. "What sort of problems?"
"It's very unpredictable. It may not produce the effects we want."
"We still have time before Christmas."
Wheaton seemed to consult a mental calendar, then shook his head. "It probably won't be ready."
"That will disappoint a lot of people, Michael. Myself included."
Analog D-9 was to be a new designer drug, something different for Kessel's clients. It would be chemically similar to the compound in the little bindles from the pinata, D-8, or "Lazer," as it was commonly known. The energy and euphoria it produced, however, would theoretically last ten times as long as the momentary rush induced by Lazer. Even though that Wheaton had not yet found the formula, D-9 was already in demand.
Wheaton brushed an unruly hank of hair from his blue eyes. "I'm sorry, Mr. Kessel. But these analogs are tricky."
Kessel, whose knowledge of chemistry was limited to mixing a passable martini, said, "I thought all it took was a few extra molecules here, a couple there. No big deal."
Wheaton grimaced at this oversimplification. "Analogs of a given compound are simple to create. But it's impossible to predict the exact effect a new analog will have on the human body. D-9 may produce undesirable effects."
Laughter and music from the party filtered through the closed den door. Kessel wanted to get back to his guests, back to Catherine. "Look, you're a genius, right, Michael? You'll come up with something. I've got plenty of faith in you."
"I appreciate your confidence in me, Mr. Kessel, but I can't promise anything by Christmas. There's another problem, as well."
"And what's that?"
Wheaton swallowed nervously, setting his lumpy adam's apple a-bob. "I'm getting married in three months."
Kessel laughed. "Kid, that's great! That's not a problem."
"She works for the district attorney's office."
Kessel shrugged. "So what? You're not doing anything illegal. That stuff you whip up in your lab has never existed before, so there are no laws against it. You're perfectly clean."
"Excuse me for saying this, Mr. Kessel, but I can't associate with you once I'm married. It could ruin Angie's career."
Kessel kept his temper in check. "Michael, you can't let a woman run your life like that. Now, if she wants to play Mrs. Perry Mason, that's all right. But you can't give up a very lucrative venture, like these analogs, because of her."
"Mr. Kessel, you don't understand -- "
Kessel grabbed the kid by one bony shoulder and squeezed. Very quietly, he said, "Yes, I do, Michael. I understand that I'm not going to let a fortune slip through my hands because my main chemist is pussy-whipped."
The kid had nothing to say to that. After a moment, Kessel said, "So, does she know anything now about our business dealings?"
"I haven't said anything. I was afraid --"
"Good. So all you have to do is keep your mouth shut. That should be easy enough."
Wheaton stood, his skinny body trembling and his face red. "Mr. Kessel, please! Don't make me do this anymore. I've almost paid off my debt to you. The D-series analogs have made you millions. Please, let me just get on with my life."
Kessel opened the den door. Party noise roared into the room. Kessel said, "I'm telling you, Michael, it's in your best interest to keep working on D-9. Trust me." Without looking back, he returned to the birthday festivities.
Kessel opened the over-sized envelope Michael Wheaton had handed him. It contained 100 hundred dollar bills.
It was a month after the birthday party. Kessel had been home, waiting for a phone call from Catherine. Then Wheaton showed up with the stack of cash.
Kessel smirked. "Very nice. Where'd you get it?"
Wheaton wouldn't look him in the eye. "What does it matter? It's what I owe you, isn't it?"
"It matters if you're holding out on me, Michael. It matters if you're peddling the new analog to my competitors."
The kid looked up, and Kessel read the bright fear in his eyes. Wheaton shook his head vigorously. "Oh, no. No, Mr. Kessel. I wouldn't do that. I got the money from a relative."
The telephone rang, and Kessel snatched it up. "Hello?"
"Hi, lover," said Catherine, and the sound of her honey-toned voice sent an exquisite jolt through Kessel's groin. Thousands of miles away, she could still do it to him.
"Catherine! I've been waiting for you to call. How's the shoot going?"
"It's OK, even though Trinidad is something of a bore. I'll be glad to get home tomorrow."
Kessel said, "Any word about New York in December?"
"Uh huh. Gregor wants to do the Vogue cover at his studio the Friday before Christmas."
