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Chapter 1: Dante's Circle

Cover of Dante's Circle

C H A P T E R 1

"Elliott, I'd like you to meet Dante Benevetti. Dante, this is Elliott Smith and his partner…"

"Steve Gutierrez," Steve said, extending his hand.

The man making the introductions was Travis Green, and the occasion was a fundraiser for Above Ground, a newly formed theater company devoted to producing the works of gay and lesbian playwrights. Green was the host of the gathering, held on the expansive lawn behind his Lake Forest home. Food tables and two portable bars flanked the pool, underwater lights casting shimmering blue-green reflections on the tablecloths and canopies.

Elliott in turn shook hands with the thirty-six-year-old concert pianist, noting the man was even better-looking in person than in his photos.

"Ah, yes, Travis mentioned you earlier," Benevetti said with a warm smile and addressing Elliott. "I understand you have lots of money,"

"What makes you think that?"

"You wouldn't be here if you didn't." He gave a very quick glance at Steve, which for some reason made Elliott bristle. However, since Benevetti was still smiling, he dismissed it, but did not forget it.

"I hope you brought your checkbook," Benevetti continued. "We need every penny we can get for Above Ground. Theaters aren't cheap, you know."

"I've convinced Dante to play for us a bit later," Green said. It was obvious to Elliott the "convincing" had not been a spur-of-the-moment thing, since a grand piano stood on a raised platform at the far end of the red-brick patio.
After a minute or two, Green looked across the pool and, touching Benevetti lightly on the arm, said, "Ah, there's Marge and Natalie. They're dying to meet you." He turned to Elliott and Steve. "You will excuse us, won't you?"

Without waiting for a reply, he  began wending his way through the crowd toward the two women. Benevetti glanced from Green to Elliott to Steve, raised an eyebrow, shrugged, smiled, and followed Green.

"There oughta be a law," Steve said.

"Against…?"

"Against anybody being so gorgeous and talented."

Elliott grinned. "So, what are you—chopped liver?"

"Yeah, well, you're prejudiced…for which I'm duly grateful."

#

They exchanged small talk with a number of people Elliott knew, and most of those he didn't know personally he recognized as being the gay community's equivalent of the Four Hundred—bankers, lawyers, high-tier business executives, people from the arts. Steve recognized the owner of one of Chicago's top art galleries.

Elliott sincerely hoped Steve didn't feel out of place, and immediately cursed himself for even having such a thought. Steve fit in everywhere. It was he who felt slightly out of place, not because he didn't have as much money—or more—than most of the people there but that he didn't feel comfortable in large groups of people among whom wealth was the only common denominator.
About twenty minutes later, Green began circulating among the crowd, urging them toward the piano. He then mounted the platform with a small hand-mic, thanked everyone for coming, and launched into a speech about the new theater group and its intention to have its own venue, which required the financial backing and continued support of those at the fundraiser.

Finishing his call for support, he motioned Benevetti to the platform to enthusiastic applause and handed the microphone to him for a few words in support of the project. Elliott was immediately reminded of Henry Higgins's line from My Fair Lady: "Oozing charm from every pore/he oiled his way across the floor."

Handing the mic back to Travis Green, Benevetti then moved to the piano and took his seat. The yard lights dimmed and, in the circle of one small spotlight, he began to play Claire de Lune.  By a clever combination of planning and luck, there was a full moon, and the effect was duly impressive.

The lights came back up as Benevetti stood to take his bow; then he sat back down to play Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody Number 2."

"Wow!" Steve whispered as Benevetti stood and bowed again to effusive applause.

The pianist started to leave the platform but, in response to the prolonged applause, returned to the bench and played Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude." When he finally left the stage, he was immediately surrounded by adoring fans.

After a few moments, Travis Green again took the stage for another pep talk about the need for everyone's support and announced that pledge envelopes were available on all the food and drink tables.

The party began to break up shortly thereafter, and as they passed one of the tables on their way out, Elliott took one of the envelopes and slipped in the check he'd made out earlier. Then, they joined the line of people waiting to thank and congratulate both Benevetti and Green on the success of the event. Elliott noticed yet another tray table for donation envelopes set up beside Green.
As Elliott and Benevetti were shaking hands, Benevetti said, "I understand you do home renovation. Do you have a card?"
Taken somewhat by surprise, Elliott quickly extracted a card from his inside coat pocket and handed it to the pianist.

"I'll give you a call," Benevetti said as Elliott and Steve moved on.

"Your fame has preceded you," Steve said with a grin as they walked toward Elliott's car.

"Apparently so." Elliott returned the grin. "Though I have no idea why he'd want my card…or how he even heard about me. Interesting."

