Authors: Nicholas Kilmer
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical
“Paper meaning mortgages,” Fred said. He reached for a fry. “May I?”
“Fries I got,” Meg said.
“Your first-year students. I can’t get their attention,” Fred said. “All they can think about is the big crit on their life-sized drawings. At least, until this morning.”
“What he wants is the loans paid up or the buildings foreclosed. That’s whose side Tutunjian’s on.
“It’s the first hard work most of them have ever really tried. I thought I was hungry. I guess…Marci? Could you wrap this other burger and the rest of the fries, to go?”
Marci, passing the table, swept up the dishes and reversed course.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Fred said.
“How you had one first-year student who’s brilliant working in three dimensions. I’m trying to guess who it is. Of course, I don’t know them.”
“The drawings will all be posted tomorrow. We’ll do it in Stillton A. Stillton B I don’t trust. Who knows if they’ll take the tape off. Everyone lies. So, I’ll have to get Stillton A cleaned up somehow. Anyway, come take a look if you want.”
“You can tell from a drawing? A drawing’s in two dimensions. You can look at a drawing and say, There’s a sculptor?”
“I can. You can’t. Come at lunch, when we break, if you’re interested. The crit lasts all day.
“Also, it can’t help that their idea is, Let’s get high while we watch it. It’s not like they’re looking for information. If you want mystery, there’s nothing like tossing a few bricks into the machinery. Thanks, Marci.”
Meg went out with her package.
“He won’t leave his name,” Mrs. Halper said, holding out a folded slip of paper.
Phone number written there. Fred’s line in the office on Mountjoy Street.
“Also your shoes are dry. They should be OK.” She took the loafers out from under the counter. They were stuffed with rolled newspaper. The lobby area was still interrupted by adult strangers who had the look of those who either collect or manufacture news or its broadcast adjunct commentaries. Fred brushed past those who seemed as if they might harbor the intention to corner him and chat.
He’d kept the better chair from the landing and it was still in his room, although someone had been in and remade the bed. The result was less military and more house and garden. Fred hung Bill Wamp’s jacket to dry over the back of the inferior chair and sat in the better one, his feet on the bed, the phone on his lap.
“It’s the Wind River Valley? You’re certain of that?” Clay started. It was easy enough to picture him down there, sitting at Fred’s desk, all the relevant books and catalogues spread out.
“Not Yosemite?” he continued. “I’m trying to date—and truly you make it difficult—I have next to nothing—because representations of the Yosemite can be very similar. There is Cleveland’s big
“Look,” Fred interrupted. “What we need, to evaluate that painting, that mural, is to get it out of the attic where it is, to lay it out in a dry, well-lighted place, and to study it for two weeks. We can’t do any of that.”
“And all without letting anyone know,” Clay agreed.
“I said Wind River Valley,” Fred said, “because that’s what it made me think of. In the half light, under the roof, with the back of my shirt full of spiders, and listening for footsteps below.
“It would make sense. If my other conjectures are on target. It’s where Josephus Stillton made his fortune in mining. Why wouldn’t he want a souvenir?”
“Fred, you haven’t been talking about…”
“Relax, Clay. I’ve been talking with Molly, over the phone,” Fred said. “The painting is real. It’s good. I
it’s Bierstadt. But even to nail that down, if you wanted to, you’d have to let a whole conference of so-called scholars and experts stand around agreeing and disagreeing with each other for about a week, drinking your liquor, then writing papers, and like as not afterwards Cameron would disagree with all of them, on both sides, then…”
“I know Bierstadt’s work,” Clay cut in.
“As far as the question goes, is it the Wind River Valley? You know as well as I do. The way he made those big monsters, there’s always a generic aspect. It’s not like he took a covered wagon with him filled with ten-by-twenty foot canvases, and set himself up on a plateau at sunset fighting off wind and birds and Indians. He had that huge Tenth Street studio in New York where he could work calm and dry, making up amalgams from his sketches, his photos, his imagination, and some wishful thinking.
