Authors: Nicholas Kilmer
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical
“I will take tea,” Oumaloff conceded. His oration had deflated him somewhat. Or it was a tactical move, to edge Fred into a servile position.
Fred said, “I’ll be mother.” He filled the kettle in the bathroom and did what was necessary to the electric brewing machine. “Bierstadt,” he said. “I’ve heard of him. Aubrey Bierstadt.”
“Not Aubrey. Albert. It was a tragic loss. Sugar, please. I’ll put it in myself.
The Golden Gate, San Francisco,
1863, perhaps the one that at one time belonged to John C. Frémont.
Storm in the Rocky Mountains,
also of 1863—its provenance has been murky; as well as a final painting from the same year,
Western Landscape—Mount Ranier, Mount Saint Helen’s
—a small picture, perhaps one foot by two.”
Fred carried the envelope of sugar to his guest, along with a feeble plastic stirring wand. Let Oumaloff have something tangible to fondle while he waited for the water to boil. “We’d put a hypothetical question earlier,” Fred said, “talking with Bill Wamp in the office.”
“If you had milk or cream I would take it,” Oumaloff said. “But not that white powder.”
“The question being,” Fred pushed on, “if Stillton Academy, for whatever reason, is forced to shut down, what becomes of the assets?”
Enough steaming water had dripped into the kettle. Fred poured some over a tea bag and handed the foam cup over. Mission accomplished.
“It is all in the public record,” Oumaloff said, as if reassuring himself. He dunked the teabag and kept it moving. “Yes. When we were inducted into the board, we were given a folder. Recent minutes, financial reports, what pass for the articles of incorporation, sections from the last will and testament of Josephus Stillton, all very moving and ponderous stuff.”
“Which nobody reads,” Fred said. “Like the text of any and all picture books. I’ve probably leafed through books about Aubrey Pinkham Bierstadt, but if I have…”
not Aubrey,” Oumaloff insisted. He opened the packet of sugar and dripped half its contents into the cup.
“You found the folder,” Fred said.
“As an emeritus I am allowed an attractive rent on the cottage I live in.” Oumaloff tasted the liquid. “When I resigned, I was made to understand at the same time that it might be more comfortable for me to leave town.” He stirred and tasted again. “I declined. The cottage is filled with memorabilia.”
He was determined to take his time. Give him a chance, he’d always be the middle part of one of those interminable shaggy dog stories.
“One concentrates on the future,” Oumaloff said.
“Especially in a shaggy dog story,” Fred said.
“I don’t follow. Never mind,” Oumaloff pushed on. Josephus Stillton died in 1890. Legal documents of the day, as perhaps you know…”
Fred shook his head. “Widow? Children?”
“There was provision for a wife if she survived him, but she perished in the same conflagration. There was no issue.”
“Issue meaning children,” Fred confirmed.
“The estate, after a few bequests, went to the trust that expressed itself as Stillton Academy. The intent was for the academy to provide instruction in useful domestic arts to the widows and orphan daughters of seamen, as you apparently know. Based on this rationale we have become, more than a century later, Stillton Academy of Art.”
I know, I know, I know, Fred did not need to say. For the love of Mike, get on with it!
“Now.” Oumaloff took another sip, considered, found it wanting, and added the remainder of the sugar. Stirred. Tasted. Whoever had killed Tom Meeker, had taken less time to get it done. “I did discover the folder,” he said. “It stands out. The leather cover is embossed with gold. If I understand—in answer to the question we were debating—perhaps this should be brought to the attention of Mr. Baum. He is the board’s attorney…”
“Yes?” Fred prompted.
“Because I cannot believe it is legal. For the remaining assets of what had been a charitable corporation to devolve to a private individual, or private individuals plural—it seems incoherent. Were she not so pressed with recent tragic events, I would bring it to the attention of President Harmony.”
“She’s not on your side,” Fred did not say. “If you have a side. She hates you. Who wouldn’t?”
Oumaloff shook his head grandly. “It is there in the public record. But there is much in the public record that the public ignores.”
“Like the Bill of Rights,” Fred agreed.
