Authors: Nicholas Kilmer
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical
“Find the girl, that’s key. Keeping it really quiet,” Abe said. “Under the radar. Unless our worse fears are realized. But I can’t emphasize enough, we want you to find the girl.”
“If out worst fears are realized, ideally, we consult again before you act,” Parker added. “Should you discover their bodies in some compromising circumstance, you will have a legal obligation to report them—but it may be that some shading…”
“This isn’t what I do,” Fred said.
Clay interposed, “There may be extenuating circumstances. As a favor to me, Fred, I would appreciate your suspending your natural objections long enough to hear our thinking. Time’s a consideration. You and I can discuss your reservations later.”
“Taking this little ditty as your clue, you’ve jumped to a conclusion,” Fred said. “Two people missing, a man, a girl. This scrap of paper,” he waved the bit of verse, “left for someone to find. ‘I died for beauty’ is supposed to be the girl, I guess? Check. The beautiful student. At least beautiful once she goes missing. Therefore ‘One who died for truth’ is the seasoned and admired older man. The teacher. It’s too easy. Just because you find it, that doesn’t make it a clue, or even evidence. What does he teach, the missing instructor?”
“English, which we all know,” Abe said. “That’s the beauty of it. If his subject was Graphic Design or 3-D you might be in trouble. But everyone knows English anyway. Also Art History, which you can do.”
Clay eased in softly, “We’ll talk later, Fred. The idea is for you, as a temporary replacement, to take over Mr. Flower’s classes. Morgan Flower. The missing instructor.”
Fred’s dramatic failure to respond was not feigned.
“That gives you a reason to be there,” Parker Stillton said. “Helps keep you under the radar.”
“They have no standards at all at Stillton Academy?” Fred protested. “I don’t care how hard they’re scratching to stay alive. They’d never hire me. I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Hell, they shouldn’t let me teach for free.”
“It puts you there and we need you there,” Parker said.
need you there,” Clay added. His elegant fingers tapped against the chair arm.
“What’s wrong with these people? They don’t have the power to slam the doors when they see me coming?” Fred said. “No faculty vigilance committee? No dean who’s awake?”
“We’re wasting time,” Abe said. “It’s taken care of. All we need is for you to say Yes. I advise the president of the board. She’s also the acting director of the academy, after the unpleasantness of last October. Especially after the resolution of that unpleasantness, anyone employed by the academy who wants to
employed, does what she wants. There are other complications I don’t have time for. I have to get to Lowell, talk to Melissa’s father. They call her Missy. Keep him on the ranch.”
“You’ll want this paper,” Fred said, holding out Melissa’s holograph.
“No point upsetting him. Not yet,” Abe said, waving the paper away. “You keep it. For now, we assume they are fine. Just missing.”
Parker growled, “As far as anyone knows, the two are holding hands in Atlantic City or Capri.”
“We’d really appreciate it,” Abe said. “If you can agree. First class is tomorrow at eight-thirty. English One. This being his suggestion, Mr. Reed has generously offered to continue your compensation as usual, and any incidentals…”
“Not an issue,” Clay said.
“What the hell,” Fred said. “It can’t be worse than jumping into a jungle at night by parachute. I’ll give it a week. What’s tomorrow, Tuesday? By Wednesday of next week, either Morgan’s back in the saddle, or you find a guy with chalk marks all over him to do the job those kids deserve.”
“I appreciate this,” Abe said. “I know Stillton Academy will appreciate it. We’ll go, then.”
“Does the town of Stillton have a hotel?” Fred asked. “Just curious.”
“You stay in Morgan Flower’s rooms,” Abe said, standing and taking an envelope from a side pocket. It bulged and rattled with what must be keys. “The place belongs to the academy, so it’s no problem for you to be there. You might pick up some insights.”
Parker stood also, asking Abe Baum, “You want me with you while you talk with Missy’s father?”
“We’ll discuss it. Two people might spook him. Here are directions, Mr. Taylor, and your schedule.” He handed Fred the envelope. “My number’s inside. Check in with the acting director, Elizabeth Harmony. Her number’s there also. She wants to meet with you tomorrow morning. Eight O’clock, she said. In her office. For coffee.”
“Let us know if we can be helpful,” Parker said. “When you learn something.”
“You say Morgan Flower’s place belongs to the academy,” Fred said. He’d opened the envelope, pocketed the keys, and was glancing through the notes and schedules. “They own all this property? Or do they rent?”
“Stillton Academy owns property in the town,” Abe said, making for the door.
“So,” Fred said, “this failing college could be sitting on a gold mine of prime waterfront property.”
“Point noted,” Parker Stillton confirmed, “Not relevant.” He reached to shake Fred’s hand, and Clayton’s, and followed Abe Baum into the entrance hall. The hall was hung, this month, with Japanese and Persian exercises in calligraphy, the walls that pomegranate color you see in British films of country houses. The floors were lavishly rugged with Orientals. “It’s as if he’s Catherine the Great condemned to come back as somebody’s maiden aunt,” Molly had said once after a prolonged glass of sherry at Christmas time.