#

"I have to say Benevetti wasn't at all what I'd expected," Steve observed as they began the fifty-five minute ride back to Steve's apartment, where they'd decided to spend the night; it was closer via the I-94 than Elliott's condo.

"What were you expecting?"

"Well, I knew he was cover-model handsome, a phenomenal pianist, and something of a latter-day Renaissance man, but I'd heard he was something of a first-class prick. But he was charming as all hell tonight." 

Elliott flashed on the glance Benevetti had given Steve following the remark that only the wealthy were at the party. He had taken the glance to imply Benevetti didn't think Steve belonged there, which had really bothered him. But then he’d realized Benevetti had no idea who Steve was, or that he was any less wealthy than anyone else present, and was embarrassed that such a thought had even occurred to him.

Elliott assumed Steve's reference to Benevetti's being a Renaissance man was to the fact that, in addition to being one of the nation's best concert pianists, he had recorded several top-selling albums of popular music, written a couple of piano concertos, and was rumored to be working on a Broadway musical. He was a darling of the talk-show circuit, and that he was openly gay was simply accepted without question or comment. In the gay community, Benevetti was, as Steve said, rumored to be an egotistical pain in the ass, using people and tossing them aside like Kleenex. Elliott tried not to let others' opinions influence his forming his own.

"Yeah, well, I think rumors and gossip just go with the territory of being a celebrity. Benevetti's talented and hot, which just ratchets up the jealousy factor."

"I read somewhere he's planning to make Chicago his home base. Maybe he wants you to redo a house for him. That'd be a hoot."

"A hoot? Now, there's one I haven't heard in years."

"Well, I'm bringing it back."

They both grinned and concentrated on the road.

#

The next day being Sunday, they slept in. As usual, Steve was the first up and had coffee ready when Elliott came into the kitchen. Walking up behind him as he was filling their coffee cups, Elliott slipped his arms around Steve's waist and laid his head briefly on his shoulder, then released him and moved to the kitchen table.

"How'd you sleep?" he asked, pulling out a chair and sitting down.

"Pretty well. I meant to ask you—have you heard from John lately? You haven't mentioned him, and  I haven't heard you talking in your sleep."

Elliott had only recently let Steve in on the biggest secret of his life, having withheld it from him for over a year. Immediately following a traumatic head injury, Elliott had found himself communicating in his sleep with the spirit of a then-unidentified murder victim who had died on a hospital gurney next to Elliott in the emergency room. Although Elliott did not believe in ghosts, and had at first feared for his sanity, the dream-visitor, who knew only that his name was John, insisted he needed Elliott's help in finding his identity and who had killed him. Elliott had reluctantly acquiesced.

Subsequently, they had formed something of an odd-couple team, and with John's help, Elliott had assisted two other spirits in resolving the mystery of their deaths. His "confession" to Steve was made considerably easier by his knowing Steve not only believed in spirits but, like Elliott, although to a lesser degree, was empathetic to them.

"Not a word from him in some time," Elliott said, taking a sip of his coffee. "But remember, John says time isn't the same for him as it is for us. He's probably just off somewhere exotic. He'll be back."

Steve grinned. "I guess being dead has its advantages—go anywhere you want, anytime you want, no paying for airline tickets or baggage fees."

"Uh, yeah, but I'm not in any hurry to find out. What time is Ralph coming over?"

"I told him around two o'clock. He's really excited about it."

Ralph Coe was a talented sculptor with whom Steve had become friends, and the "it" was the approaching opening of Steve's art gallery on the ground floor of an elegant old Victorian gem Elliott had bought and restored, ostensibly because he needed an official office for his business. Since he required only a small amount of the available ground-floor space for that office, he offered the rest of the space to Steve, who had always dreamed of having his own gallery. He'd also convinced Steve to move into one of the apartments above. Both of them knew, of course, that Elliott had undertaken the project primarily for Steve, but neither of them ever mentioned it.

Because Steve felt he couldn't afford to give up his job as a commercial artist for an ad agency, the gallery would be open only on weekends. Ralph, who had just transferred from the Evanston Art Center to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, would help Steve run it and display his own work there as a way to help pay his way through school.

The opening of the gallery presented something of a potential problem for Elliott. Steve had not seen his parents or his HIV-positive brother Manny since he’d moved to Chicago. They were what Elliott's parents referred to as "working class" and lived in California. Elliott was sure the trip to attend would be prohibitively expensive for them, yet he knew the achievement of Steve's dream of having his own gallery meant everything to him, and that he would love to share it with his family.

The problem was, Steve was fiercely independent, and had made Elliott agree, from the time they became a couple, that he would pay his own way in their relationship. Elliott's sister Cessy had the same agreement with her police-detective husband Brad, and was always very careful never to allow her wealth to interfere with her marriage.