"Damn. That's the day before our party."
"I'll catch a noon flight on Saturday and be home by four or five. Please, Dennis. That assignment means a lot."
"OK. As long as you're home in time."
"I will be, I promise." She paused, and Kessel could almost hear her licking her gorgeous lips. "Dennis," she said, "do you miss me?"
What he wanted to do was launch into an explicit discussion of how much he missed her and what he would do with her when she returned. But Michael Wheaton was fidgeting in the chair across the room, staring at him with a big, dopey farm boy expression, so Kessel said merely, "Yes. Yes, I do."
"See you tomorrow," said Catherine. "I love you."
"Love you, too."
They hung up. Kessel said to Wheaton, "So, your grandfather gave you ten grand."
Wheaton started, as if not expecting to be spoken to so soon. "Uh, yes."
"How come he didn't help you out before?"
"He spends a lot of time out of the country. He just got back a couple weeks ago."
Kessel stood up and walked to the wall safe. His back to the kid, he dialed the combination, opened the door, deposited the money-filled envelope and shut the door.
"OK, Michael," he said as he turned around. "You've paid off the principal. But there's still some interest to be reckoned with."
The chemist sighed. "How much more?"
"Not much. Deliver D-9 by the first of the week, and we'll call everything square."
Wheaton swallowed and chewed his lip. "I - I don't know, Mr. Kessel. D-9 is proving to be the trickiest analog of them all. There are some very serious side effects. I don't want to rush it."
"Suit yourself," said Kessel. "But remember, Michael, I own you until you deliver." He punched the intercom button. "Brian, would you please show Michael out?"
Kessel looked at the bedewed bottle of Dom Perignon and said to the waiter, "I'm sorry, Andre', but I didn't order that."
With a flourish, Andre' uncorked the champagne, saying, "It is a gift from the gentleman at Table 11, Mr. Kessel."
Kessel looked across the restaurant and located his benefactor, a bald man in a wheelchair, dining with two blond gentlemen in European suits.
Catherine, following his gaze, held out her glass in a silent toast. The old man nodded. His companions did not move a muscle.
"Do you know him?" whispered Catherine.
"Not yet," said Kessel.
After a suitable interval, the old man wheeled himself over to their table, leaving his dinner guests behind.
"You enjoyed the champagne, I trust, Mr. Kessel?" he said, with just a trace of a German accent.
"Very much. And I thank you," said Kessel. "But I don't believe we've ever met, sir."
"We have not. My name is Konrad Fleischer. I am Michael's grandfather."
Catherine said, "Do his genius genes come from your side of the family, Mr. Fleischer?"
The old man smiled proudly, displaying strong, white teeth. "I do not know, Miss Weathers. The mysteries of genetics are beyond me."
Kessel caught Andre's eye and signalled that it was time for the check. He said to Fleischer, "You gave him the ten grand, didn't you?"
Fleischer dropped his smile. "Yes. I had hoped that it would end his indebtedness to you."
"I am afraid not. Michael still owes me something money can't buy."
"He has told me." The old man rolled his wheelchair closer to the table. "Mr. Kessel, I am asking you, as a gentleman, to please end your relationship with Michael. He is the only son of my only daughter, and he means a great deal to me. I do not wish to see him hurt."
"And neither do I, Mr. Fleischer. But we have a business deal, and Michael has not yet lived up to his part of the bargain."
Fleischer waggled a thin finger at him. "That is not true, Mr. Kessel. The simple fact is that you are a greedy pig."
Catherine gasped, but Kessel merely laughed. "Am I? Well, your little Mikey is no saint himself, Fleischer. His greed got the better of him when he thought he could write a computer program that would beat the roulette wheel. That's what got him into this whole mess."
"Young people can be so foolish. But his real mistake was in borrowing from you. He could have asked me to advance him the money. It would have been no problem at all."
"Then why didn't he?"
Fleischer shrugged. "I am hard to track down sometimes. But also, I think Michael is just a little bit ashamed of his Grampa Fleischer."
Catherine, sipping her glass of champagne, obviously intrigued by this conversation, said, "What business are you in, Mr. Fleischer?"
