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Authors: Nicholas Kilmer

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical

A Butterfly in Flame (18 page)

BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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Chapter Forty-six

“Ok. So. They maneuvered you off the board,” Fred summed up.

Neither Phil Oumaloff not Bill Wamp had responded to the stimulus. The name of the entity Stillton Realty Trust had produced no more than blank stares.

“You and how many more?” Fred went on.

“How many what?” Oumaloff asked.

“How many on the board resigned?”

“I was the spearhead of an impressive movement,” Oumaloff bragged. “We were three in all who resigned in protest. Three out of seven.”

“Leaving the way clear for those who remained to stack the deck in the darkness that resulted,” Fred concluded. “I don’t know how it works. Never been on a board. But however it works, the resulting board is working against its own best interests, that is to say, the best interests of the academy, and in favor of the self-interest of its individual members.

“What it looks like to me—and again, what do I know?—the Stillton Realty Trust is looking to buy up all of Stillton; whatever the academy doesn’t own already.

“There’s enough cash floating around that my guess is they’re putting their own money into the payoff to Rodney Somerfest for example, although that’s over now. Meanwhile the academy is mortgaging property in order to keep the operation going. No way could tuition cover it. So at the same time as the academy gets weaker, the Realty Trust gets stronger. Already it has options on or owns most of the town.

“What happens next? Say you don’t get accreditation?”

Oumaloff handed the pair of plastic plums he’d been fondling to Bill Wamp, who held the warmed objects in his hand a moment before he deposited them on the desk with a grimace of intimate displeasure. They rolled, in two directions, but both to the edge and off, onto the dusty floor. They lay there.

Bill Wamp pointed toward the plums. “There’s your answer,” he said. “We fold. If we don’t get accredited our students don’t get government grants or loans. The work-study program is out the window. Neither the state nor the US Government gives us the time of day. Our loans are called back. We’re dead.”

“And then?”

“And then? You mean, after we’re dead? After we’re dead, we rot,” Bill Wamp said.

Oumaloff had found a chair, cleared it and sat.

“Sure.
You
rot, and the
students
rot. That’s obvious,” Fred said. “But what happens to the entity, whatever Josephus Stillton named and defined when he drew up the documents that led to what currently exists as Stillton Academy of Art? There had to be a paragraph that said, if ever the board concludes that this academy can’t hack it, anything that’s left—whether buildings or bank accounts or wooden horses or plastic fruit—whatever’s left, what happens to it?”

“Good question,” Bill Wamp said. “I never thought of that.”

“Whatever these jokers are doing they want to use the law as a tool on their side,” Fred said. “Not my field. I mean, for example, something I overheard. Boston’s King’s Chapel, which I like to refer to as the Chapel of George the Divine. Christian Unitarian. Bear with me. Church downtown. Tremont at about Park Street. Freedom Trail. All that. Their situation, if they ever go soft and relinquish their Christian forms of worship, not only do they lose their major endowment under an 18th century will, but—at least this was true until not too long ago—they could even wake up one morning and find that control had been snatched away from their own board, and they must submit instead to the tender mercies of Harvard University.

“So, Phil, my question: Say the academy goes belly up, I repeat, what happens to what’s left? Who gets it?”

“I have those papers somewhere,” Oumaloff said. “Off the top of my head…”

“If you think of it, let me know,” Fred said.

“You’re saying they’re not just clowns,” Bill Wamp recognized. “Not stupid, but malicious. This board, in effect my employers, are actively working to sabotage the academy?”

“And profit from the wreckage,” Fred said. “That’s my theory. A theory I’m not spreading around right now, if you don’t mind. No point starting talk.”

“Who’s in this? How does it work?” Phil Oumaloff demanded.

“I don’t see that anybody in this room is involved,” Fred said. “Beyond that…”

Oumaloff said, “It’s preposterous! It’s also possible. I’ll search for those papers. It might take me…”

“I’m at the Stillton Inn,” Fred said.

“Everyone knows,” Oumaloff said, making for the door.

Fred cautioned, “They’ve been working to keep this very secret. I suggest we do the same. I wonder about the death of Rodney Somerfest, for example, in the light of the desire for secrecy.”

“A nonentity,” Oumaloff grumbled. “I knew it as soon as I saw his file. ‘The Death of a Nonentity.’ Good title for a 1930s movie nobody has seen. If Somerfest knew anything other than cars, ever, he hid it well.”

Fred and Bill Wamp watched a plastic pear spinning on the floor in the wake of Oumaloff’s departure. Bill Wamp stretched and yawned.

