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Authors: Nicholas Kilmer

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical

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BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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Chapter Forty-eight

“That’ll do it?” Emma insisted.

“They still want to talk to Morgan,” Fred said. “After they talk to you, they’ll be more eager.”

“One thing’s sure. If they find Morgan, he won’t brag what he did to me. So I’ll just be here working when they come. If they come.”

“If you
can,
” Fred said. “In my judgment, it would be worse not to be easy to find.”

Her responding look was either guilty or cornered.

“Just be here,” Fred said. “Working on something else, maybe, where you don’t have to think?”

***

It was a person Fred had not seen before, in the admissions and administration building; an older woman with the look of the seasoned professional. She was dealing briskly and implacably with incoming phone calls. The emperor Nero, enjoying the circus, could not have turned down his thumb more quickly than she instructed each caller, “Not at present,” “She’s in conference,” or, “The academy will issue a statement.”

She looked up with a “No” in her eyes.

“I work here,” Fred said. He walked to the silent door with the new
ELIZABETH HARMONY, PRESIDENT
sign on it. “She in?”

“Not since she set me up this morning.”

“Temp?” Fred guessed.

She refrained from the obvious reply, picked up the phone and told it, “Stillton Academy of Art. Good Morning.”

“That would be a yes,” Fred concluded. “So she’s with the student’s family?”

The woman said into the phone, “The admissions office is closed temporarily. Please call back next week.” She hung up and told Fred, “She left no instructions.”

“Schedule’s shot to hell anyway,” Fred said. “You know how I can reach her?”

“I’m doing the phone. That’s it,” she said, and proved it.

***

The room’s phone rang. Fred, coming out of the shower, grabbed it. Molly.

“Gotta be quick,” Molly said. “Vacation like this, there’s not time for anything else but fun. Got a pencil?”

“Affirmative.”

“These names,” Molly said. “It would be easier if you’d stick to a single century. You’re all over the map. Between people living and people long dead. But here goes. You listening? Ten minutes, Terry! And put that down!

“OK. Fitz Hugh Ludlow. If it’s the one you want. American. Author. Nobody cares what he wrote. His claim to fame—in 1863 he was a member of the party that traveled the American West in the company of the German-born American painter Albert Bierstadt.

“Josephus Stillton. Born 1830—no, that was Bierstadt. No, yes, I guess they were the same age. Born New England. Massachusetts, in fact. Old family. Went west in the 1850s to seek his fortune. And he found it. Wyoming. Copper and silver. Big strike in the region of the Wind River Valley. Came back to Massachusetts as an older man. Bags of money. I haven’t found an obit so I can’t tell you about descendants if any. It looks as if there was a wife.

“You getting all this? Rosa Ludlow. Or Rosalie. She’s a footnote. Being a woman who lived in the nineteenth century, who’s surprised? That’s her
married
name, Ludlow. Because she married Fitz Hugh, the author. You following?”

“I’m with you,” Fred promised.

“She didn’t stop there,” Molly said. “Fitz moved on to other things, there was a divorce, and she married the landscape painter Albert Bierstadt!”

Fred let Molly have the triumph that comes when disparate paths of research coincide. It was little enough reward for the work she was doing. “So Rosa Ludlow is Rosa Bierstadt,” Molly finished.

Molly’s voice changed. “Listen. I know you’re running around, but I also know there are terrible things happening up there. You’re on the national news. You and Governor Crabtree, though Governor Crabtree’s been on for some extra-marital fun he’s been having. Listen, I’m sorry about that student…

“So even I can notice this set of coincidences. Have you got your teeth into a Bierstadt painting? In the middle of all this? What’s it like? Never mind, tell me later.

“Anyway, you didn’t ask me to but I did. It’s one of those things everyone knows, but they don’t know the dates and then, when it comes right down to it, they don’t know the facts either, do they? So I looked up Albert Bierstadt.”

“Good,” Fred said. “And thanks. I am indeed rusty.”