"Cutlery," said the old man. "My company makes some of the finest knives in the world. No doubt the prime rib you had this evening was carved with one of my blades."
Taking Catherine's arm, Kessel stood. "This has all been very interesting, Mr. Fleischer, but nothing you say will change anything. Thanks again for the champagne."
As they made their way out of the restaurant, old, crippled Fleischer called after them, unmindful of the other patrons, "Do not hurt him, Kessel! Hurt him, and you will regret it for the rest of your life!"
Kessel lay on his back, basking in the afterglow. He patted Catherine on the rear and sighed contentedly.
The bedside phone rang. Kessel answered it.
"You bastard!" screamed a voice.
"Who is this?"
"You idiot! Didn't you know what might happen?"
"Michael? Is that you?"
"You couldn't wait, could you?"
Kessel figured out what the kid was raving about. "How the hell did you get this number?"
"I'm not a complete moron, Kessel! I know more about you than you think I do."
Kessel took a deep breath and expelled it. "OK, calm down, Michael. What happened?"
"Don't you watch the news? Eight junkies dead in an abandoned building downtown!"
"You took some D-9, didn't you? Stole my samples before they were ready! Sold them to human guinea pigs!"
Kessel tried to sound reasonable. "How do you know I had anything to do with it?"
"Don't give me that! I checked the lab, and I'm missing twenty grams. Witnesses said six people died in convulsions. The other two turned psychotic and were shot to death by the police. Christ, I hadn't even tested the new batch on rats!"
Kessel said, "Michael, I am going back to bed right now, and I am going to forget all about this. You should do the same."
"Oh, no, you asshole! You're not getting away with this!"
Kessel hung up.
On the other end of the line, calling from his car phone, Brian Levesque said, "They're in the lab."
"Both?" said Kessel.
"Uh huh. He's spilling his guts to her. Wonder if she's having second thoughts about marrying him now."
"She might not have long to worry about it. Did you get all his notebooks?"
"And his library of floppy disks?"
"Then do it," said Kessel.
"Will do," said Levesque.
Kessel hung up. He shook his head. Such a shame. With Wheaton's notes, one of Kessel's back-up chemists might be able to come up with the correct formula for D-9. But it looked as if there would be no wonderful surprises under this year's Christmas tree.
At the beginning, he hadn't wanted to have another pinata, didn't want to play the same game twice. But the first had made such an impression on his friends and colleagues. "Gonna have another one at your Christmas bash?" they all asked, eager for a second chance at nabbing some choice goodies. Ultimately, Kessel couldn't say no.
Still, he had one trick up his sleeve, something that would make this party especially memorable. Kessel opened the velvet box and stared at the ring inside. Its diamonds and gold glittered seductively, and Kessel knew that Catherine would not be able to refuse his gift. She would gladly become Mrs. Dennis Kessel.
He had spoken with her the night before, just as she was ordering a late, light snack from room service, ready to sleep in an empty bed three thousand miles away. The shoot had gone especially well, she said. Kessel would be proud when he saw the magazine cover.
Now Catherine was somewhere in the air, jetting home from New York. If all went well, Brian would pick her up at the airport at five, and she'd be ready for the party at eight.
Kessel couldn't wait to see her, to touch her, to run his fingers through her golden hair.
The doorbell rang, and Kessel answered it himself. A deliveryman stood on the stoop, an enormous ceramic Santa Claus beside him.
Kessel looked at the pinata and beamed. "It's magnificent. My compliments to Senor Gutierrez."
The deliveryman lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry to tell you, Mr. Kessel, but Senor Gutierrez died in his sleep last night. Your pinata was the last piece he completed."
Kessel did not allow himself much sentimentality, but he genuinely felt bad about the passing of Senor Gutierrez. The old man had been a true artist, a true friend. Kessel muttered his thanks to the deliveryman and hauled the Santa pinata inside.
Senor Gutierrez had packed it with presents and sealed the bottom tight. Kessel grunted as he carried it out to the patio. He signalled one of the workmen setting up for the party and instructed him to hang the pinata securely from a pole by the swimming pool.