Fred let Clay do the honors at the front door, which opened onto the ivied wilds of Beacon Hill. He had a fresh beer in hand when Clayton reentered the parlor. “There is some plan at work here?” he demanded. “Aside from your customary eleemosynary activity, which in this case you wish me to carry out?”
“Charity is not beyond me,” Clay snorted. “But my charities are my business. I would not ask you to participate. Nor would I tell you of them. Charity, like sex and religion, should be kept close to the vest.”
Fred said, “Explain.”
“I refer to the
parable of the Publican and the Pharisee,” Clay said.
“Explain the Stillton Academy diversion.”
“There are wheels within wheels,” Clay proclaimed.
won’t help either,” Fred said.
Clay writhed a moment until he resolved the agony of indecision by pouring himself another glass of sherry. “Almonds?” he asked.
“Clarity. Before I head north. Unless I change my mind,” Fred said.
Clay sat with his sherry and stared across it with suspicion. He said, “For years I have wished to find a subterfuge by which to get an inside look at Stillton Academy.”
“You didn’t relish standing in front of English One yourself?” Fred asked.
Clayton gave the remark the peremptory wave it merited, sipped sherry, and continued, “Therefore when Parker telephoned last evening and laid out the situation as you have now heard it, I was intrigued by the coincidence of his need and my desire, and I began to think.”
He leaned forward and fixed a beady eye on Fred. “I want your eyes. I want your candid and independent evaluation of the present state of Stillton Academy of Art. Its persons and practices, its vulnerabilities. You, Fred, are blessedly unconfined and uncontaminated by academic prejudice. Do what you can, by all means, to resolve Mr. Baum’s quandary. But above all, keep your eyes open and report to me.”
“I’m looking for what, exactly?” Fred asked.
“I will not tip the balance,” Clay said. “You know me and you know I have my reasons. Find some way to see everything. Keep your eyes open and report.”
Fifty miles north of Boston, the turnoff that would lead to Stillton beckoned Fred to the right, and east. He was driving his generic old brown car, though Molly had offered the use of her Honda during her absence. Fortunately, he had stuck to his own vehicle. Almost immediately it became apparent that his choice was a good one. The road degenerated into a track that resembled what would result if the Taliban and the local Historical Commission conspired to supervise public works.
For weeks there’d been nothing of interest. Not two hours ago, before Clay’s summons, Fred had tossed the Bonhams catalogue for a coming London sale onto the floor, complaining, “Tedious, tired, tepid, timid, trendy—but mostly, Holy Mackerel!—who cares? Even that Sargent portrait of the Duchess of Twaddle—she’s like all his other women. Butter wouldn’t melt if she sat on it.”
So there was not much stirring in the Boston office.
Since it was spring break, Molly and her kids had gone to visit her mother in Florida. Molly knew better than to extend the invitation to her live-in lover. So her house in Arlington was empty, and there was nothing stirring there either.
Whatever motive Clay had at work in that Chinese box of a mind, at least it had gotten Fred out into the world, and moving. Though it was irritating in a familiar way not to perceive what was really on Clay’s mind. Closely as they might be obliged to work together, Clayton Reed’s native paranoia normally kept him at the edge of catatonia. He called this condition caution. “Suppose we were playing bridge,” Fred tried once, hoping for an elucidating metaphor. “Wouldn’t you want to send your partner—me, for example—a signal of what was in your hand?”
“I do not wish them to know what I am thinking,” Clay replied, making it clear that even after some years of operating cheek by jowl, as far as Clay was concerned Fred would always be included in the concept
For all Fred knew, when he raced up the spiral staircase in response to Clay’s summons, the pair of stuffed suits had come with the intention to knock Clay on the head with something harder. But no. Perhaps second best, they had at least brought with them an excuse for Fred to busy himself with something active.
A chill, wet evening was descending fast. It was not raining, exactly, but the air was saturated with moisture. In less than ten minutes of slow going the promontory narrowed to the extent that the darkening ocean was visible on both sides. Wind-stunted pines hung on at the roadside; and small, bare trunks of trees that might, when they developed leaves, turn out to be oaks or maples.
Ten minutes further on—the driving was slowed by the condition of the road—the ground rose and widened into a simple, rounded, graceful hill, “evocative of femality,” Fred said as he jounced along. The promontory, and the hill also, were presumably glacial moraines, like their much larger sisters further south, Long Island and Cape Cod. The town of Stillton occupied the hill.
“What is this, a joke?” Fred marveled. “It can’t be real.” Stillton was like a movie set for a story, perhaps set in the innocent 1950s, in which some dreadful things are going to happen to quaintly unsuspecting salt-of-the-earth New Englanders. With maybe one foreigner—perhaps of undefined Jewishness—whom everyone suspects until he or, perhaps, she, turns out to be the one who saves the day.