Steve might consider Elliott’s bringing his family to Chicago for the gallery opening a violation of that agreement, but Elliott felt it was worth the risk and hoped he would understand.

Meantime, the date for the opening had not been set, and there was a lot of work to be done beforehand.

#

Ralph arrived on time and accepted Steve's offer of coffee, which they had on the garage-roof patio Elliott had built as part of the building's renovation.

"So, how was the fundraiser?" Ralph asked, settling into a chair.

"Very nice," Steve said, "though I nearly got a nosebleed from being in the rarified atmosphere of all that money. And we got to meet Dante Benevetti! He's fantastic…and his piano playing ain't bad, either."

Ralph laughed. "He seems to have that effect on a lot of people. I have a friend, Keir Taybrook,  who's a music major at DePaul, where Benevetti studied. They met when Benevetti did a series of lectures on composition there, and Benevetti has sort of secretly taken him on, as a mentor. Keir's been walking on air ever since!"

"Why secretly?" Elliott asked.

Ralph took another sip of his coffee.

"Keir's incredibly talented—he's written a piece the DePaul Symphony will be debuting at their first concert next season. But Benevetti feels that if it were general knowledge he was mentoring people, he'd be swamped with requests."

"I don't mean to be crass—he said, being crass—but from what I've heard about Dante Benevetti, is mentor a euphemism for trick?"

Ralph shook his head. "No, it's strictly legit. Keir has a partner, and he doesn't cheat."

"So, what about all these rumors of Benevetti being a prick?"

"Not according to Keir. He says Benevetti has a real interest in him and in helping foster his talent."

Finishing their coffee, they decided it was time to get to work and left the apartment to go downstairs so Steve and Ralph could discuss plans for the opening while Elliott went to his office to catch up on some paperwork. On the way down, they were met by Button Iverson, who lived in the third-floor apartment. As always, Button was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie; Elliott doubted he even owned a pair of Levi's.

They exchanged greetings, and Steve began to introduce Ralph, but Button spoke first.

"Ralph, isn't it? We met at one of Bruno Caesar's parties."

"I'm flattered you remember."

"Not at all. I never forget a pretty face."

"You'll be seeing a lot of it," Steve said with a grin. "Ralph will be helping me with the gallery when it opens."

"I can hardly wait! Have you set a date yet?"

"Hopefully soon. Still a lot to do."

Button smiled, his eyes still on Ralph.

"Well, then, I'd better let you get on with it. Nice to see you again, Ralph," he said, extending his hand.

"Same here," Ralph replied, taking it.

#

Elliott was less than happy, after spending more than an hour going over the expenses incurred on his current restoration project, to determine it had uncustomarily gone considerably over his original estimates. Still, the project was nearing completion, and it was time to start looking around for his next challenge.

He was again curious about his encounter with Dante Benevetti, and what the pianist might want of him. Although he preferred having complete control of every step of a project, from buying a property to redoing it as he saw fit then selling it, he had, on one prior occasion, done a restoration on a home owned by friends. While somewhat limiting to his preference for total control, the project had eliminated the necessity and expense of buying the property and the time and expense of selling it when he was done.
He set speculations aside and made a note to call his real estate broker, Larry Fingerhood, to tell him to start scouting for potential projects. So, he was surprised to answer his cell phone Monday morning to hear "Elliott, this is Dante Benevetti. I wonder if we might get together this evening to discuss a business matter?"

"Of course. Can I ask what kind of business matter it might be?"

Benevetti laughed. "Of course. Sorry, I assumed you knew. I've just bought a house on North Burling. It's very nice, of course, but I'm afraid I rather rushed into it, and there are several things with which I am not happy and want to correct. I understand this kind of thing is your stock in trade."

Elliott wanted to ask who had referred him but didn't want to let the conversation wander.

"Well, I generally specialize in renovating small, older apartment buildings, but I'd be glad to take a look at it and hear what you need."

"I appreciate that. Can you come by tonight, say around eight?"

"I can do that. What's the address?"

Elliott was not surprised to learn the address was either in or adjacent to what Forbes magazine had a few years before named the most expensive block in Chicago—the area bounded by Armitage Avenue and Willow, Burling, and Orchard streets. Steve's apartment was just a short distance away from it on Armitage.

#

Since his current project was closer to his condo than to his office and Steve's apartment, he went home after work to shower and change, reflecting as he did so on what others might see as his unusual living arrangement with Steve. Working a forty-hour week at the ad agency left Steve little time for his painting, and every minute he spent with Elliott took time away from it as well. Elliott completely understood and appreciated that fact, and knew better than to even approach suggesting Steve could quit his day job to devote his full time to painting and, now, to the gallery. Though Elliott had more than enough money to enable it, he knew Steve would never even consider such an offer.

