I enter the Rotary during the break, the best moment to mix with the crowd without being noticed. Looking around for Leo, I bump into Milan emerging from the staff-room. He lights up with bliss, though a gracious, discreet bow is all he allows himself to acknowledge my presence. We both know we are watched with a beady eye should we go astray.
“I caught a glimpse of Herr von Zwettler in the refreshment room. May I accompany you to him, Gnadiges Fraulein?” He gives me his arm, professional and remote, were it not for the mad beat of his heart and the heat of his body burning into mine through the fine cloth of his dinner jacket.
Leo and Bessie are perched on the bar-stools, shoulders almost touching, sipping the champagne from long-stemmed glasses, so involved in each other that they overlook our entry. If I didn’t need Leo’s help urgently, I would melt away not to spoil their fun and game. Isn’t this what I have always wanted? Strange how soon my grandmother’s warning has proved right! Manifestly, Bessie knows those “strange creatures” out and out.
I touch Leo’s sleeve discreetly.
“Irene! What a lovely surprise! Will you both join us for a glass of champagne?”
I climb upon the bar-stool next to Leo and wonder whether Milan will follow my example and join Bessie. He keeps standing close to me, though keeping an appropriate distance. His friendly smile and the serenity of his face prove irrevocably that he doesn’t give a hoot about Bessie’s unbridled flirtation with Leo.
With champagne prickling deliciously in my nose, I feel bubble-light, brimming with love and joy. “Instant, you are so fair, don’t flee!” Wiser than Doctor Faust I wish that the four of us stay forever the same, a perfectly tuned, harmonious quartet.
“Thanks for the champagne. The break is coming to an end and Bessie and I have to go back to our duties.” Milan gives Bessie his arm and leads her to the staff-room.
Leo freshens my drink and hands it to me courtly. He doesn’t seem to mind my interruption of his cosy tête-à-tête with Bessie.
“I’m so glad it was a false alarm, Irene! All is well that ends well, let’s drink to it!”
Summoning up my courage, I swallow the champagne in one swoop.
“That isn’t all, Leo. Your father bumped his head against the bedpost. I left him prostrated on the carpet, unconscious! Shouldn’t we go and see if he has recovered?”
Leo gives a start.
“I must admit your news catches me quite unprepared. You’re asking me a vexed question, my dear. If I were you, I’d better stay out of it. On the other hand, if something happens to that man, you’ll be mixed in a nasty scandal and in an even nastier investigation. You were the last visitor of his love-nest and, consequently, the first suspect. Let’s hope he has pulled through for your own and our families’ sake. To be implicated in a sex-scandal would be a ghastly experience. Just imagine the monstrous head-lines in the tabloids:
PROMINENT INDUSTRIALIST FOUND DEAD IN HIS LOVE-NEST!
My grandmother would hardly survive it. Her dearest son not just dead but dragging his family through mud! As much as I hate meddling in other people’s privacy, this time I can’t avoid it. Forgive me for being so blunt, Irene, do you happen to have a key to that notorious den?”
“I might. I vaguely remember Egon insisted on it. Let me think, it’s in the pocket of my coat. I hope Mary hasn’t chanced upon it. But do we need it, Leo? The flat isn’t locked. I just banged the door shut. We can open it with a hair-pin, like in the movies. Not that I have one on me but we can always ask Bessie.”
“I doubt it’s that simple, my dear. I’m a surgeon, not a burglar. We’ll solve the problem later. The gong is calling us on the dance floor. Let’s move.
We form a circle around the dancing master and his wife. Gin, sleeping pills and champagne have blunted my awareness of danger. Leaning upon Leo, I am rocking on the waves of sounds. The Miraks have finished their instruction and Leo takes me in his arms. Sylphlike, I whirl around him on cloud nine. My grandmother is right. I should count my blessings. How lucky I am calling this exquisite dancer mine! We respond to each other’s movements with such heavenly ease that I hardly notice when I have been passed onto Milan. It strikes me how similar Leo and Milan are when trying to please me. Dance fuses with love in the all-containing space of their embrace. I open out into full bloom in the luxuriant hot-house atmosphere, not giving a damn about Egon who is cooling down on the coke-stained carpet.
“Thank you for this dance, Gnadiges Fraulein.” Milan turns me back to my legitimate owner and disappears behind the scene.
I let myself be helped into my coat, seated in the car and driven somewhere, anywhere, provided I won’t be obliged to take care of the case Egon.