“Should the trust be obliged to liquidate,” Oumaloff said, “the fallback legatee is to be any and all living members of the Stillton family, bearing the Stillton family surname, who reside in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts at the time of the liquidation, provided he has resided in the Commonwealth for at least five years prior to said liquidation.
“Forgive me if I speak in tongues. A legal document is infectious, though the infection produces incoherence. Incidentally, I’ve heard there may be a Stillton somewhere.”
“Sounds like the potential for a complication,” Fred said.
“Potential for an extreme conflict of interest,” Oumaloff said. “That’s what it sounds like.”
“Except the only reason to liquidate the thing,” Fred speculated, “is that its assets have become worthless and it may even be in debt for more than it’s worth.”
Oumaloff fixed a severe glare on Fred. “I had meant to begin with this observation. Given your own personal confidential relationship with the board, as an advisor on matters of accreditation—that
Fred’s nod was modest.
“I would have thought you might receive the same package.”
“President Harmony has been quite worried and preoccupied by these deaths,” Fred said.
“All of us are. All of us,” Oumaloff said. “But then I considered. What was this man, Josephus Stillton, thinking? I have never even considered it. Knowing that the man died without issue, it never occurred to me to wonder. Are there other Stilltons living in Massachusetts? If so, might they be induced to appear at the reunion celebration? It would be a moving addition to the program, if they are respectable. It is not a common name, surely, with the two L’s in the center…
“Fred, for your confidential report—and don’t mention my name…I want you to deal directly, frankly and openly, and with all diligent secrecy, with this matter,” Phil Oumaloff finished.
“Well,” Fred agreed.
“First, I do not believe it is legal. But it is possible to put an illegal wish in a will. Second, whether it is legal or not, it could lead to years of litigation.”
“Not if the assets are gone,” Fred pointed out. “At least all the lawyers I know keep asking for money.”
“It must not be closed. It cannot be closed. It will not be closed,” Oumaloff proclaimed. He stood and drained the remainder of his cold tea, as Patrick Henry must have done on the floor of St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, at the end of his speech to the House of Burgesses, after delivering the line—if indeed he did deliver it—that would be all anyone ever remembered of him, if they remembered it.
“There will always be a Stillton Academy of Art,” Oumaloff announced—stepping on his own exit line. It was both an impotent threat and a hopeless promise. “Where is my coat?” He picked up his hat from the print it had left on Fred’s bed. “Once litigation begins, the damage is done. Regardless of its outcome. Tell them.”
Fred opened the door—his visitor seemed to expect that—and pointed along the hallway to where Phil’s coat dripped onto the landing. The corpses of the dried flowers would be glad of the moisture and welcome new life in the form of mold.
The phone rang in Fred’s room. “Desk,” Mrs. Halper said. “Message for you.”
Fred went down in his socks. The lobby was empty. Had the story of Tom Meeker’s death dwindled so quickly? Where was everyone?
“Big fire in Boston,” Mrs. Halper said, giving an answer to the unspoken question. “But the rooms have to be paid for. It’s too late to cancel.”
“I want to talk to Lillian Krasic,” Fred said.
“She won’t sell,” Mrs. Halper said. She handed a small envelope over with the return address
The Stillton Inn.
“I said you were with someone. It was true. But I would have said so anyway. I don’t want that in the rooms. I don’t care how times have changed.”
“That’s what I want to tell her,” Fred said. “What I want to tell her is, don’t sell.”
“She knows it. She won’t.”
“Thanks for what you did with my shoes,” Fred said. He held up the envelope. “A student?”
“Not one I know. Female.”
“Well, then, and thanks for that,” Fred said. “These days a man can get in trouble without even opening his eyes. Much less his door. You look out for your guests, and I appreciate it.”
“What was the murderer doing in your room? A couple of nights before?”
“You are speaking of Peter Quarrier? He was and is my student. And we don’t know he is a murderer. Therefore we shouldn’t say it.”
“Whatever. Not my business. But you might as well know, I told that detective.”
“So did I,” Fred said.
“I like everything to be on the up and up.”
“You took the words out of my mouth,” Fred said. “Is there a place in town that sells shoes? Sneakers?”