During the development of their relationship, it had also become clear that neither one was willing give up his own things and space to move totally into the other's, although eventually, they would likely move in together in a place to which neither had prior claim. When Steve moved into the building that was to house the gallery, the situation became more complicated. However, although Elliott owned the building, Steve's apartment was Steve's own space.

Another complication arose from Elliott's office sharing space with Steve's gallery. Because Elliott needed to frequently stop in at the office after work to check for mail and messages made it practical to just go on upstairs to Steve's rather than drive all the way home, it was difficult to resist the temptation to spend even more time together. Nevertheless, while they had dinner together several times during the week, Elliott would leave shortly after, out of respect for Steve's need for time to work on his paintings.
As a result, they consciously tried to limit overnighting to no more than twice during the workweek. Friday nights were generally spent at Steve's, with Elliott leaving after breakfast to return to his condo so Steve could spend most of the day painting. They'd then meet for dinner and spend Saturday nights at Elliott's, and Steve would leave by early afternoon to spend the rest of Sunday painting. 

It sounded more complex than either of them found it, and definitely wasn't a schedule everyone could live with, but it worked for them.

He called Steve to tell him about his scheduled meeting with Benevetti.

"Ah, interesting. But I'd be careful if I were you."

"Careful? About what?"

"It's kind of a long story. I'll tell you when I see you. You want to come by for dinner?"

"Thanks, but you need your painting time. I might stop by for a minute on my way to Benevetti's to hear your story."

"Okay. I'll see you when you get here."

#

After a quick dinner, Elliott arrived at Steve's at 7:20.

"Time for a drink?" Steve asked after their customary hug.

"I'd better not. So, tell me your story."

He followed Steve to the sofa, where they sat down side-by-side.

"Well, we just hired a new artist at work—nice guy named Peter Burns, who’s a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His specialty is portraits, and he's terrific. I'm going to talk to him about offering some of his work in the gallery once we're open.

“Anyway, I was telling everyone during morning coffee break that we'd met Dante Benevetti, and Peter said he'd done the portrait Benevetti used on the cover of his latest album. I was impressed, but he acted like perhaps he wasn't, so much. I didn't have a chance to ask him about it until we rode the same elevator down after work. He said he used to be Benevetti's biggest fan until Benevetti screwed him."

Elliott raised an eyebrow.

"Literally or figuratively?"   
                    

Steve grinned.

"Only figuratively, I assume, but I didn't pry. Anyway, he was totally enamored with Benevetti—had all his records, attended all his local concerts, stood in line for his autograph, that sort of thing. Then about a year ago, he painted Benevetti's portrait from a photo taken at one of his concerts and mailed it to him with a note. Benevetti never so much as acknowledged he'd received it. The only way Peter knew he had was when he checked with FedEx, and they confirmed delivery.

“He never heard a word about it until he saw it on the album cover. There was a small note on the very bottom of the back saying 'Cover by Peter Burns.' No one had contacted him beforehand or asked his permission. And of course, he didn't get a cent for it. He thinks the only reason his name appeared at all was because the record company insisted on it to cover their asses."
"Couldn't he take some sort of legal action?"

"Apparently not. He did approach a lawyer, but since the note he'd written to Benevetti had said 'I hope you can find some use for this,' he had tacitly given up his rights. The lawyer said he would pursue it if Peter wanted, but that it would be very expensive and there was no guarantee he'd win."

Elliott shook just shook his head.

"So," Steve said, "I just wanted to let you know it might be wise to be careful around Benevetti."

Leaning toward him, Elliott kissed him on the cheek.

"I will. And now I'd better get going. I'll call you when I get back home."

#

Dante Benevetti's home was an elegantly simple modified Colonial with no ornate frills—a narrow red-brick two-story with a pitched roof set back only about five feet from the street. The front door was on the south side, with a low-fenced flowerbed running the rest of the width of the house. After ringing the bell, Elliott stepped back to get a better look at the building. It was in excellent shape from the outside, and he estimated it couldn't be more than a few years old.

When the door opened, he was struck by the fact that Benevetti was even more handsome than he remembered. Dressed in a form-fitting pink LaCoste polo shirt and white chinos, he looked like he'd just stepped off the cover of GQ.

"Thanks for coming," he said, stepping aside to let Elliott enter. When the door was closed, Elliott extended his hand, which Benevetti took.

The front door opened into a very small foyer leading to a good-sized, but sparsely furnished, living room with hardwood floors dominated by a grand piano. Over the mantle was a portrait of Benevetti, and although he had not seen the man’s latest CD, Elliott wondered if it was the same one Peter Burns had done.