“I’m guessing it’s a New York production. That would make sense. Of course, if it was executed during his long stay in San Francisco, in the 1870s, he had to have the room’s measurements with him, work to those specs, then roll and ship the paintings by boat, around the horn, yes?”
“My darkest fear,” Clay began. He was seldom without a darkest fear. Disregard.
“So there are a number of imponderables,” Fred said. “I have a question. What made you think there might be any such treasure here?”
“I have studied,” Clay said. He made it sound like the old lady in the soap opera announcing, as the organ music swells to the commercial, “I have suffered.”
“You’re the one with the time and space to do research,” Fred argued. “While I’m stuck out here with more lone seagulls than Robinson Crusoe could barbecue in a lifetime. Have you found any textual reference at all that Bierstadt ever executed a mural? I don’t know what there is in the record. Order books? Correspondence, studio records? Correspondence with Josephus Stillton would be nice. Any sign of Stillton in the index to Hendricks’ big book? You have it. Ideally, a letter from Josephus telling him, ‘Dear Al, please make me a mural for a room yay by yay by yay high, which will represent a panorama of the area surrounding the strike where I started my Wind River mine. That would be helpful.”
Clay said, “I am still utterly unprepared for the news you have brought me. Aside from these most regrettable deaths…” he paused. “Not casting either blame or aspersion, Fred,” he continued, “Please forgive my annoyance. I must know. I must know. And no, it was not instinct that led to my suspicion, although what I expected you might find—no matter…”
The elastic silence was broken by the intemperate tapping of what must be Clayton’s pencil against the surface of Fred’s desk.
“Shall I tell you my darkest fear?” Clay asked again.
“If you must, now that the subject has been broached.”
Clay’s anguished voice squeezed out the words, “William Bliss Baker.”
“Name doesn’t ring a bell,” Fred said. “Not the remotest chime or clunk. Who is he? Agent for that lady in Arkansas?”
“You know the name, for heaven’s sake, Fred. Think! He was a painter. A younger man. Student of Bierstadt. Good gracious. I am saying the name aloud. On the telephone!
“I had meant to bring back with me the butterfly you found, as well as the box of correspondence, to study; but my departure was unpremeditated. In your haste to sequester me, I neglected even to look at the butterfly card,” Clay said.
Fred pried off the canvas shoes belonging to the late Mr. Halper and wriggled his toes, his feet still stretched out on the bed. “Next question,” Fred said. “Following an observation. Even if this material was lying around in plain sight, and nobody knows what it is, and nobody cares, it still belongs to somebody.”
Long pause. Fred wriggled his toes. With his free hand he began un-stuffing his loafers, tossing the crumpled paper at the wastebasket in the far corner of the room, next to the door.
“You do not suggest that I would connive at thievery?” Clay said.
“It would be a change,” Fred said. “But we haven’t discussed it. In fact—and here’s part of the matter that is distracting me—my own instincts run in the direction of pretty simple. What was
“I intended to do as I always have. To respond to those events which I am not able to instigate or to anticipate, but to respond, if respond I must, before anyone else has a chance to do so.”
“Here are the problems I see,” Fred said. He eased his right foot into the right-hand loafer. It went, but required force. “Let’s say the mural is Bierstadt’s work, as I think it is. If I had to steal it I could, after things die down over there, and provided I wasn’t beaten to it. But we agree that stealing is out. Supposing it is for sale, what is it worth? In this economy? Would the seller be better advised to wait?
“Next, supposing the work were for sale, and at a fair price…as an aside I just mention that in all the years I have known you, I have never known you to put the kind of money on the table that I think it has to be worth. In this case I doubt you can.
“Next…” He took off the loafer. Forget it. “Suppose you owned such a work as the mural in question. Where would you stick it? What next? What do you do with it? Does the phrase ‘white elephant’ not come to mind? It’s beautiful, sure. Then what? We design a new wing in the big side yard you do not have on Mountjoy Street? We make sure that the available wall space accommodates the panels, once we have figured out what the dimensions had to be of the room they were made for?”
