Authors: Nicholas Kilmer
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical
It was necessary to bring Molly in from the pool. Molly’s mother rented the same apartment each winter in West Palm Beach. Unless you were willing to get into a rental car and drive there was nothing but the pool to do, other than miniature golf.
“Wait a minute. I’ll stand on the towel. I’m dripping,” Molly said.
“In that scarlet suit?” Fred asked.
“Never mind. Sam, get away from the television. I’ve told you, not before eight o’clock.”
“This time of day, is there anything on besides hospital shows?” Fred said.
“He’s hooked up the Nintendo Wii or whatever that is his Dad sent him, bless his little heart. Sam, you have two choices. Swim or read a book. OK, Fred. Have you got to a place where you can talk?”
Fred managed a speedy outline of the circumstances that had brought him to the single room at the Stillton Inn, “where I’ll have you know I am not the only tenant. There is also an old lady. I saw her on the stairs. They say at the desk that in summer it gets more lively. Also when Stillton Academy of Art has graduation. I’m racing. Have to get to a faculty meeting.”
“To think that I would ever hear you speak those words,” Molly gloated.
“Moving on,” Fred said, “Even while dripping onto the carpet, and wearing your most ineffable scarlet suit, I know that your true identity as a research librarian is not concealed. And I know that you have your laptop with you—because I handed it to you at the airport. So—do you have a pencil?”
“Both a pencil and a burning desire to get back into the pool.”
“There’s no rush,” Fred assured her. “But see what you can find that will reduce my ignorance about the man I am replacing, Morgan Flower. Stillton Academy of Art, obviously. Abraham Baum, attorney at law. Parker Stillton we know. The sculptor Meg Harrison. I’ll have some other names later but I can’t recall where I wrote them down. This Elizabeth Harmony who’s pretending to run the place. You’ve got all this?”
“What are we looking for?” Molly asked. “You sometimes turn up an awful load of irrelevant…”
“Themes and convergences,” Fred said. “Something’s not right here. Beyond the missing people. I’m curious.”
“Give me a couple of days. I’m on vacation, remember? Unless—is it an emergency?”
“No rush. I’d say if it were.”
“Also there’s something on tonight Mom wants to watch with the children. Some Atlantis kind of program, but with pyramids. I have to be there to reinterpret Mom’s interpretations.”
“And Josephus Stillton,” Fred remembered. “The guy who started this operation back over a century ago. Who was he? What did he do? I’d look it up myself, but…”
“I know. And are you really teaching?” Molly asked. “Standing up in front of a class and all?”
“I have to tell you, I’m taken by surprise,” Fred said. “I really like the kids. All that energy. I’d forgotten. They’re serious. They’re even optimistic and idealistic. They’re…well, in short, they deserve much better…”
Molly said, “Go on to your faculty meeting. I assume you are wearing those academic robes?”
“Not ‘till graduation day. Given how long I was at Harvard, I don’t think I qualify for a robe that hangs much lower than my nipples.”
“Lovely thought,” Molly said. “I guess that does it for me.” She finished her end of the conversation with a click.
The students in
Writing about your Problems
were still, and quite unaccountably, at work. Didn’t they know enough to take advantage of the instructor’s absence and make tracks? All this obedience, in persons old enough to vote, and rich enough to own matching shoes, was deeply disquieting. Molly accused Fred of projecting menace. “When people look at you,” she’d say, “they tend to think of all the bad things they have done.” Even so, what could Fred do to them? One or two of these students might really care about the matter so artificially put before them—but it was impossible that so many would willingly toe the line. Wasn’t it?
How phrase the question?
It could wait.
Fred had timed his return for the end of the period, and made a point of sampling the students’ efforts as they brought them to him. He let Peter know, quietly, that by eight o’clock he could be found at the Stillton Inn. “That gives you some privacy,” he said.
“Gives everyone privacy,” Peter pointed out. “Whatever you are doing. If you don’t see me, assume I got nothing.”
Peter left. The room was gradually emptied except for a single female student who seemed so engrossed in the task that she was not aware that her tribe had left her alone to face the hostile ministrations of the enemy. Simply in terms of mechanics, the business of writing required significant physical concentration. The students had nothing to sit on but their clumsy “horses”. Their paper must be balanced on the drawing boards they propped either on their laps or, more frequently, on the horses’ necks.
This student was so involved, Fred let her work. He sat on the model’s platform, next to the bowl of last month’s fruit, denting the blue and orange draperies and wrinkling the sign Meg had left. The silence in his classroom studio magnified the concluding clatter in Meg Harrison’s Stillton A, next door, where students must be covering their work-in-progress with damp cloths and shrouding them in plastic, so that they would be malleable when they were next approached.