“Born near Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1830. Family moved him to New Bedford when he was three. By the time he was twenty he was exhibiting paintings. Three years later he’s in Düsseldorf to study painting, then in Rome. In Europe he paints all over. Landscape. The kind of landscape that makes you stand there and shout, ‘This proves there’s a God!’ Clouds, rainbows, storms, the works. Wildernesses.”

“I know Bierstadt’s paintings,” Fred reminded her.

“Of course you do. I get him confused with all those other transcendental, hurray for the American scene painters. Anyway, by 1857 he’s back in the USA.

“Two years later, 1859, he has a chance to join up with the famous Lander expedition. All the new territories opening up in Kansas, Nebraska, out to the Rockies. He made sketches and photographs that he works from after he gets back to his big New York studio. People start wanting his stuff and he paints big time and for big money. People can’t decide if he’s an artist or P. T. Barnum, but the money doesn’t care what he is. It wants his stuff.

“So, he goes west again, as I said, in 1863, with Fitz Hugh Ludlow and that bunch, as far as California—how much of this do you need?”

Knock on the door.

“Be right with you,” Fred called. “You have dates of death?”

“For Stillton, no. For Rosa, no. For Bierstadt, 1902.”

Knock on the door, more insistent.

“Thanks, Molly. It’s open!”

Chapter Forty-nine

“What does this kid Rick Murphy have against you?” Seymour said, coming into the room. He was being disarming. He carried two cardboard cups, and the smell was coffee.

“I’ll get us another chair,” Fred said. He took one from the arrangement on the landing where the management had provided for the possibility that guests would sit and exchange sweet nothings while contemplating the corpses of dried flowers on a table that forced them to sit so far apart they’d have to shout.

The chair Fred had found was the better one, but Detective Seymour was already seated, in the window, so that his backdrop could promise unpleasant weather. Fred sat in the better chair.

“To answer your question,” Fred said. “You can choose. A. I don’t know. B. Maybe the kid either is a good citizen or likes to make trouble. Or, C. Both or all three. To answer your underlying question, I went into that classroom to teach on Tuesday, and it was a goddamned mess. Dust and trash everywhere. Also, that life teacher, Meg Harrison, had a complicated setup in the middle of everything, stage set, for her painting students, with stools and cloth and fruit and the rest of it, and a big sign on it saying, ‘Don’t move it.’ And that made me mad.

“It was as if my class did not exist. As if I didn’t exist. So I was pissed and I didn’t want it to happen again.”

“Well, but you didn’t exist,” Seymour pointed out. “If I understood correctly, nobody expected you, right?”

“True. But the
class
was expected. The
class
was scheduled. Maybe Flower doesn’t care—I’m calling him that. It’s a habit—but
I
do. And I let Harrison know it. I came by last night to make sure the room was ready for me to work in this morning.

“It was dirty. I swept it. Next question. No, first an observation. That puncture in Meeker’s throat. It could be lethal if it hits the jugular or severs the windpipe, but there should be blood. And struggle. I hear you picked up Peter Quarrier. I understand that, but I wonder…Anyway, there should have been lots of commotion, even after that wound.”

Seymour looked Fred over with speculation a few seconds before he said, “Not really your business. I wondered too. The autopsy is started and it will take a while. If the scalpel had been withdrawn, there would be blood. A lot. If the wound itself isn’t fatal, the guy could have died of shock. It could come on quick. Instantly.’

“You don’t think of shock,” Fred said. He took the lid off his cup.

“The fight between them,” Seymour said. “Over a girl, I gather?”

“Emma. My reading, after two days here as a teacher—Quarrier is a friend and looks after her; Tom was a pain in the ass making unwelcome moves.”

“But you are not actually here to teach,” Seymour prompted.

Fred became expansive. “This chairman of the board, Liz Harmony, acting president, is not the brightest bulb in the history of the known universe. You have probably noticed. Not bright enough to give you the same story twice, true or false. Their lawyer, Abe Baum, and a friend of the institution, Parker Stillton called me in to troubleshoot. What they really wanted I don’t know. The rationale they presented was disingenuous at best. Maybe they just wanted a wild card here to foment a ruckus.