“You don’t happen to know where Peter Quarrier lives?” Fred asked.

“Not a clue. Beyond everyone lives around here. There’s really no choice,” Bill Wamp said. “I should go check my fourth-year painters.”

“Lillian Krasic. Any ideas?” Fred asked him. “Like how come, and when, did they shove her out, and how come are they still paying her?”

“She’d been at Stillton forever. Did her job. Knew everyone. Family in Stillton back forever. Meaning parents, grandparents. Fishermen. She isn’t married. But your other questions—you got me.”

“What happens to you if this place bites the dust? You singular. Bill Wamp.”

“I’ll tell you one thing. I’m not waiting to find out. I’m looking now.”

“You’d be a fool not to. I’ll walk with you,” Fred offered.

“It’s raining,” Bill Wamp pointed out. “You’re not dressed for it. You haven’t been in town long enough. I’ve got an extra jacket you can use.” He reached behind the office door and pulled out one of those red plaid jackets that is supposed to make any man look instantly like a man’s man.

“It’s a knockoff,” Bill Wamp said. “Don’t worry about it. It makes me look like Ralph Kramden going hunting.” His own jacket was green waxed cotton, padded and very worn. The red baseball cap sported a big W.

“They give you a studio?” Fred asked as they walked along the sea view. Fog horn again. How long had it been moaning? It was so chronic a condition, a person forgot to notice when it stopped and started, like a dull itch.

Bill Wamp said, “For me it’s either paint or eat. So I’ve been teaching. Summer I give lessons at a place in Maine. I still call myself a painter.”

A lone seagull flew past with a limp gray something in its beak. Seventeen other lone seagulls flew behind him, screaming to tear it away.

Chapter Forty-seven

“If you want, I’ll run you through the building,” Bill Wamp offered. “Show you around.”

“I’ll figure it out,” Fred said. “I guess, since I’m teaching third year students, I’ll head for those studios. Just point me in the right direction.”

“You want that end of the building,” Bill Wamp said, showing Fred the direction he already knew to go.

The voices behind the closed door of Peter Quarrier’s studio were Meg Harrison’s, with an intervening rumble that was familiar: Detective Seymour. The cruiser out front had prepared Fred for this eventuality. In due course the studio itself would be cordoned off with yellow tape. For now Meg Harrison, Peter’s instructor, was doing what she could to explain the week’s classroom assignment, or the series of self-portraits, or the sketches on the wall, to a man whose disciplines were suited to the interpretation of evidence, and to questioning everything.

Quarrier’s studio partner, whoever that was, was out of luck for the next week. He’d have to work somewhere else. Or she. And would the forces of law and order allow anything to be removed—even the studio partner’s works in progress? As long as Peter was in custody, his effects would be in limbo.

“Tell me this,” Seymour’s voice, the challenge tinged with discomfort. “I know you people do this, I’ve been around. But why is the guy naked? Seems like, if you’re trying to hand the students a puzzle to work with, a fancy robe…”

Fred proceeded along the hallway.

Emma, at work in her studio, had arranged the bowl with its still life of dilapidated fruit, on a table. Yesterday’s class studio nude was on the easel and she, standing in front of it, was mixing paint on a crusted palette. Light furred by the rain, entering by the window at her right, made a distracting cross work pattern over the face of the painting she was engaged with. A self-portrait of Peter Quarrier, the one Fred had taken special notice of in Quarrier’s studio two nights back, stood on the floor looking into the room.

Emma had her dark hair pulled back severely, as in her own self-portrait, which was missing. The green work shirt, a man’s, was splotched with paint and hung outside black denim trousers. The rubber clogs on her feet were no one’s fashion statement.

Emma’s nod acknowledged Fred’s entrance. Her face was wan, and streaked with tears.

“I guess you lucked out in a way,” Fred said. “All the other studios get crowded by this time of the year.”

Emma said, “You mean there’s nobody else in the studio. I’m not the easiest person in the world to get along with, maybe.” She held the brush poised, a dollop of lavender paint on its tip. “That shadow along the guy’s dick. That’s a lie,” she said. “The way everything twists. Also a lie.”

“Is it a good thing or not, working alone in the studio?” Fred asked.

Emma gave the orange on her canvas a garish lavender shadow. She’d already roughed in the bowl and its contents again. “It’s a lie,” she repeated. “A dick that green, you’d carry it to the doctor. Mary Louise couldn’t hack it. My studio partner. Left at Christmas. It’s good. So I’ve got space. And she took her goddamned radio with her.”