Without looking up, the student said, “I’m Emma. It’s true. He’s sleeping with her. I hope they get him.”
Her voice was frank and matter-of-fact. She still didn’t look up. “It was me last year,” she said. She kept writing while she talked, as if either the writing or the talking was governed by a force outside her body. “Which, to me, it seems like, now, he’s a collector. It’s all here.”
She smacked the tablet she was writing on with her left hand while the right continued its work.
Fred ran his eye down the class list. Emma. Only one Emma. Emma Rickerby.
“If you want to talk, or need to,” Fred started.
“It’s all here,” Emma said. The tablet was white, lined paper. She stood, brushed the seat of her jeans absently, settled a russet knit wool sweater, and shook the full black hair, wisps of which had become tangled in her glasses while she was concentrating. She unfurled the paper that had been turned back while she wrote, leaving a clean title page showing, “Morgan Flower.”
“Give this to him,” Emma said, dropping the tablet on the seat of the horse and walking out. The rosy student Fred had identified as Tom Meeker had been hovering in the doorway, as if hoping for a quiet private word with the teacher after class. He fell in beside her as she walked past, jerking her head as if to signal either, “We’re going this way,” or else, maybe more likely, “Leave me alone, for God’s sake, would you?”
His seat in the class had been directly behind her.
There was too much to notice. Anything could signal something. Keep your eye on the matter at hand. Whatever it was Clay wanted, which was not whatever Parker Stillton and Abe Baum wanted, which was not, in turn, what they had claimed they wanted, yesterday, in Clayton’s parlor.
But as long as he was here, Fred had to be doing something, and that might as well be to continue the wild goose chase he’d started with: the missing student and the missing teacher.
Emma had left behind her in the studio a faint dusting of particles of charcoal, and the strong scent of whatever musk women her age these days were using.
“You’re sure your name isn’t Rosetta Stone?” Fred asked. His first instinct had been to follow the student herself; but the tangible document she had left behind her took precedence and, in any case, should not be left unguarded. And whether or not it was to her taste, she wasn’t alone. Fred made his way through the vaguely concentric jumble of horses until he reached the one Emma Rickerby had vacated. He picked up her tablet. He’d look into it later.
Are you kidding?
The first page was all caps, angry, angular, but even: the repeated message:
Fred flipped through the pages. Emma showed a commendable consistency. Neither the handwriting nor the message wavered or varied. Neither her speech nor her manner had seemed crazed—but this? Fred slipped the tablet into the midst of the uneven collection that was his reward for the afternoon.
Not only did the teacher’s life involve hours of aggressively administered boredom in the classroom—he also had to carry it home with him!
“Still, you don’t have to be sane to tell the truth,” Fred said. “In fact…”
But it was time for the faculty meeting.
If you regarded Fred as a member of the faculty, and Fred did not, the faculty present numbered nine unless you regarded Phil Oumaloff as faculty, which Phil Oumaloff obviously did, in which case the number was ten unless you left Fred out.
The group was gathered, buzzing and whickering and making assorted sounds of non-verbal guttural distress, in what Meg identified as the board room—a small room with a large table that seemed to occupy the remainder of the first floor of the admissions building, where Liz Harmony’s office was. Meg had caught up with Fred outside Stillton hall, wiping her hands and face on a rag she tucked into a back pocket of her jeans.
“Sorry to bug out like that. There was something…you make out all right with the gang of four?”
“If you mean the luncheon conference, I think you can safely say that we are none the wiser. Your work, on the other hand—what I saw of it—has real presence.”
Meg had stopped short, though the meeting might already have begun.
“I like to look around,” Fred said.
“You didn’t…” Meg started.
“Touch anything? No. Not even the shrouded figure, which I wanted to unveil. Like Rodin’s
No, I understand the theory. Keep it damp. I’ll share my ignorance and tell you, your work makes me think how much Maillol missed, getting hung up the way he did on that one well-made girl.”
“Who? Oh, Dina Vierny?”
“I guess,” Fred said. “Since I’m curious, and you invited me, I’ll sit in on the faculty meeting.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Meg said. “In here.”
Of the three seats around the table that were not occupied, Meg slid quickly into the vacancy between Phil Oumaloff and a weasely-looking man whose large, black-rimmed round spectacles gave the immediate impression that Harry Potter had somehow grown up wrong.
