FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 11
Warm and secure in her black mink, Claudia Betancourt swept through the frosted glass doors etched near their top with the single word Sirocco . She was carried along by a current of snowladen air that rushed ahead of her, then disappeared into the crowded restaurant while the gentle warmth of the room that greeted her began to soothe the sting in her cheeks.
The front doors opened to a well appointed reception area where customers waited for tables in the dining room. Claudia stood a moment, unbuttoned her coat and flipped her dark hair from the collar. The dining area was to the right. The bar and lounge to the left.
She stepped inside the lounge's entrance where smoke from Asian incense burners rose toward the ceiling and the din of voices crowded the room. Mixed in with the sound of voices, in a corner, surrounded by small parquet cocktail tables, a pianist played to half interested listeners who were engrossed in their friendly Friday-after-work conversations.
Unable to see her companions, she remained motionless, looking over the heads of the people milling about. Holding onto a large brown envelope, she tucked it more tightly under her arm as tiny drops of water falling from the surface of her fur left dark stains on the carpet around her black boots.
After a minute, she began making her way across the room. Seemingly unaware of the heads that turned as she passed., she walked by the bar where customers were lined up shoulder to shoulder, then skirted the tables with comfortable lounge chairs until she came to a booth along the far wall. A flicker of recognition crossed her face. Finally, when she reached the booth, her look of concentration gave way to a smile.
"Treacherous out there," she said. She nodded to the three occupants of the booth. "Sorry I'm late."
"I slipped on the ice coming down the street," Sharon Hiller said. "I know what you mean." A young, curly-haired woman, she sat close to Peter Mandel, a man in his late-thirties. Across from them, alone on the other side was Charles Green, a heavyset, well-dressed man who started to get up but was stopped by a gesture from Claudia. Instead, he squirmed back into the corner, making room for her on the outside of the seat.
Claudia placed the envelope on the table and took off her gloves. She draped her damp coat over the back of the booth and pushed it along towards Charles Green as she slipped into the seat.
Charles saluted the arrival of the coat by lifting his glass. "Cheers," he said in a voice that was surprisingly high coming from his stocky body and thick neck.
She acknowledged his gesture with a nod as she moved the envelope in front of her.
"How are things at the museum?" Peter Mandel asked, not taking his eyes from the envelope.
"Hectic-" Her reply was interrupted by a waiter who had come up to the table to take her drink order. She hesitated only for a moment. "Extra dry, Tanqueray Gibson, please."
The waiter left with the angry eyes of Charles Green on his back. "He must think you're alone," he complained.
"Still snowing?" Sharon Hiller asked.
"Yes. Snowing, blowing and typically New York in February. If not for the exhibit and your program. I'd be drinking Daiquiris and listening to the surf right now in Barbados," Claudia answered.
"Is that all that's keeping you busy at the museum?" Peter asked.
"Isn't that enough? I've got to help you and Sharon with the broadcast, answer Charles' questions about security, work on the invitation list for the opening, put together the catalogue and stay as far away as possible from the curator," she concluded as the waiter arrived with her drink.
He put the glass down in front of Claudia, taking care not to touch the envelope. Next to it he placed a small glass full of cocktail onions. He beamed proudly as he stood erect, waiting for Claudia's r