She lifted the same lavender up to the model’s chin and slashed it across, making a mark that was both vicious and poignant. “It’s a lie, and I like it. Poor Peter.” She put her hands to her face and shook, weeping. The brush with its remnant of paint, still clenched in her right hand, twitched like an antenna above her head.

“Well, I mean,” Emma said, “poor Tom. Color and life are the same thing. It’s what Peter always said. Poor Peter.”

Fred cleared a place to sit on the room’s single chair. There was also a busted horse, but the splotches of paint on it might not be dry, and the coat Fred was wearing belonged to Bill Wamp. “What do you know?” Fred asked. “Do you mind if I watch you work?”

“Sure,” Emma said. “I don’t know anything. Except they picked Peter up, which I didn’t learn from Peter because obviously they wouldn’t let him telephone. A friend of his told me. Early. They got him maybe even before he knew about Tom. Unless…”

“Stick to what you know,” Fred said.

Emma said, “Anyway, last night, Tom came by. I was working. Though it’s stupid to work at night. The color’s all wrong.”

With a wide soft brush she laid in a thick red mark at the base of the blue bowl.

“Peter’s self-portrait,” Fred said.

Emma started and looked away from her work, into Fred’s eyes. “Peter wanted one I was working on. He walked me back to the studio yesterday, after the thing. Told me to stop, not make another mark on it, it was done. When I wouldn’t, he took it. Then he said, ‘Wait,’ and went away with it. Came back with his.

“I told Tom I didn’t give a shit where he was. Couldn’t care less.”

“‘He,’ meaning…?” Fred prompted. “I’m not following.”

“The son of a bitch asshole.” Emma turned to her painting again. “I’m fucked with the small brushes,” she said. “When I get out of here,
if
I get out of here, I’ll never use anything less than an inch wide.”

“Why wait?” Fred said.

“I called Aldo right away. Peter’s lover. He’ll come. Peter’s going to need friends. Help. Money.

“What they don’t know, what they don’t think about, most of what we do when we paint is an exercise in using the tools and supplies of poverty. And all the time we’re trying to make it look like we’re not poor. Because who wants to look at a poor person? What fun is that?”

“Morgan Flower,” Fred guessed.

“Sure. Morgan could eat anything he wanted. We’d go out, he’d buy steak, or a lobster. For him, for me, he didn’t care. I wanted a bottle of wine? Presto! A couple of times we drove up for the weekend to Lake Sunapee. The place. It seemed like he owned it.”

“I saw that car he drives,” Fred said.

“So Tom asked me. There he was again. How could I keep him out? Him all excited and revved up for self-justification. I thought he came to apologize. Fat chance. He said, and why should I doubt him? Because he’d listen there, in the office: Did I want to know where Morgan Flower is? Because Tom will do anything to get in my—to get on my good side. Which he didn’t have a prayer.

“I said, Shit, no! No, that’s a lie. I said, Fuck, no! Tom said, was I sure? I said, What does it sound like? The one thing more I want from that guy, I got. Forever. Which is a passing grade.”

Fred said, “I like your work.”

“It’s student work. It’s shit.”

“OK. They’re going to ask you about what Tom said and did. His visit. Then they’re going to ask you about Peter,” Fred said.

A pause. “Should I hide his painting?”

“I wouldn’t. It’s yours,” Fred said.

“Tom saw it here. It looked like he was going to kick it. Should I hide it?”

“Don’t confuse them,” Fred said. “The one you gave him…”

“Peter took it,” Emma said. “But I wouldn’t want it back anyway. Not now. It’s his now. Even if he…”

“They’re in his studio,” Fred said. “They’ll see it. Meg Harrison and the detective. They’ll, at least Meg, will recognize it.”

“Shit. Nobody knows, only you, how last year Flower and I—I mean the students know and all, but not—what do I tell them?”

Her bravado had dwindled to be replaced by the single practical question.

“Because the fact is, Morgan treated me like shit,” she continued. “And I don’t want to go into it.”

Fred said, “What I suggest, tell them Peter walked you back. That’s true. Whatever the time was—don’t lie about that—and when he left. Then Tom stopped by and while you were talking, he mentioned he thought he knew where Morgan Flower was.”

“Listen, Fred. There’s no chance, is there? Could Peter…could he have done that to Tom?”

“Not if I read him right. What do you think?”

Emma’s shoulders shook and the tears came again. “Sometimes Peter would say he didn’t want to live,” Emma said.

BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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