“They’ll be fine. But for someone else,” Fred said. “Someone smaller. Thanks for this,” he waved the envelope. “And thanks for watching my back. Girl comes to a guy’s room, the next chapter is going to be trouble. Even when everything’s square. In this country, these days…anyway, thanks.”
“I’ll tell Lillian,” Mrs. Halper said. “That you want to see her. She doesn’t see anyone. She saw that detective, but how could she say no?”
“I’ll be in my studio. Later. E. Rickerby.”
Fred folded the note again and put it back in the envelope, then busied himself with the household tasks of cleaning up after Oumaloff. “E. Rickerby? E?” He riffled through the sheaves of names from the past few days until he found her. Emma.
“Listen,” Fred said.
“Where were we?” Clay answered. “It is all happening so fast, and yet nothing is happening. Suspicion is everywhere.”
“What I want you to do,” Fred said. “Get the book. Find a Boston address for Liz Harmony. Elizabeth Harmony. Can you do that? I’ll wait.”
“You have one down here?”
He’d answered his own line, but that rang on Fred’s desk as well, so that Fred could deal with it if Clay happened to be attending a wedding.
“Under the thing,” Fred told him. “Thing on the right side. Third shelf down.”
“Very well,” Clay said. “Harmony, Elizabeth.”
“While you’re remembering your alphabet,” Fred said, “There’s this much of a record. Josephus Stillton did own paintings by AB.”
“Yes,” Clayton said. “There are three that I know of. So, you have found them.”
The exhalation at Clay’s end of the line was pure triumph. “Fred, I congratulate you. Given the extreme difficulty of your search caused by intervening events.”
“Hold on, Clay. I found nothing, I only have word of them.”
“Well? Well? The biggest one, the best.
Storm in the Rocky Mountains…
“I’m telling you, Clay, I haven’t found anything. I said ‘There are three paintings.’ I should have said ‘were’. All three are said to have burned in the fire that killed Josephus Stillton. Also his wife.”
Long pause at Clayton’s end. Then he said, his eagerness barely suppressed by disappointment, “
Storm in the Rocky Mountains.
I was certain I had tracked it down. Bierstadt had taken it to Europe and toured with it, even showed it to the Queen—Victoria that would be—in 1867. Big painting. Said to have been sold in Paris to Sir Morton Peto. Twenty thousand dollars. According to Hendricks. But nobody can find it and then there’s the contrary report, also recounted by Hendricks, that
Storm in the Rocky Mountains
burned in a fire at Earle’s Gallery in Philadelphia in 1869, but still…then a
article from 1872 claimed that
was owned by a J. W. Kennard, but the artist’s niece claimed that the owner was Peto, though he could have sold it to Kennard, but in any case…”
“In any case,” Fred said, “the word here is, however it got here, it burned.”
“What evidence is there?”
“I’ve seen charred frames. If that’s evidence, and I don’t think it is, it’s not specific. Any paintings, though, that might have been inside the frames, would have gone first. They’d be nothing but cloth and petroleum and, of course, the workings of the highly flammable human spirit. They’d have the chance of a butterfly in flame.”
“Dreadful,” Clay said.
“But I see part of your trail now, anyway,” Fred said. “From whatever records, you’d learned that Stillton had purchased these paintings…”
“Not from any
records,” Clay said smugly. “Gordon Hendricks is all very well, as far as he goes. However…”
Another lengthy silence, fraught with disappointment.
“You believe it to be a dead end, then,” Clay concluded. “I confess, I was prepared for another triumph.”
“I can’t tell you more than I have,” Fred said. “I don’t know what there is, I don’t know what there was, I don’t know what there isn’t. That pretty much sums it up. Did you find that address?”
“Still,” Clay mourned, “we have the mural.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Fred said. “If by ‘we have’ you mean ‘the mural exists.’”
Clay said, “I take your point. There is many a slip. Granted. Very well. You have a pencil?”