Around five-thirty, Brian Levesque called from the airport. Catherine's plane had been delayed at O'Hare for five hours because of a snowstorm. She wouldn't be getting in until around eleven.
Kessel cursed. He had been afraid something like that would happen. "OK," he said, "c'mon back to the house and pick her up later. I can use a hand getting ready for the party."
"Be there in about an hour. Traffic's kind of thick."
Guests began arriving at quarter to eight. Kessel greeted them with customary cordiality, steering them toward the bar and the sumptuous buffet. A number of people commented on the pinata, exclaiming over its craftsmanship.
Looking at Senor Gutierrez's final gift, Kessel regretted that Michael Wheaton's notes had proved worthless, that there was no D-9 tucked away inside the clay Santa. No one had been able to find the secret formula. If only Wheaton had kept his cool.
In the past two months, there had been surprisingly little fallout from the bombing of Wheaton's lab. A couple of Homicide dicks had stopped by to see Kessel one day, but they hadn't been able to prove anything at all. In fact, Kessel could tell they weren't all that sure Michael Wheaton hadn't blown up himself and his fiancee' in an experiment gone awry.
Nor had Kessel heard from Herr Fleischer. After the encounter in the restaurant, Kessel made some discreet inquiries about the cutlery magnate and learned that Fleischer was well-connected in Europe, although he reportedly had little influence within American circles. He also heard that there was more than just a hint of unsavoriness surrounding the old gentleman, perhaps lingering as far back as the Second World War.
A couple of things still bothered Kessel. Like, how had the old man known Kessel would be dining at that particular restaurant that night? And what had Michael Wheaton meant by, "I know more about you than you think I do" when he called Kessel's unlisted number?
But as the weeks went by and nothing happened, Kessel decided that the Wheaton business was finished after all.
As the evening wore on, Kessel could see that this party was not destined to be as big a success as its predecessor. Although they scarfed down the free food and drinks, the guests seemed bored and restless. Perhaps they were taking cues from Kessel himself, who kept brooding about absent Catherine and the engagement ring in the velvet box.
At quarter past ten, Kessel dispatched Brian Levesque to the airport. And after making chitchat for the next half-hour, he decided it was time for the pinata, before the party died completely. Catherine would be disappointed to have missed it, but it served her right, Kessel figured. He would make it up to her with the ring.
The cute little actress from the last party wasn't present, so Kessel found another fetching volunteer, a busty brunette model. Since the night air was brisk, Kessel blindfolded her with a scarf, rather than with one of her undergarments. The other guests clapped and hooted as he gave her the broomstick and spun her around.
A servant approached Kessel with a cordless phone. "It's Mr. Levesque," he said. "Says it's very important."
Sticking a finger in one ear to muffle the party noise, Kessel took the phone. "What's up?"
"She wasn't on the plane." He sounded scared, and it took a hell of a lot to throw a fright into Brian Levesque.
Kessel felt his stomach twist and his nuts contract. "What do you mean?"
"Someone used her ticket, but she didn't get off the plane."
Christ...oh, Christ. "You check with New York?"
"Yeah. Never checked out of the hotel. She ordered room service last night but somehow split before it arrived."
All around him, partygoers laughed, stamped their feet, called out directions and hints. Kessel felt as if it were he who was blindfolded and spinning around.
"Warm!" the guests shouted. "Warmer! Hot!"
"Dennis?" said Levesque. "What do you want me to do?"
"Shit. I don't know. I don't know."
Kessel hung up.
The phone rang in his hand.
"Happy holidays," said a voice with a trace of a German accent.
Kessel's tongue felt three sizes too big for his mouth. "Fleischer? Is that you?"
"I warned you, didn't I?" said the voice.
Kessel twirled around, scanning the darkened hillsides that surrounded his patio. Nothing. No lights, no sign of anything.
"What have you done?" Kessel said.
"Do you know what my name means?" said the voice.
The whisper of a broom handle cutting through the air.
"It means `butcher,' Mr. Kessel. In German, the word means `butcher.'"
The sound of shattering pottery.
"Too bad all of her wouldn't fit," said Fleischer.
A dialtone in Kessel's ear.
The night filled with screams.
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