President Harmony was not visible. One of the two adjacent empties must be hers. Fred took the one that abutted Bobby Ballatieri, giving her an answering collegial nod. The female wraith who had been seated at the desk in the foyer stood in the doorway and made an elaborate count, pointing to each person as she mouthed a number, but forgetting where she had started along the ellipse.
“We’re ten, if you count Fred,” Fred helped. “I’m Fred.”
“I’ll tell Ms—I’ll tell President Harmony you are gathered,” the woman moaned. “You have the agenda? No. I do. I’ll get it.”
“Harmony sets the agenda,” Bobby Ballatieri whispered. “We’re always all on the edge of our you know whats.”
Fred established his academic credentials. “That could be better than being on the edge of
you know what.”
Bobby’s respectful guffaw accompanied the reappearance of the female apparition with a fluttering sheaf of paper which she distributed, one sheet to each place, the final one being laid at the empty spot next to Fred, like a place mat. The typed page, Xeroxed in stone-age fashion—had they no computer anywhere?—was headed AGENDA. Only the last item was of interest: 6. Professor Taylor.
The clouds parted and President Harmony stood in the doorway for twenty seconds, waiting for the glum assembled company to stand. This failed to happen. She swept to her chair, noting both Fred’s presence next to it, and the absence of an alternative. She looked sharply around the table, thought better of this approach, and instead rewarded the company with a smile that conveyed exactly the same warning. “Close the door, would you?” she asked. When nothing happened, she added, “Arthur? Would you mind? Anyone might…” she let the suspicious hint poison the air until Arthur Tikrit—illustration, 2-D and color theory—rose and scrambled around behind his colleagues until he could reach, and close, the door she had just entered by. In the windows behind Fred—therefore behind Harmony—the sea and the rain and the view must all be adding a backdrop of scenic importance to her appearance, but there was nothing to see through the windows on the other side, facing Fred. He noticed now that he’d taken the only chair with arms. No wonder. If he’d done it on purpose, he couldn’t have made a better move. He’d taken her chair. For the first time in his life he could appreciate the thrill that results when the twin presidential cheeks are in firm contact with reserved presidential leather.
“There will be sherry,” Harmony announced. “Despite the fact that our occupations lead some to adopt what might appear a Farmer Jones apparel, my office is glad to make the effort. Sherry will arrive. Caroline is arranging it.”
The bad children were nevertheless being rewarded with a prize that would also punish them as they deserved. President Harmony uttered a small laugh and brought a ringed index finger to the first item on a trivial agenda.
“We’ll start with number six,” Fred said.
Phil Oumaloff puffed and rose as if he would give off steam. The puffs voiced hasty words. “Personal privilege, hopelessly inopportune, outrageous.” When he became coherent the purple flush in his large face subsided to a less dangerous crimson.
“Forgive the outburst,” he instructed Liz Harmony and, by extension, with a wave of his hand that included the rest of the table, everyone else but Fred. He became courtly. “I speak as one, forgive me, if you will indulge, who is long familiar with the traditions and the practices of this academy,” he portended. “Granted they are not written. Granted their long existence may not be law. Nevertheless, a tradition, by its nature, lends stability; and stability, by its nature, fosters longevity. It is my honor to lead the preparations for the academy’s celebration of its first alumni reunion. As such, I believe that item number one, as well as the principles of order and collegiality…more to the point: This man is an impostor.”
Oumaloff sat as suddenly as he had risen, as if the supply of steam had been rerouted. Shining before them all, and winking suggestively from the single-page AGENDA, was item 1: Preparation for Stillton Academy of Art’s First Annual Alumni Reunion.
“The issues are priorities and proper precedence,” Oumaloff propounded, and coughed a warning of an impending sermon. “Now, on the matter of the academy’s invitation to Basil Houel…”
“Another time,” Fred said. “What Oumaloff…”
“Not only is Basil Houel a distinguished alumnus, he has been unusual in maintaining his ties to the academy as well as to…ahem…an old mentor,” Oumaloff insisted. “Even to the point where on occasion he has offered space on his studio floor in Chelsea to one of our students who has found himself caught short in New York. Houel is…”
“Speaking of time,” Fred said.
“Please, Gentlemen,” Liz Harmony started at the same moment as Caroline, after knocking, entered with a tray. The room fell into silence. Fred pushed on while the glasses and decanter were placed, in response to his beckoning gesture, in front of Bill Wamp, who started pouring and passing. He seemed a man destined to receive more than his share.