"That's a nice portrait," he commented. "Who did it?"

"It was a gift from a fan."

The living room opened onto a formal dining room. From what Elliott could see, it looked like Benevetti was awaiting photographers from House Beautiful. There wasn't a single item that appeared to be out of place, nor a speck of dust visible on any of the highly polished surfaces.

"Let me give you a quick tour, and I'll tell you what I want done," Benevetti said. He used one sweeping arm movement to indicate the entire room. "For one thing, the acoustics are totally unacceptable. Most people might not notice, but I do. Which is why I need a rehearsal room. But we'll get to that in a moment."

As they moved from the living room to the dining room, he made another all-inclusive gesture and said, "I need a much larger living room, with a fully stocked bar. I entertain frequently, but usually cocktails and hors d'oeuvres only. I never have dinner parties here; if I want to host a dinner party, I do it at a restaurant. So, this room has to go."

Without stopping or even slowing down, he led Elliott into the kitchen.

"The kitchen is too large by half. The wall between the dining room and kitchen can be opened up to allow for the bar area."

"At least one of these walls is a support wall for the second floor," Elliott pointed out. "Depending on which one, it may require quite a bit of work to assure proper support."

"I'll leave that to you," Benevetti said.

From the kitchen, they went downstairs to the basement, which was also spotless. The rear half of the space was taken up by the garage, with a wide, steep ramp leading up to the alley behind the building. A concrete wall separated the garage from the rest of the basement, which was totally empty except for a furnace, water heater, and electrical panels.

There were pipes to indicate where a washer and dryer were intended to go, but no appliances; Elliott assumed Benevetti sent everything out to be washed and cleaned. When asked if he wanted a small laundry room put in, Benevetti said no. That, as with the other things he’d said he wanted done, struck Elliott as more than a little impractical.

When he pointed out the extensive changes might make the property much harder to sell, when or if the time came, the response was a dismissive, "No matter."

Standing in the middle of the empty basement, Benevetti gestured around and said, "This will be my practice studio. You'll need to call in an acoustical engineer to see what needs to be done to make it suitable."

Elliott observed that dealing with an acoustical engineer and complying with his suggestions involved a new set of problems.

"I couldn't give you an accurate estimate without knowing and factoring in the acoustical engineer's fees."

"You can have him bill me separately."

"That'll be fine, then. Will you be moving the piano down here from the living room?"

"No, my guests always insist I play something for them, and even though the acoustics are atrocious, most of them don't know the difference. I have another grand piano in storage I'll put here."

When Elliott told him the door from the basement to the garage area was too small to bring a grand piano through, Benevetti casually said, "Then make it bigger."

Returning to the main floor, they continued up a back stairway to the three bedroom, two bath second floor and went first to what Elliott assumed was the master bedroom at the front of the house. The hallway, he noted, was lined with photos of Benevetti with various celebrities and political figures.

"As you can see, the master bedroom is much too small. I don't need three bedrooms, so I want the two back bedrooms combined into one for my use."

The master bedroom had no fewer than four good-sized framed portrait photos of Benevetti. Glancing around the spotless room, Elliott saw that the nightstand beside the bed held a tray with an aluminum carafe, a glass, and two pill bottles neatly arranged; beside the tray was a box of chocolates.

"I don't think there's anything to be done in here," Benevetti said, making Elliott wonder why he'd even wanted him to see it—except, perhaps, to admire the photos.

Pulling his attention back to the present, he followed Benevetti back down the hall to the rear bedrooms. A guest bath separated the two, which meant combining the rooms would involve moving the bath entirely. It would be possible if he moved it forward and enlarged it, backing it up to what was currently the master bath, but it wouldn't be easy—and would be costly.
 Money did not seem to be much of an obstacle.

"Oh, and I'm something of an insomniac. I'll need the new master bedroom soundproofed and tinted windows installed."

Considering the primarily residential area got relatively little traffic and probably even less traffic noise, Elliott wouldn't have imagined soundproofing would be necessary. But if Benevetti wanted it and was willing to pay for it, he could hardly refuse.
"I can do that, but there are several ways to go, from pumping in insulation through holes in the drywall to removing the drywall completely, which of course would be much more expensive."

"Whatever. I want the very best."

Despite feeling that Benevetti had no real idea of the work or expense involved in his demands, Elliott again didn't feel it his place to argue. If the man rejected his estimate, he would just step away from the project.

As they returned to the main floor, Elliott reflected on whether he even wanted the project. The job really was outside of his usual comfort zone, not because he couldn't do it—any competent contractor probably could—but because there were several factors to be considered.

Still, his current project was almost completed, and there was always a time gap between finishing one project and starting another. So, even if he were to find another building to buy and renovate relatively soon, he needn't start it the minute escrow closed. And his crew could be kept busy between projects.

