I passed the phone to Jen so she could start filling in the blanks. That forced her to get her hand out of my shirt.
Jen attacked the keypad like a teenager, her thumbs a blur.
“I hit Submit and that’s it?” she asked.
“Depends. You want a personal consult or email response?”
“Email. Does that seem cold?”
“Maybe you want to talk it through. Leo could be dead tomorrow. He could hang on for twenty years.”
“Don’t say that.”
She drew figures with her finger on the top of my head.
“Who does the consult? One of Duke’s dead pals?”
“I’ll come by myself. We’re in the research phase, Jen. Best practices. Sorting ourselves out. We’re grateful for your help.”
“What’s the charge? Not that I care. Not that Leo will know. Curiosity, that’s all.”
“For you, free. As I said, research. But in your opinion? What’s it worth?”
“How do you put a price on this kind of information? Ten thousand? More? We’re talking about Leo’s life. But it’s my life, too.”
She got a hand under my collar and laid in to the muscles there.
“Charles,” she said. “I shouldn’t compare. But Leo? Excuse me. He feels like a played-out laying hen. Gristle and bone.”
I was trying to figure out which way to go — retreat? advance? — when a thumping noise came from the hallway.
Jen sighed. “Leo.”
“Personal consult,” she said, stabbing at the phone again and turning off the screen. She slid off the chair and straightened out her blouse.
“Leo, are you alright?” she called.
The aluminum walker came into view first, then the heir and philanthropist himself. He gripped the walker with both hands. His white hair was stiff and wild, like a war bonnet. Big crazy blue eyes. Plus a grin filled out with bright false choppers. His skin looked like a sheet of parchment set over a skull.
“I heard voices.” Leo said.
“You remember Charles,” Jen said. “Old friend of Duke’s.”
“Duke Black,” said Leo. “The Black Box. That performance space. At the Institute.”
“Exactly. You were on the board together.”
“Young guy. He’s dead.”
When it came to ghoulishness he had Duke beat.
“Let me tell you something, Charles,” he said. “You’re young, you think life has to be filled to the brim. Strength, vigor. Wild oats and so on. Can’t live without them. You don’t have them anymore, you’re still alive, and you realize, what the hell. Damn, it’s still a beautiful day!”
He spotted the champagne in the ice bucket and pointed to it with an arthritic finger.
“How does an old man get a glass around here?” he asked.
Tomorrow: Let’s move somewhere quiet