“I am listening, Fred,” Clay said impatiently. “Yours are not the first footprints on the road of this intellectual exercise. But your summary is clear, and it is useful that these issues be expressed between us. It saves time.”
“Next,” Fred said, “I can’t for the life of me see, if this were for sale, who you would buy it from.”
“But that is the simplest element,” Clay said. “Surely. The owner of record must be Stillton Academy of Art itself. This means, as you know, its board of trustees. A speedy transaction, unannounced to the world. As we both are aware, the institution is presently experiencing a certain financial stress.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Fred said. “Hold onto your hat.”
The loafers would go to Goodwill.
“Yes? Yes?” Clay’s impatient voice competed with the orchestral accompaniment provided by graphite on planed and well-scuffed oak.
“I’m sure you must be right that if anyone can sell that thing, it has to be the board, acting for the academy. But my guess is that any major financial undertaking this jolly gang of pirates executes is not only going to be scrutinized by the Attorney General, it may well be reversed in court.”
“If there are legal questions, we simply consult Parker Stillton. He is in an ideal position to assist, being a friend to both parties,” Clay said.
“Like everybody else, Parker Stillton acts for himself, his own best friend,” Fred said. “And I think that he and his other best friends are going to jail. Or they would, or they should, if the eyes of Justice were not blinded by dollar bills.”
“Explain,” Clay demanded.
Fred said, “If I could see the books, and I can’t, and if I did I couldn’t understand them anyway because that’s their main purpose, I’d be able to show you what I suspect, and I think it’s true. Bear with me. The board purged itself of dissenters at the same time as it hired this former director, Rodney Somerfest.”
“The dead man,” Clay recalled. “Please spare me, Fred, from board politics. They are the worst kind. Nobody ever has anything to gain other than status.”
“Moving on,” Fred said. “Right. Rodney Somerfest was the first dead man. The one who was not my student. Meanwhile they’ve mortgaged the academy buildings to a bank in Lowell…”
Clay interrupted, “Whistler was from Lowell. Though he famously chose not to be.”
“Meanwhile the same members of the same Stillton Academy board have formed an equal and opposite realty consortium, the so-called Stillton Realty Trust…”
“Spare me, Fred. I really don’t care,” Clayton objected. “This is miles from the subject at issue. What concerns me, therefore
is already sufficiently complex. The academy owns a work of artistic and historical importance.”
“And worth lots of money,” Fred mentioned.
“Never mind. They don’t know what they have. Or even that they have it. Recognizing that they are a not-for-profit corporation, and that I have obligations as a citizen, how do I get it? How do I do so fairly? And advantageously?”
“And legally,” Fred added. “That’s my point. If these jokers are all in jail, because they are selling the academy’s assets to themselves, which is how I simplify the situation—or if they are merely threatened with jail…wait a minute. I’ll have to call you back. There’s the door.”
Fred tucked the butterfly card into the top drawer of his dresser.
“Tell them to wait,” Clay almost shouted.
Fred told him, “My deal with the cops is, I’m on call. I’ll call you back. Take care. For the time being I think we’re screwed.”
Phil Oumaloff pushed past Fred into the room, puffing. He managed to get out, “Close the door. No one must know.” He tossed a stained broad-brimmed hat of wet leather onto the bed. His starched white hair shook as he searched for a place to put his wet trench coat.
“Still raining?” Fred asked.
“It’s letting up,” Oumaloff claimed.
“Seems to me it’s been letting up almost constantly for the last three days,” Fred said. “Give me your coat.”
Against Oumaloff’s protests he took the coat out to the hall and draped it across the remaining chair on the landing. When he got to his room again Oumaloff had used his capacious buttocks to stake a claim on the better of the room’s two chairs.
“No one must know,” Oumaloff repeated. He was laboring under the strain of enormous self-importance. But that condition, like the weather, seemed to be a constant. In Fred’s bedroom, Oumaloff worked to regain composure. Outside the foghorn hooed a warning so regular it was noticeable only if you paid attention.
“I’d offer you something, but there isn’t—well—I can make tea or coffee. It’s easy to tell which is which. You just read the package.”