He already considered working for anyone other than himself generally restrictive, and the idea of working for Benevetti made the idea even less appealing.

Benevetti's voice brought him out of his reverie.

"So, when can you start?"

Normally, Elliott would want to bring in his team—his carpenter, plumber, and electrician—first to see if they could spot any potential problems he might have missed. Considering the relative newness and condition of Benevetti's home, he didn't think it necessary.

"Let me get you an estimate first. Then, if it’s acceptable, I've got another week or so of work left on my current project. So, we could probably start within two weeks."

"I really want to get moving on this."

"I understand. I can call you tomorrow with the estimate and either drop a copy in the mail or bring it by."

The doorbell rang, and Benevetti glanced at his watch and scowled.

"I'd better get going," Elliott said, walking with him to the door, which he opened to reveal a nice-looking blond kid Elliott estimated couldn't be older than twenty.

"I'm sorry I'm early, Mr. Benevetti, but I was just so excited about this new piece that—" He stopped short when he saw Elliott.
"Yes, yes," Benevetti said. "Come on in, I'll be right with you."

Elliott noticed the young man was carrying a courier bag with an embossed music clef on the front, and assumed it contained his sheet music. Benevetti made no attempt to introduce him, and with a quick and quiet "excuse me," the young man moved past Elliott to stand, somewhat awkwardly, in the middle of the room.

Extending his hand to Benevetti, Elliott said, "I'll call you tomorrow, then."

"I'll look forward to hearing from you."

With a smile and nod to the young man, who smiled nervously back, Elliott left.

#

He called Steve from home to fill him in on the meeting then spent the rest of the evening doing separate cost estimates for each stage of the renovation, with the exception of the music studio. He'd been doing project estimates for so long the process was second nature to him. The only real variables of which he was not certain involved unforeseen special requirements in the construction of the studio or in adjustments to the support walls. He'd have to talk to the acoustical engineer, and would be sure to bill the studio materials separately.

He still sincerely felt a lot of Benevetti's demands were impractical but it wasn't his job to argue. He'd made his points, and Benevetti had dismissed them, so….

He went to bed shortly after the late news, falling asleep almost immediately.

I'm impressed.
— Hello, stranger! John, isn't it? It's been so long I'd almost forgotten.
— Yeah, yeah. Ladle on the guilt. And I'm sure it hasn't been all that long.
— So, why are you impressed?
— That you've met Dante Benevetti—I'm a big fan. Interesting that you'll be working with him. I might second Steve's word of caution, though.
— About…?
— Well, I'd get everything in writing, if I were you. I've dropped in on him backstage before and after concerts often enough that I know he's the kind of guy who assumes his talent entitles him to privileges not available to other people. He's demanding, pretty pushy, and unless you have all the Is dotted and the Ts crossed, he'll take advantage. He lives in the center of a circle of sycophants, and unless you're prepared to be one of them….
— I'm not.
— I didn't think so. Just thought I'd mention it.
— I appreciate it. So, what's the occasion for the visit?
— Do I need one?
— Sorry. Of course not. It's just that it </i>has been awhile.
— I just thought I'd stop by to let you know I haven't forgotten you. I didn't want to risk your waking up Steve. I'm happy to see things seem to be going well with you.
— Thanks. They are.
— Well, I know you have to work in the morning, so I'll let you get back to your regularly scheduled dreaming. Give Steve my best, and I'll see you soon.
— Okay, and thanks for the heads-up on Benevetti.

#

John's and Steve's comments about Benevetti, coupled with what little he already knew, made Elliott wonder if perhaps he had gotten into a situation he would regret. But he'd made a tentative commitment to Benevetti and didn't feel he could back out of it gracefully. He would definitely take John's advice and draw up an agreement, dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, to be signed before work began.

Stopping by his current project to make sure everything was progressing smoothly, he went to the office and wrote up terms of agreement to forestall any demands or second-guessing after the work had begun. He also printed up two copies of the estimate for Benevetti's signature. Because he would defer to the acoustical engineer's recommendations as to all materials to be used for the construction of the studio, the difference between his estimate and the cost of special materials would be billed separately.

He also included an estimated cost for shoring up the supporting walls should it be necessary to do so. Benevetti could specify any materials he wanted in advance of the start of the work, but the difference between Elliott's estimate and any requested upgrade would also be billed separately. He stated unequivocally that his decisions on everything else, once made, would not be contested later.

Although he knew very little about acoustical engineering, his carpenter, Ted Swanson, provided the name of a firm he had once worked with, and Elliott called. He described the project, was assured they could handle it, and said he would call again, after talking to Benevetti, to set up an appointment to look at the space and go from there.