“Not even a McDonald’s?” Fred expostulated. He’d counted on a mess of hamburgers, along with something crisply greasy. Beer he had with him. Most of the town’s buildings were cottages, two stories, sided with clapboard or gray weathered shingles. The small Main Street offered two places to buy groceries, two cafés, a gas station, “J & J Service,” and the Stillton Inn. Its faded “Vacancy” sign did not project optimism. The sign swung dismally although there was no wind. Perhaps the people who had designed this movie set had wired it to swing. Maybe it could creak as well, when things got tense.
At the far side of the town’s commercial district, after the “Co-Ed Hair Salon,” Main Street ended abruptly at a cross street, Academy Lane, on the far side of which the academy’s main buildings—apparently three in all—occupied the frontage overlooking the shingle beach and the long gray ocean. It was an unimpressive spread. Two long buildings, one of which was identified as Stillton Hall, were of a single story in white clapboard, and a third, more cottage-like, had, in the shade of its porch, a sign saying
If joke it was, the town was, in its simple way, a lovely joke. An overall sense of shabby seediness gave it an air of honesty, as if the only reason for its buildings was protection from the weather, rather than ostentation. At either end of the town, circling the hill that ended the promontory, small cottages, not the monstrosities Newport calls cottages, but the kind Hansel and Gretel lived in, had small bare yards sloping to the beaches, where lobster traps were piled, or buoys, hunks of Styrofoam. Overturned dinghies waited out of reach of high tide. The smell was salt and gradual marine decay; the sky raucous with birds.
Fred parked his car near Stillton Hall and strolled. The place had everything: just enough people of assorted ages were in the streets. Not many. The weather was unpleasant and you would only be out in it if you had good reason. Around the academy buildings, the visible people tended to be of student age, but in motion, not just hanging around. As he moved away from the academy’s buildings, and toward the edge of town, the right number of pickup trucks was waiting for the last trumpet in side yards. A causeway—this was too much!—led to a little white lighthouse whose photo-electric mechanisms, as Fred stared at it, caused its light to begin its revolving flash, accompanied by a reassuringly mournful hoot of foghorn. At rickety small pilings, and the town dock, below the academy buildings, both honest fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbed side by side.
It was too good to trust. “It’s too much,” Fred grumbled. “All it lacks is the ‘lone seagull.’” There were so many seagulls, and they were so insistent, it was impossible to believe that any one of them had ever known a moment’s peace, or solitude. Except in evocative literary pleas for sympathy, a lone seagull is a rare bird indeed. “Bring this set to Paramount, they’d laugh at you. They’d tell you—and it’s true—‘Nobody’d buy this.’”
Except—and the obvious truth of the observation followed him, and filled him with misgivings—anyone
buy all of this. Why hadn’t they? Something was terribly wrong here. It was unnatural. The entire town of Stillton, Massachusetts, should long since have been bought by developers and ruined. There should be motels, boardwalks, and liquor stores. McMansions or their 1920s ancestors, the “cottages” of the idle rich, should bulge along the beach, stealing the view from honest folk, each with its private dock and floating heated swimming pool. Unnatural? It was almost creepy. Like Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, or the so-called Plimouth Plantation south of Boston where mournful actors, unable to find work, dragged around in costumes pretending to be pilgrims. In the case of these three amusement parks, though, it was clear that cultural tourism compelled and controlled the subterfuge. In the case of Stillton, Massachusetts, it was not evident to the naked eye what forces kept the town in the eighteenth—or was it the seventeenth?—century.
Stillton was just a charming New England, old-fashioned unspoiled fishing village not much more than an hour’s commute to Boston. It made no sense. There wasn’t even a parking meter anywhere. No signs to tell you that you either could or could not park.
The address of Morgan Flower’s habitation was on Shore Road, which ran parallel to Main Street and two blocks north. As Fred, in his car again, explored the town with increasing disorientation, he did note the existence of a one-horse firehouse, next to an abandoned police station, both on Dock Street.
Morgan Flower’s rooms were on the second floor of a cottage that should overlook the beach, the lighthouse, and all those lone seagulls. It started raining as Fred put one of the two keys into the front door’s lock. Someone lived on the first floor—the name was there on a door from the small corridor he entered:
The door at the top of the stairs had a similar label reading
Fred knocked. He waited three minutes and knocked again, waiting three more minutes before opening the door with the second key. He had the overnight bag he kept on Mountjoy Street in case of the unexpected, as well as a paper sack of provisions—fortunately, given the dearth of available fast food.
Two days hadn’t given Morgan Flower’s place enough time to smell vacant or neglected. It was modest indeed, although the building itself, if priced as part of a desirable resort community, this close to Boston, should bring six figures. Fred dropped the overnight bag and looked around. The entrance led through a tiny galley kitchen, neat enough, though there were dirty dishes in the sink. Fred shoved Morgan’s supplies to one side and put the sack of provisions on the counter next to the sink.
The female voice came from behind him, continuing, as he turned, “You’re not Morgan.”