“Stop putting me at ease,” Oumaloff said.
The two men sat in silence while Phil Oumaloff glared around the room. “What do you know about art?” he asked finally.
“People have been known to come to blows over it,” Fred said. “But there are seldom fatalities.”
“You make light of these deaths?”
“Despite your request, I am putting you at your ease,” Fred explained, “by giving you the moral high ground.”
“When a man is pissing downhill,” Fred did not say, “he feels taller and stronger than he does when he is pissing uphill. Also his feet stay dry. By the same rule, a higher man with dry feet is a more confident man; and the more confident a man is, the more he tends to brag. This gives him away.”
“I have known this academy, and been a good part of it, for over two dozen years,” Phil Oumaloff declared. “When I began, we were forty-seven students, with a program that would have shamed Bunker Hill Community College. Or any other.
“Through the years we have been continually beleaguered, even assaulted. I make no apologies. Through my interventions, and those of a few others, and by the fortunate appearance of some worthy students, over the years we have managed to make the academy’s reputation. An emeritus now, I am in a position to step away from the daily rough and tumble, and to take a deserved pleasure in contemplating the institutional history of which I may say I am a proud part.”
“Oh yes,” Fred remembered. “The alumnus reunion. Basil Houel. All that.”
“The case we will make,” Oumaloff said and corrected himself, “The case
will make, is one of a distinct and honorable tradition. Stillton is not, and never has been, the isolated backwater it appears to be. Fishing village yes, perhaps. And the earliest Stilltons may have been merchants, sea captains, even privateers. No matter. You point to Basil Houel?”
“Everyone else seems to,” Fred said.
“Speaking of Basil Houel, at this very moment, and in this very town, under my roof—but no, it must be kept in strictest confidence.” At the brink of unwelcome further expansion, Oumaloff pulled himself back and tried a diversion. “Never mind tea or coffee,” Oumaloff said. “The case I will make refers to a much deeper tradition. I ask what you know about art. The question is too broad. Specifically, do you know anything of the work of Bierstadt? Never mind. They teach nothing. Nothing. My story begins with the death of Josephus Stillton. By fire. Specifically, and most likely, and tragically, by cigar.
Oumaloff took a breath and continued, “You, as another in a long series of fly-by-nights who sweep through town telling us our business, and vanish again into the wilderness you came from—everything vanished! Smoke!”
Oumaloff paused for effect. Or for applause.
“Smoke,” Fred prompted.
“There is now no remaining trace of Stillton House, not even of the foundation. We know that it stood on the corner of Main and Sea Streets, where Main meets Sea in a perpendicular gesture. Of course. It overlooked the bay.”
“Josephus Stillton,” Fred said. “Wasn’t he the founder of Stillton Academy? So, you found those papers defining the bequest?”
But Oumaloff’s course was set elsewhere. “We know that among the furnishings of the home, Stillton House, the mansion, I suppose we can call it, were three paintings by Bierstadt. We still have what must have been their frames. Sadly charred. Sadly charred. In the jumble above Stillton Hall’s studios. I have examined them.
“No. Not I myself. My figure has never been such…But some years ago I prevailed on a student to look through the material up there, and to measure the frames. They were among the flotsam and jetsam.
“And what’s more, we can read in the record—these matters are never of interest to those who pass through, you might as well be insurance adjustors or efficiency experts—Bierstadt paintings that have not been accounted for. They were exhibited at the Academy. It is all in the record. We have their names, their titles.”
“The titles of paintings get changed,” Fred said.
“What was the name of the student you sent up there to measure the empty frames?” The question, unspoken, hovered in the air like a distracted butterfly.
“Exhibited at the academy?” Fred prompted. “Here at Stillton? For the widows and orphans?”
“Not Stillton Academy.” Phil Oumaloff was exasperated. “People know nothing of history. Stillton Academy did not exist until after the death of Josephus Stillton. No. You could not know. By ‘exhibited at the Academy,’ I meant the National Academy of Design in New York City. The foremost venue in its day for the painters of the nineteenth century.”