“Good gracious! She is almost my neighbor.” Clay gave the address. Harmony, E.’s address was Beacon Hill also, though tonier than Clayton’s Mountjoy Street digs: on Louisburg Square. “Where a person chooses to live, a person who has more money than imagination,” Clay scolded. “And whose friends and acquaintances, also lacking imagination, require an easy reference point to remind them of the overriding wealth and importance of the individual in question.”
“Or you could be the live-in maid. Still, I’m glad you explained that to me,” Fred said. “Being originally from the mid-west, I still miss some of the social niceties.
Therefore Senator and Mrs. Kerry…”
“And her telephone number,” Clay said.
“Person this classy, I’m amazed she allows herself in the white pages.”
“Tchah! What do you take me for? This is the
Beacon Hill Register.
As it happens, I had it with me, concerning another matter. Letter of condolence. One does not like to send such a thing to a man’s office—nor to a post office box.
“Fred, what is your plan?”
“Following your advice, I thought I’d either anticipate events or respond to them.”
“Those three paintings, the origin of my quest—you are certain?”
“Of course I’m not certain. The charred frames are the right age. How do I know what was in them? I didn’t see brass plaques if that’s what you want to know. But I wasn’t looking for them. It was a nightmare up there. It was like looking for a particular issue of the
New York Times
in the Collyer Brothers’ place.”
“Absence proves nothing,” Clay said. “Like most of history. The majority of the map should always be marked
“As in ‘Here be dragons,’” Fred said.
“I surmise that the time is ripe for me to telephone Parker Stillton,” Clay speculated. “Not volunteering information you understand, but…”
“Let’s try to summarize what you’ll say,” Fred offered. “‘Good afternoon, Parker. Lovely day.’ I presume it’s lovely in Boston? It’s raining here. Well, more like a soup you’d send back. ‘So, Parker, just to let you know. Stillton Academy owns something I want. They don’t know they have it. I want to buy it. It’s worth enough money to turn the place around, but naturally I can’t, or won’t, pay that much. I’ll do the decent thing, naturally, but at the same time…’ Are you following me?”
Clay breathed heavily. “Honor,” he lamented.
“More critical, as I tried to warn you, Parker Stillton is not to be trusted.”
“No one is ever to be trusted,” Clay observed reasonably. “We know that.”
“Cast your mind back,” Fred said. “Parker arrived on your doorstep with this lawyer, Abe Baum. The academy’s lawyer.”
“He telephoned first,” Clay said.
“Granted. Parker said—didn’t he?—while I was in your parlor, watching them drink your sherry—that he was a friend of the academy, and had been considered for, or was considering, accepting a position on the board.”
“An appropriate consideration,” Clay said. “Continuity. The name. Reassurance. Tradition.”
“But that he had decided against accepting. Did he say that? Is my memory playing tricks? Am I reading between the lines?”
Clayton’s pencil tapped. “Tell the truth, I don’t recall. My energy was directed to the suppression of my exultation at the fact that I now perceived an entry point in the bastion that had long appeared to be closed to me.”
“Here’s what I’ve learned,” Fred said.
“Is it relevant? Much of what you have told me so far is not,” Clay complained.
“I don’t think so. I am trying to look at the big picture.”
“Yes. Yes. So am I,” Clay fretted.
“Speaking in metaphor. The board is placing the academy in such financial jeopardy that it may not survive. Meanwhile another entity, with the same people involved, has been buying effective control of all the town’s other real estate. With a few holdouts.”
“This is what I mean, Fred. You are making it too complex. They have something I want. Period. There must be a way.”
“If the board of trustees in its wisdom decides that the academy has to close,” Fred pushed on, “as I learned today, whatever is left of the assets must revert to whatever residents of the Commonwealth happen to carry the family name.”
“The family name.”
“Of Stillton. Stillton. As in Parker Stillton.”
Clay’s pause could be read as either interest, speculation, or a dead faint.
“Stillton,” Clay said. “Cousin Parker.”
“Exactly. Trained in law as he is, he could see, as even I could, that to be part of a board of trustees that moved to award him the assets…”
“Are there other Stilltons?”
“Hell, I don’t know.”
“Goodness,” Clay said.
Fred hung up the phone. “Exactly my thought.”