|A Year and Change|
"Roland, have you decided on the offer from Sacramento?" asked Andrea Besson.
Roland was brought back from his reverie by his manager. "Ahhh, yes I have. Tell them I decline."
"Is there any reason you want to give them?"
"Just say I am flattered by their offer, but I have plans."
The captain of the aircraft announced another delay. The manager frowned. "Sacramento is making a very generous offer, Monsieur. More than San Francisco or San Jose. It might be worth canceling—"
"I have decided, Andrea. Please, don't be difficult about it."
Roland wondered how much of a bribe Andrea would have to give up. Roland smiled at the thought. He did not begrudge his manager the little extras she picked up, but it would not do to let her have her way all the time. Of course, he was serious about the plans, though they were no more definite than spending time with his family. His children, of course, but he was beginning to think of Haruka and Michiru as family. That was something he was never going to share with the press. <I wonder if they are having trouble with reporters . . . they didn't mention any.> Roland had an understanding with the paparazzi operating in Paris: he was fair game when he was performing, or out on the town, but his home was off-limits. Perhaps it was really the ghost of Luisa who held them off; she had hated the gypsy photographers with a passion, especially after the death of that English princess . . .
Besson interrupted Roland's thoughts again. "Oh, what was I thinking! I forgot to set up a limousine!"
"No need. My wives are sending someone to pick us up . . . I hope you haven't forgotten to book a room for yourself."
"I have . . . somewhere over there, I think," Besson said, indicating the window. "I wish it were possible to stay with you, Monsieur."
"Don't worry, Andrea. I promise not to make any bookings on my own."
"Or give any interviews," added his manager, who worried much more about the press than Roland did.
Roland smiled. "Or give any interviews."
Besson said, "And don't say 'wives' again. Especially in front of American reporters. They are not like ours."
"Andrea, I have handled more than a few American reporters."
Roland was vaguely disappointed that there were no reporters waiting for him at the airport, but it was, after all, what he had asked for: a quiet arrival. Adrienne and Titania found him first. They had come with a big woman Roland could not place for a moment—Makoto, Mrs. Urawa, a particular friend of Haruka's. Attractive, in a Junoesque fashion—Roland noticed that Andrea certainly found her so.
"We thought you would never get here, Papa," said Adrienne.
"Well, I am here now," he said, bending down to kiss her, and then Titania.
"We'd better hurry, otousan," said Titania.
"Yes," said Mrs. Urawa. "If we don't get out of here soon, we will be caught in the evening traffic.
"Well, then, lead on, my Ladies," flourished Descartes.
"Hey, someone took our cart!" exclaimed Titania.
"Baka!" said Mrs. Urawa. "Wait, I think I see it." She moved off. Roland smiled, seeing Andrea follow her. <She's in for disappointment,> Roland thought. Then someone bumped into him. He stumbled, and fell against someone else, a young man.
"Hey, what are you doing!" shouted the young man.
"I apologize. I was pushed," said Roland.
The young man, who was taller, pushed Roland. "What? You 'pologize?' You think you're better than me?"
"I am sorry, Monsieur. I meant no offense." But Roland was beginning to take offense.
The young man pushed him again. "No 'fence?' No 'fence?'"
Titania suddenly cried out. "Otousan, where is your violin?"
Roland suddenly realized that his Stradivarius was no longer safely cradled in its case under his arm. In the second his attention was taken, the tall young man had slipped away into the dense crowd. <An accomplice!> Roland cried out for the gendarmes, and then remembered his English again, after uttering some French curses that raised Adrienne's eyebrows very high.
Roland's primary instrument was the pianoforte, so the loss of what was, quite frankly, one of the lesser-quality Strads was not really a professional setback. But it was valuable and it was his, and to have it taken was a violation of his person—especially when he found the American police were not holding the man who had helped steal it. There was not enough evidence to hold him. <We have none of that nonsense in France, thank God,> thought Roland as the smirking young man was released.
The theft brought reporters, of course, and cameras. Roland managed to put on an amused fašade for them, saying that at least the thieves had good taste. But it took effort, especially when one of the television reporters began to focus on the children. Adrienne coped with this by "forgetting" her English, but Titania could not take this evasion because she was known to be from this area. The questions were not bad ones, but there were a lot of them. Titania was too polite to stop the questions. <What was she up to, this one?> Roland looked to his manager, trying to signal Andrea to do something. Andrea acknowledged him, but in the same expression indicated she was frustrated. Roland bit his lip for a moment, and noticed the reporter's cameraman focus on himself. <Ah, that's it.> He chose a pleasant-but-weary face to put on, thinking, <This pig of a reporter is trying to provoke me to get exciting footage.>
An older reporter, a man, interrupted the relentless one. "Excuse me, Kate, but could I ask just one question?"