“Place was already on the brink of collapse. The institutional life force is strong, but there is only so much insult the system can stand. I’m thinking shock, again. Parker and Baum asked me here undercover to find Flower. I’m calling him Flower. And this student everyone assumes he’s run away with. Or vice versa; to find the student, I think now.”

“Melissa Tutunjian,” Seymour put in.

“Like a fool I said yes before I recognized that their cunning plan also put me in a straight jacket. As a substitute teacher I couldn’t ask questions. Worse, my time was locked up. While you’re standing in front of a class, you can’t do anything. But talk. And I’m not much of a talker.”

“You’re doing OK. What was Quarrier doing when he came here that night?”

Fred kept going. “So I told Liz Harmony—she was against it—my cover would be I’m looking at the whole institution to see if it can measure up to accreditation. That way I can ask questions. While I’m looking to deal with Flower. Peter had office contact. And he is bright. And curious. He cares about the place and he’s been around enough to see how vulnerable it is. I asked him to help.”

Seymour took a ruminative sip from his cup of coffee. “I see a man who’s frank and helpful and probably slippery as hell,” he said. “My instinct is to invite you to collaborate with us, and to be equally frank with you.

“My instinct is also to remind myself, who are you kidding?” Seymour said. “What does this guy really want? Every time he opens his mouth, what he’s really doing is looking for information. Your car is registered in Charlestown. Care to comment?”

“I have a house there,” Fred said. “But I live with a woman in Arlington. She has two children. I keep my options open.”

“And you work?”

“For a guy in Boston. It’s an old-fashioned concept but he’s an old-fashioned guy. I do research and odd jobs for him and he pays my wage”

“The obvious theory is Quarrier wants this girl Emma for himself.”

“Peter Quarrier told me he has a lover in Oregon. In Portland.”

“He’s flying in,” Seymour said. “That’s what I mean. That was another question.”

Seymour reached out and picked up the butterfly card from the table where Fred had propped it. Something to enjoy. “Nice,” he said. “What did you, buy it from one of the kids?”

“It’s old,” Fred said. “Look at the edges. That’s mice.”

Seymour turned it over and read it. “The weather continues fine. I guess this card was not sent from Stillton. It’s a pretty thing.”

“I pick things up,” Fred explained.

“And what progress have you made looking for Morgan Flower? That Benjamin Star thing—that was a blind alley. Flower borrowed the car, it looks like. Star is in Tibet or some damned place. Him we are not going to locate for a while. So. Flower is still a blank. Unless you have something.”

“You don’t have a home address for Flower,” Fred said. “Something beyond this apartment they gave him in Stillton?”

“That’s another question.”

Chapter Fifty

The talk in the Stillton Café, where lunch was still in progress, was all of the deaths of Tom Meeker and of the former director, and Peter Quarrier’s arrest. At such times, the presence of an interested stranger, even just passing next to a table, caused voices to drop, making everyone in the place seem a conspirator. But the occasional overheard word made the subjects at issue clear as they were obvious.

It was late for lunch, but the day was unusual in every other way as well. Fred sat by himself at a table—the lone instructor—and nursed a truly indifferent grilled cheese sandwich, along with the six potato chips, two pickle slices, and ginger ale. The conversation at the neighboring tables had fallen to whispers.

Meg Harrison entered, went to the counter and spoke to Marci, who was working in the café again today. Then she surveyed the room, saw Fred at his table of isolation, and came over.

“May I?” she said.

Fred swallowed. “Please join me. It’s a god-awful shock to the place. A one-two punch. The students, especially. There’s no way you can’t feel…”

Meg nodded.

“Even the best of them,” Fred said. “It’s a hard world. How many of even the best of them can stick with it after they leave?”

“It’s not like we’re teaching dental hygiene,” Meg said. She’d rolled her sleeves back as she sat. The muscles and tendons of her forearm popped with stress. “Try something else, would you? Let me eat in peace.”