“What Oumaloff says is true,” Fred repeated, disregarding Liz Harmony’s frantic efforts at gesturing him to silence while Caroline was in the room. “I’m no professor. Never have been. Never hope to be. The first plan was I’d say I’m here to sub for Morgan Flower. It’s true, but it’s not all. Liz Harmony will tell you—I’ll save you some time, Liz—no sherry for me—you have accreditation coming up. Are you ready? I think not. Everybody on a one-year contract? That’s not going to fly. Salary scale? I don’t know…”
“Your credentials?” Oumaloff challenged.
“I’m a trouble-shooter, and troubles you’ve got. What Harmony will tell you, I need access to everything and everybody. Can anyone tell me where Morgan Flower is? Since they’re both missing, it looks as if he has high-tailed it with a student. That isn’t news to anyone here. It’s not a deal-breaker, though it is important how the place responds. If she’s underage it’s a criminal matter. But in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, underage is less than sixteen. I don’t know what they’re thinking, but she’s an adult. Probably not a big deal. Still. There’s much more.
“You all know where I am. Morgan Flower’s rooms until he needs them again. Unless I move to the Stillton Inn. One place or the other will find me. If you have information about anything I can use…when I’m done you’ll get my report. Informally.
“That’s about it for me. I’ll be bothering you and you can come bother me. Anything that might help. It’s a hard job you do here. I’m exhausted after one day of it. Enjoy your sherry.”
He rose and, carrying the stack of papers he had earned, took advantage of the moment of silence he had engendered, and left his colleagues.
Caroline, at the desk in the foyer, was simultaneously administering lipstick and talking eagerly into a cell phone. She interrupted the flow and looked Fred’s way. “Did she notice about the finger sandwiches?” she asked as Fred went past her.
“I’m not sure. For what it’s worth, I didn’t notice any finger sandwiches.”
“That’s the problem. She ordered finger sandwiches. What are they?”
“Try hot dogs,” Fred suggested. “Hot dogs look like fingers.”
“I hadn’t guessed it could be that easy.” She told the cell phone, “Be right back,” and picked up the desk phone. “Oh, but, should I interrupt them? My friend says there’s, like, a body on the beach.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Fred said. “Best not to bother them. What direction, do you know?”
Caroline stretched an arm in the direction of the lighthouse.
“Hot dogs will keep them busy,” Fred assured her. “Don’t bother them with current events. I’ll take a look.”
The body, on its back on the sandy gravel, was being licked by irregular, and not very greedy waves. Naked and male, the corpse had not yet been much hacked at by its hungry marine fellows. But it had been in the water for a few days, from the bloated look of it. The water cold as this ocean was, it would slow the things down that make swelling. Rain was washing the sand from pinched features and a clotted, blondish mop of hair. The group of people gathering—there were fifteen or twenty by the time Fred joined them—was in a semi-circle, both to appreciate the corpse, and to wave discouragement toward the angry, circling gulls. Two uniformed men stood with the crowd, joining in the effort to distract the gathering, screaming birds. “His eyes are long gone,” the stouter uniform was saying. “Eyes always go first. Softer.”
“Let’s move him up the beach,” Fred suggested.
“Nobody touches him,” the thinner uniform said. “Tide’s going out anyway. Isn’t it?” A larger swell lifted the body and rearranged its limbs. The gnawed penis flopped sluggishly.
“Yikes.” A female voice. The crowd, as people will do at a beach, had stepped back instinctively so as to avoid getting its feet wet.
“It won’t look good for you if you lose this body,” Fred pointed out.
“Nobody touches nothing. That’s an order. We called it in.” The stouter one patted his sidearm.
“What kind of cops are you?” Fred demanded, looking more carefully at the uniforms.
“You see this.” Another pat. “With the Academy. Stillton security. We don’t need cops out here. Not normally.”
Another wave lifted the body. It waved its hands and turned its head to reveal a dented place in back that was already occupied by alien life.
“Nobody touches nothing, is what they said,” the thinner security guard said, drawing his weapon. Fred waded into the water until, up to his knees, he could stand between the corpse and open water. The foghorn hooed. It was cold, the Atlantic in March.
“Not making trouble for anybody,” Fred said. “Just in case. So he doesn’t get away. In the meantime, not to be obvious about it but—folks—we’re looking at Morgan Flower, I presume?”
The gathering simultaneously shook its general head and jumped back from the next wave.
“Before my time. But I’ve seen photos. The former boss,” the stout security guard said. “Somerfest. Boating accident, looks like. Guy didn’t know from boats.”
Somerfest went out in his boat naked? In March? What was Stillton Academy doing with security officers anyway? A place this small? What were these art students going to do to anybody?
“I guess he didn’t know from boats,” Fred agreed.