"Of course, Jack," said the relentless one, putting on a smile too broad to be real.
The older man said, "I just want to ask Mr. Descartes something. Would you be willing to pay to get your violin back, 'no questions asked,' as we say here?"
"Of course, monsieur . . . ?"
"Jack Crawford. I guess, unlike Jerry Lewis, I'm not famous in France."
"Unfortunately, no . . . " Roland replied, after the laughter died down. "I will accept any reasonable offer. My concern is recovering the instrument. If the person who took the instrument happens to be listening . . . may I have a small moment?"
Roland turned to "consult" his manager. "Andrea, can't you help me now?" he whispered. "That pig woman will be back upon Titania in a moment."
Besson warned, "You must be careful with her, she is very popular. And she loves to provoke. Don't show your anger to her."
"How important is she?" asked Roland.
Besson said, "She has no reputation as a serious journalist, but she wants to be taken seriously now that she is famous. Treat her with respect."
"She deserves none."
Besson said, "I agree, but do it. She will give us less trouble."
"Very well . . . for the moment." Roland turned back to face the press, noticing that the reporters were expecting him to say something important. "If the instrument is returned safely, I will pay one hundred thousand American dollars.
The pig woman seized the initiative again. "It's insured for a million dollars, isn't it?"
"One million euros is the figure," said Andrea Besson. "One hundred thousand American dollars is considerably more than the ten-percent reward the reward our insurers will pay."
Roland drew on all his considerable skill as a performer, and gave his finest Gallic shrug. "I think my offer is certainly more than the people who took it could get from anyone else. This is my offer; I give my word I will not press charges if the instrument is returned. Perhaps my insurers will offer more, but I cannot guarantee they will not call in the police."
"Could you—" The woman stopped in the middle of whatever question she was about to ask, because one of the cameras emitted sparks and began smoking. <Her camera. There is some good luck.>
"I seem to be the hot story today," Roland said. Sensing an opportunity, after the laughter died down, he announced, "I think that is all for now, ladies and gentlemen."
Roland Descartes had only been to the Alvarson mansion once before, and only briefly. Neither Haruka nor Michiru had ever done much explaining about their former living arrangements. Roland had been curious enough to have Andrea Besson research Alvarson. She did not find much. Like many wealthy men, he was officially a Swiss citizen, and he took steps to protect his privacy. Now he was married to a Japanese woman, the mother of one of Haruka and Michiru's friends.
The ride to the mansion from the airport was a short one after all, because they had taken so much time dealing with the theft that the evening traffic was finished. So were his daughters. Adrienne and Titania lolled to sleep soon after the van began to roll, depriving Roland of the chance to ask them more about what they had been doing in the week since they had arrived. Andrea had begged off, probably because she thought she had embarrassed herself with an approach to Mrs. Urawa in some moment when they were alone. So, Roland could talk with Mrs. Urawa, or remain silent. He began by asking about her husband, a natural opening, though Roland had no intention of carrying through his flirtation.
"Ryo. He is an investment advisor."
"That must be interesting," Roland said politely.
Mrs. Urawa said, "His work bores me, but he is very good at it. We are not super-rich, but we have done well from our own investments. I am thinking of opening a restaurant, or starting a catering service. But not until my babies are bigger."
Mrs. Urawa said, "I have little twins, Zeus and Soraya. They are the same age as your little ones."
"Your first children?" She looked quite young.
"Yes and no. I have three adopted children, and a stepdaughter. My husband was married before."
Roland asked a question that immediately came to his mind: "Do you share custody with the first wife?"
"His first wife is dead," said Mrs. Urawa.
Roland said, "Oh . . . I'm sorry. I'm afraid I don't know much about you."
Mrs. Urawa said, "Don't be sorry for that. Why would you know?"
Not knowing what to say next, Roland looked back at his girls. They were both still asleep, Titania leaning on Adrienne. He watched them until the car hit a bump. It literally gave him a pain in the neck, because the muscles there were taut when it happened. Turning back and rubbing the painful area, he said, "Have the roads gotten worse?"