“Sorry,” Fred said. “That remark sounded like me doing my project. Sneaking up. Asking with a trick, do your students get jobs at the professions you train them for? Whereas I just mean to be offering sympathy for a hard business.

“I’ll change gear. That TV program Tuesday night?
Pharaohs from Beyond the Stars?
Did you catch it?”

“I was out. I heard about it.”

“I’m in the same boat,” Fred said. “Problem is a lot of the students saw it. Got convinced. They don’t have any history to compare it to. A program like that makes it so easy. How do you counter it?”

Meg said, “All those programs about UFOs and other mysteries, they all begin by assuming that human beings are as dumb as mayonnaise. How could a mere human being ever be smart enough to figure out a pyramid? Well, I’ll tell you a good way to start. Don’t fry your brains watching TV.”

Marci stopped at the table with a tray from which she unloaded two cheeseburgers, a huge pile of fries, and whatever was in that glass; a dark soda with ice.

“Ketchup?” Meg asked.

“You got it.” Fred shoved the plastic squeegee bottle across the table. “Imagine if we could take all the time first-year students in any program, not just here but everywhere, spend watching TV, and make them use that same time drawing instead,” he said.

“And keep them from watching TV
while
they’re pretending to draw? You’d be amazed…” She squirted ketchup onto her plate.

“Of course I forget all the stupid things I’ve done,” Fred said. “Try to.”

“Why I joined you. In spite of appearances, there’s a group of us working underground, trying to save Stillton Academy,” Meg said. “In spite of itself. And at the same time as we have to protect our own asses.”

“Good luck,” Fred said.

“We need people outside.”

“You’re working against your own board,” Fred pointed out. “The way I read it. Who’s in your group? Phil Oumaloff?”

“That blowhard? God!” Meg’s voice had dropped to a whisper that was not unlike the whispers being exchanged at neighboring tables. “He’s like one of those battery-powered toys. Runs along the floor eagerly in any direction until he encounters an obstacle, and immediately he turns and runs exactly as eagerly toward where you’re going. Or the other way.

“What Phil figures, he’s always going to be the figurehead, whatever direction the ship is going. Simply because he’s been around so long. He deserves it.”

“So who?”

“Arthur Tikrit. Bill Wamp. Bobby Ballatieri from printmaking. You met her? We can’t say anything to Phil. He’d go running to Harmony with it before it got cold.”

“Rodney Somerfest?” Fred asked softly.

Meg said, “We haven’t got long. What we really need is someone from the outside. Someone with heft.”

“Everyone mentions this alumnus. The painter Basil Houel,” Fred said. “In fact some, like Phil Oumaloff, won’t stop mentioning him. I begin to feel the place is haunted by him. His shadow casts a pall across the rain.”

“The last thing we need is another artist,” Meg said briskly. “Even if Basil happens to be well known. And I guess he is connected, in a way, at least to the collectors his gallery sells him to. Those connections could help if they weren’t all New York. But as far as Basil himself goes, artists know as much about staying alive in this world as a handful of grasshoppers. Now, you…”

“I haven’t got heft,” Fred said.

“You might know someone out in the big world, I was going to say, with enough money and connections…”

“Peter Quarrier is with your group,” Fred said. Not a question. Meg had taken a large bite of her cheeseburger. The operation of chewing gave her enough cover to avoid responding directly.

“The theory is that some drawings in the tomb of I forget who, which are so bad they had to be by the ancient Egyptian equivalent of a second grade boy, because nobody can make them out, must describe the space ships and the extraterrestrials. Then a professor with a beard and an accent comes on and confirms it,” Meg said. “And no, Rodney Somerfest never had anything to do with our group. He barely had anything to do with the academy while he was here. He did something, I guess, but I don’t know what. He was an extraterrestrial himself.”

“Reaching around in the dark,” Fred said. “There’s this guy. Tutunjian. Is he with the good guys or the bad guys?”

Meg was eating dipped fries. She said, through a mouthful, “Tutunjian is pretty much with Tutunjian. Sure his bank gave a good contribution last year, to the endowment fund. But at the same time they hold paper on some of the buildings.”

BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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