When his call to Benevetti got the answering machine, he left a message saying he had the estimate and needed to set up a time for the acoustical engineer to come over. He left his cell number, then called Larry Fingerhood to tell him to definitely start looking for a new property.

#

Benevetti called as Elliott was hanging a closet door in one of the third-floor apartments of his current project.

"I got your message," he said. "I have a very heavy schedule this week, and the only time I’ll be able to meet with the engineer is this evening."

Elliott suspected this was Benevetti snapping his fingers to see how high he would jump.

"I'll have to call him to see if he can make it on such short notice. Let me get right back to you."

Benevetti's tone reflected his impatience.

"Very well, but if he can't make it tonight I don't know when I'll have the time, and it's imperative the work be done as soon as possible."

"I appreciate your concern, but I have no control over the engineer's schedule or time."

"I assumed you would be able to manage all these details."

"And I'm trying to do just that. But if you think another contractor might be able to do it more quickly…"

Benevetti sighed heavily. "No, no, we've wasted enough time already. Just get it done."

"Fine. I'll call the engineer now, and I'll call you back as soon as I've talked with him."

He hit the disconnect button and immediately called the acoustical engineer, explaining that Benevetti would only be available that evening. Luckily, the engineer agreed to meet him at Benevetti's at seven.

He then called Benevetti to tell him.

As he flipped his cell phone closed, Elliott was more than mildly irked by Benevetti's attitude that the sun rose and fell at his command. He was glad he'd drawn up the forms, and rather hoped Benevetti wouldn't accept them.

#

Elliott was the first to arrive, and Benevetti opened the door while talking on his cell phone. Gesturing Elliott in, he continued talking while Elliott just stood there. The man was obviously less than happy with whomever he was talking to, repeating "totally unacceptable" several times.

After at least two minutes, he snapped, "Well, just do it!" Taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his Blackberry carefully before replacing it in his pocket. He then looked at Elliott for the first time.

"Agents are the bane of an artist's existence. I've gone through four already, and this one is no better." Without asking Elliott to sit down, he said, "Where's the acoustical engineer? I thought you were meeting him here."

"I am. Apparently, he's running a bit late."

"Well, I don't have much time. I have a meeting I must get to."

"I'm sure he'll be here soon," Elliott said. "But while we're waiting, I thought I'd give you this." He handed Benevetti his estimate and the terms of agreement. Glancing at the agreement form, Benevetti raised an eyebrow.

"What's this?"

"It's a standard form I use with all my clients," Elliott lied. "It simply sets everything out before we begin, to avoid any possible misunderstanding in the future."

Benevetti looked suspicious and took a quick look at the estimate.

"Hmm. I really don't have the time to go over this right now. I'll call you when I've looked at it over."

"And I should point out that, as we've already agreed, the acoustical engineer’s fees and any special materials needed for the studio will be billed separately. It's in the agreement. I'll need your signature on both."

"Fine, fine. I'll go over these when I have the chance."

The ringing of the doorbell announced the arrival of the engineer, and Benevetti hurried to open the door. After hasty introductions, he rushed them to the basement while outlining his expectations and requirements. Elliott noted that he locked the door to the rest of the house as they went downstairs.

The concert pianist clearly had considerable experience with the intricacies of acoustics, and Elliott understood very little of the conversation with the engineer. After about ten minutes,  Benevetti glanced at his watch.

"I've really got to get going." Reaching into his pocket, he extracted a key on a ring with a red plastic tag and handed it to Elliott. "This will open both the outer and inner garage doors so you can get into the basement. I'll leave you two to talk, and you can just let yourselves out through the garage. Be sure to lock up behind you."

He turned and went into the garage, leaving Elliott and a bemused acoustical engineer. They heard the car's engine start, and the garage door open. A moment later, the car left and the garage door closed.

"Did you get what you needed?" Elliott asked after another ten minutes of making sure each understood the other’s part in the project.

"I think so. Working with musicians is always interesting. I'll get you a schematic and a list of preferred wood and supplies as soon as I can." Taking a camera, a large tape measure and a notebook from his briefcase, he began photographing and measuring the space.
 

#

"So, how did the meeting go?" Steve asked when Elliott called after he got home. "Did you get me his autograph?"

Elliott grinned. "I didn't know you wanted one."

"Aren't you a mind reader?"

"I'm working on it. And I'm having some qualms about getting into this whole thing with Benevetti."

"Ah? Why? I hope I didn't scare you off."

"Of course not. But I'm not sure…there's just something about him. He's the kind of guy who enjoys having people jump through hoops. That's why I drew up that agreement—I don't want any surprises, and if they do come up, I want to be sure I've covered my ass. I wouldn't be disappointed if he refused to sign either it or the estimate."