Mrs. Urawa said, "No. This machine has very hard suspension. Very safe to drive, but a rough ride. Actually Haruka worked on this one. We have had it for a long time. It belongs to Naru-chan now. It is the only thing big enough to carry all her children."
"Naru?" Roland knew the basic Japanese diminutives by now.
Mrs. Urawa said, "Perhaps you know her as Mrs. Umino?"
"Ah, yes, I remember meeting her." Barely. A few words after his performance at the last Las Vegas computer convention. "How many children does your friend have?"
"Naru-chan has nine children now," said Mrs. Urawa.
"Nine." Roland was lost in thought for a moment. He had fathered nine children, that he knew of. Five by Luisa, with only Adrienne left; two by Haruka, one by Michiru, and one by the wife of a British noble—never to be acknowledged, because she had inherited the title. Despite the pain in his neck, he twisted back to look at his daughters again.
Roland had been a houseguest many, many times, and in far finer homes. But since he had been a teenager, he had always been the honored guest. While everyone was polite, by the end of his first morning he had discovered his true status in this very large household: he was simply the man who belonged to Haruka and Michiru, the father of Titania and their new babies.
Once his practice for the day was finished, he discovered he had time on his hands. Adrienne and Titania were busy completing two days of school assignments under the stern eye of Ann Marie. Most of the other children were off to their American schools except for the extraordinary crop of babies, a few toddlers, and a girl about the same age as Titania, who was recovering from some injuries. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. Her mother was in a wheelchair also, but permanently. Something about that woman made her uneasy. She was very short with him when he tried to talk with her little girl. He found himself retreating from her.
His hopes for some conjugal solace were dashed when he found Michiru unreceptive, and Haruka lost in the middle of an engine. With ten days of continence behind him, he felt this was horribly unjust. It was certainly uncomfortable, particularly when he noticed one of the Mrs. Jones coming back from some intensive workout, sweat outlining every detail under spandex, and wafting criminal amounts of musky scent into Roland's sensitive nose. This one was blond, long-legged, blue-eyed—she could have passed as the sister of the one in the wheelchair, although she was not. She was older than she looked, and had four children, and was Alvarson's stepdaughter. She was also the most attractive female Roland could conceive, and she mouthed a pleasantry when she noticed she was being noticed by Roland. She liked being noticed; he could feel that. <Some harmless fun with her, then,> thought Roland, shrugging within.
Roland said, "Why are you perspiring so much? It is cool outside."
"If you do not sweat, you are not working hard enough," said Mrs. Jones. "Would you like to work out with me tomorrow?"
Roland said, "What do you do? I do not care much for jogging."
The blonde said, "I do martial arts. And sports, when we have enough of us together."
Roland said, "Martial arts . . . I did savatte at one time, but I am afraid my skills have declined."
Her smile changed, or perhaps it was something in her eyes. <She had recognized that he was interested. What would she do about it?>
Whatever the next moment might have brought would remain a mystery to Roland, because chimes sounded. Someone had come calling.
Minako was closest to the front door, so she answered the chime. A single tone indicated the walk-in gate on Arlington, the same path she had taken in after the walk back from Rei's house. She glanced out and saw an unfamiliar van, with some kind of logo. The video camera showed a woman's face, a woman she had seen before, but could not remember from where. "Who is there?" she asked through the intercom.
"Katherine Warfield from Hot News. We would like to talk to your famous guest. And who am I speaking with?"
"I am Mrs. Jones. Could you wait a few moments?"
Minako cut the sound, and backed away from the intercom for good measure. Haruka's husband said to her, "I remember her from yesterday. She is a pig of a reporter."
"I should ask my friends," said Minako.
Descartes said, "That may not be wise. My manager told me she likes to pick fights. If you do not let her in, she will make a story of it."
Minako looked out again. She could see cameras behind the woman, one of them trained on the door.
Haruka's husband spoke again. "She is after me. I will throw her a bone and have her out of here. I have handled worse."
Minako weighed the factors: Usagi would be having her afternoon nap along with the babies. Olivia the housekeeper would be marketing; either Naru or Makoto would be picking up the first of the children from school while the other would be watching the babies. Mr. Descartes was rather full of himself, but he did have much experience with reporters.
Minako decided. She returned to the intercom, and said, "Mr. Descartes says he will see you."
Next: The Pig Woman
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