LIMOUSINES AND TOWN cars were three deep out in front of the Waldorf Astoria as Francis Mooney stepped north up Park Avenue. He had to walk in the street to avoid the scrum of paparazzi stuffed behind sidewalk barricades. He was temporarily blinded as a limo door popped open and three dozen flash packs went off at once. A scruffy young man in a tuxedo emerged, squinting merrily in the brilliant shower of white light. An actor perhaps?
The American Refugee Committee was having its benefit tonight, Francis remembered, putting the scene at his back. He was happy that ARC was having such a stunning turnout. Mooney had been on the organization’s board ten years ago and knew it to be a terrific organization, unlike the many charities whose bloated CEO salaries and outrageous benefits budgets soaked up most of the donations.
Continuing up Park, he thought about Mary Beth Haas. He cursed himself for the thousandth time for not wearing a mask during the test. He’d been positive she was going to fail. He’d gotten lazy, and someone had seen his face. Oh, well. Couldn’t worry about it now. Places to go, he thought.
Three minutes later, he quickly turned the corner onto 52nd and passed beneath the awning of the legendary Four Seasons restaurant on the north side of the street. Coming up the stairs, he smiled at a startling black-haired woman in a gravity-defying backless gown who was speaking German into a cell phone. More chic women and slim, suited men waited for their tables beneath the Picasso inside. He inhaled the expensive-perfume-thick air. Cedar, gardenia, ambrette, he thought with a sigh. Now, that’s what money smells like.
The sleek, platinum-haired ma^itre d’, Cristophe, rushed toward him from the front bar.
“Mr. Mooney,” he said with a flourished raising of his hands. “Finally, you have arrived. Mrs. Clautier was worried. May I take your coat?”
“Thank you so much, Cristophe,” Mooney said, allowing him to remove his camel hair as the rest of the elegant crowd pretended not to gape at his royal treatment.
“Has she been waiting long?”
“Not so long, Mr. Mooney. Shall I take your case as well?”
Francis hefted the briefcase with the 9-millimeter Beretta in it, as if debating.
“You know what, Cristophe? I might as well hold on to it.”
He stopped for a moment before he followed the ma^itre d’ into the restaurant’s storied Pool Room. He took in the glittering white-marble center pool, the shimmering chain-link drapes, the important and beautiful people at the crisp, glowing tables, all eating with a meticulous casualness. He could almost feel the power thrumming through the floor. Even he couldn’t deny that the sensation was exhilarating.
The other board members of New York Restore had already arrived. They were seated at the double table by the pool that they always reserved for their quarterly dinner meeting.
“Well, if it isn’t our wild Irish chairman,” Mrs. Clautier said. “In all the time I’ve known you, Francis, I do believe this is the very first time you’ve ever been late.”
“I can’t tell you how hectic things have been at the office,” Francis said, grinning widely as he kissed her Cartier-diamond-encrusted hand. “The important thing is, I’m here now to bask in the glow of your loveliness.”
“Such a charmer,” Mrs. Clautier said with a sigh as she touched his cheek. “Francis, as I’ve told you many a time, you were born several generations too late.”
“And you several too early, my dear,” Francis said. He declined the menu the tuxedoed waiter offered and ordered the Dover sole.
“I was with Caroline at lunch today, and she told me that Sloan-Kettering is doing celebrity-designed lunch boxes for their soiree,” Mrs. Clautier told the group. “Isn’t that a hoot? Brooke came up with the idea.”
For Mrs. Clautier, diva of the New York social set, to actually go out of her way to supply the last names Kennedy and Shields would have been beneath her, Francis knew.
Mrs. Clautier was an unapologetic snob. In truth, he really couldn’t give two shits about New York Restore and its insipid mission to maintain and beautify Manhattan ’s playgrounds and public spaces. The only reason he’d decided to head it was to humor the generous Mrs. Clautier. Over the years, he’d become a kind of unofficial philanthropy consultant to her, and he had been able to steer millions of the limitless oil fortune her husband had left her to other much more important causes.
In fact, he was going to squeeze her for the biggest amount he’d ever chanced right after the meal. The papers, all ready for her to sign, were under the holstered automatic in his briefcase.
“Champagne, Mr. Mooney?” the ever discreet table captain whispered to Francis as Mrs. Clautier’s regaling veered into tales of the latest mischief her Pekingese, Charlie, had gotten into.
“Glenlivet. A double,” Mooney whispered back.