#

Jarred awake by the sound of his cell phone at five-thirty a.m., Elliott scrambled to pick it up from the nightstand, automatically assuming something was wrong in his family. Cessy? One of her kids? His parents?

"Yeah?"

"Dante Benevetti here."

"It's five-thirty in the morning."

"Is it? I haven't been to sleep yet. I've gone over your estimate carefully and find it a bit excessive."

"I can assure you it isn't, considering everything you want done. But if you'd like to get another estimate…"

"No, no, I haven't the time for all that. I've signed it and the agreement. Where will you be today? I'll have someone bring it over to you."

"I'm in and out a lot. Have whoever it is call me when he's ready to come, and I'll tell him where I'll be."

"Ok. I do want to get the work started as soon as possible."

"The engineer will be sending me plans for the rehearsal room as soon as he can, but we don't need them to start with the rest of the place."

"Good. So when can you start?"

"As I told you, I still have about two weeks work on my current project, and I should have heard from the acoustical engineer by then."

"Can't you start sooner?"

"I might be able to free up part of my crew before then, but we'll need to have the back two bedrooms cleared of furniture before we can start any work there."

"Well, just move everything into the basement for now."

"I'm sorry, we're contractors, not movers. I'm sure a temp agency can provide people to do it."

"I'll pay for it separately."

"It's not a matter of paying for it. It's simply that if you want the work done as quickly as possible, we can't be distracted by other things."

Benevetti's curt "Very well" was followed by a click and a dial tone.

Flipping the phone shut and returning it to the nightstand, Elliott lay down and tried to get back to sleep. He didn't. After twenty minutes, he slipped out of bed and headed to the shower.

When he was sure Steve was up and out of the shower, he called.

"Five-thirty in the morning?"

"Yeah, I should have just hung up on him."

"Well, you said the guy was an insomniac. Maybe he just didn't realize what time it was."

"Oh, I'm sure he knew. He just didn't give a damn."

#

His cell phone rang as he was making a final inspection of the two fully finished units of his project.

"Elliott Smith."

"Mr. Smith, hi. My name's Keir Taybrook. I saw you once at Mr. Benevetti's. Anyway, he wanted me to bring some papers over to you, and I was wondering if now would be convenient. I don't have a class until three, and depending on where you are, I could probably run them right over."

"Well, what time do you get out of class? Maybe we could meet at my office, which is a lot closer to DePaul."

"My last class is at four, but then I have practice until six. And I promised Mr. Benevetti I'd get them to you right away."

Apparently, Elliott surmised, Keir was one of Benevetti's circle of adoring fans who consider it an honor to be asked to do something for him.

"Well, it's about half an hour from DePaul on the el."

"That's all right. I don't mind."

He gave Keir the address and went back to work.

Forty-five minutes later, putting up the last of  the new kitchen cabinets in one of the back third-floor apartments, Elliott heard Sam calling out, "Hey, Elliott. Somebody here to see you."

"Send him up."

Making sure the cabinet was secure, Elliott turned and went to the living room, arriving as Keir came in, opening his courier bag to extract Elliott's agreement form and estimate.

"Thanks. You're Ralph Coe's friend, right?"

"Yes, we've been friends forever."

"I understand Dante thinks you're very talented."

Elliott was surprised when the young man blushed.

"I hope so. It's such an honor to have someone like him take an interest in my work."

"What type of music do you specialize in?"

The young man smiled. "Well, I'm trained in classical, of course, and everybody I know thinks I'm crazy, but…"

He trailed off, apparently not sure if Elliott might think he was crazy, too.

"But…?"

"Well, I want to do musicals! I know that's about as gay as you can get, but…"

"Hey, Rodgers and Hammerstein did fairly well for themselves, and they weren't gay." Remembering Ralph saying there were rumors Benevetti was working on a musical, he added, "And I'll bet Dante Benevetti doesn't think you're crazy, either."
The young man's face brightened.

"No, he doesn't! He really likes my music."

"I've heard he's working on a musical himself."

Keir hesitated a moment before saying, "Well, he wants to keep it pretty much a secret until it's ready, but…"
"And you're helping him with it, right?"

Looking flustered, Keir said, "I'm not even in the same universe with Mr. Benevetti! And I promised him I wouldn't say anything at all about what he's working on."

"I understand, and I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"That's okay." There was a slight pause, then: "I've got to get going, or I'll be late for class."

"Well, thanks for bringing this by. And good luck with your music."

Smiling, Keir left, and Elliott wondered just what might be going on between him and Dante Benevetti, and why Benevetti didn't want Keir to discuss what he was working on when it seemed to be fairly common knowledge.



Cover of Dante's Circle

 

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