Authors: Nicholas Kilmer
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical
Fred stretched his legs. The white canvas shoes belonging to the estate of Mr. Halper gleamed in a damp and dirty way that, in the present context, was fully satisfactory.
“Here’s what I want,” Fred said. “You can be thinking about it, and wrestle with it, and come to your own conclusions, and consult your attorneys and all the rest of it, but in the end I think you’ll agree. I’m not going to argue now. I am sowing a tiny seed I expect will grow in your imagination.
“Call an emergency meeting of the board for tomorrow evening. Seven o’clock. Make it one of your favorite executive sessions. All hush hush. Special confidential report from the confidential presidential confidential emergency troubleshooter on matters related to accreditation.
“No. Don’t talk. It’ll save time if you don’t. I want Aram Tutunjian here also, and your lawyer Abe Baum. Might as well bring in Parker Stillton. Friend of the family. I want faculty too—no, don’t say it. My patience is thin.
“What we’re going to be talking about is the Stillton Realty Trust, and present issues, and the future of Stillton Academy, and the role of President Harmony. Here, among friends, is better than on Fox News.
“Where was I? Faculty. Meg Harrison, Bill Wamp, Arthur Tikrit. Phil Oumaloff’s going to come anyway, so why not ask him? Also students…”
“Wait. Wait. Wait,” Liz Harmony was protesting. She had risen and was standing uncertainly, her hand on the telephone.
Fred went on. “Students should be here. I don’t know who. Maybe four, maybe eight. Ask Meg and Bill Wamp and Arthur Tikrit who to include. They’ll arrange it. I’ll have my presentation ready.”
“But your presentation is a myth,” Liz managed. “In fact, it’s a lie.”
“I’ll handle that part of it,” Fred said. “It wouldn’t be the first lie ever to be presented in the sacred confines of your boardroom. The Inn and Spa at Stillton Sound? Luxury Suites? In fact, all that responsible luxury? Marinas? Gold-plated haircuts?”
Liz Harmony, at the mention of the Inn at Stillton Sound, had turned pale, and sat down so suddenly that her chintz had expressed alarm. It was accustomed to a more deliberate speed.
“I’d suggest that you invite that nice detective, Seymour, also,” Fred continued. “I know, telephone Abe Baum. Ask him what he thinks.”
“You’re goddamned right I’ll telephone Abe Baum. Right after I call Security,” Liz said. But her hand did not lift the receiver.
Fred cautioned, “Just don’t forget. There’s the good of the institution; then there’s the good of the individual. In this complex world we live in, it is not always easy…”
“Until seven o’clock tomorrow evening, then,” Fred said.
“What do you want? How much? You and your group. You want a percentage? You’ll have to put in…”
“You know what I want,” Fred said. “Just the one little meeting. I’m off. Gotta write that report. I’m at the Stillton Inn.”
“We know where you are.” She was staring, bewildered, into the mist of a long long sentence that was peopled neither with nouns nor verbs.
Fred sang as he drove out of Stillton. Tight little charming seaside place that it was, Stillton, Massachusetts was a great little town to be gone from.
He made Boston by midnight. Clay’s bedroom light was still on, on the top floor. Clay sat up in bed late, reading books that resembled sleeping: Proust, or Thomas Pynchon. He wouldn’t notice his Lexus back in its accustomed place next to Fred’s old brown car. But, if he
happen to look down from his upper window…
Fred parked further down Mountjoy Street, then went back up to his car, took the spare key from under the fender and got what he needed from the trunk.
Louisburg Square is designed for persons who are born to the feeling that the concept of the gated community is déclassé. Why stoop to hardware? The forces of birth, education, wealth, and breeding are enough to discourage intrusion by those whose genetic impairments render them unqualified for entrance for other than those menial tasks for which they are licensed or to which they have been condemned by the misjudgment of needing to work for a living.
There was no sign of an alarm. There might not be. But then again, if one lived in Louisburg Square, persons of the burgling profession, which is
licensed, would know they were not invited.
Fred fiddled with this and that until the door opened.
The alarm could be silent, if any. He waited on the sidewalk for a full five minutes for the sirens, the flashing lights, or the much more dangerous and sensible silent swooping arrival of the unmarked car with its armed and running silent occupants.
With the flashlight hooded and crimsoned by his fingers, Fred began checking Elizabeth Harmony’s Boston residence. No sounds of occupancy disturbed the building’s quiet. No nephew, between meaningful occupations, was whacking at an amplified guitar in basement or attic.
Harmony’s tastes tended toward the egregiously grim Bostonian, as if she had failed to convince even herself, but still hoped she might pass. Of course, it was after midnight. Still, everything in the way of furniture, rugs, draperies, the portraits of somebody’s ancestors who seemed to have died of aggravated constipation or terminal angst—everything whispered, in the worst way: We are Boston: Beacon Hill. We may not like it but, by God, we
Front parlor. Check. Back parlor. Check. Study. Dining room. Kitchen.
Upstairs. A little study for the telephone.
The bedroom. Master- or Mistress-bedroom. Fred eased himself into it and, in the dim glow from the flashlight, contemplated a man-sized hump in Elizabeth Harmony’s bed. He sat in the comfortable armchair next to the door, after first taking from it, and depositing on the floor, the heap of male clothing that occupied it. He turned off the flashlight.
After a little while Fred spoke aloud, reciting the lines that Mrs. Fortuney, way back in sixth grade, had promised, or threatened, would come in handy some day, bringing comfort or resolution when all else was lost.
“The robin is the one / That interrupts the morn / With hurried, few, express reports / When March is scarcely on.
“Think of me as your robin,” Fred said softly.
The hump in the bed stirred. The room was heavy with the scent of sleeping man.
“The robin is the one,” Fred continued, “That overflows the noon / with her cherubic quantity / An April but begun. Round two. Now Emily’s got us where she wants us, softened up. Half beaten to death by the bird.”
The lump spoke. “What the fuck?”
“The moral is still coming,” Fred advised. “Wait for it. Wait for it. The robin is the one / That speechless from her nest / Submits that home and certainty / And sanctity are best. There, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Except I would leave out the robin.”
“For God’s sake!” The lump sat up, reached out and turned on a bedside lamp. Strong smell of booze in here as well as the effluvia of humankind.
“Morgan Flower,” Fred said. It hardly counted as a guess.
The man stared heavily. He’d sedated himself. Alcohol at least, by the olfactory evidence. A man of middle age, he had too much sandy hair that curled too much and, even in this dazed state, an insurance salesman’s smile. Or a Realtor’s.
“I want to buy into the development at Stillton Sound,” Fred said. “That other stuff, about the robin, that was just supposed to break the ice. We haven’t been introduced. Hi! I’m Fred.”
“Holy shit! I’m not dreaming? It’s closed.”
Morgan Flower rubbed his eyes and added, “Get out! Get out!” His demand had no backbone in it. Likely his backbone was still in Stillton, Massachusetts, tossing worriedly on Liz Harmony’s mattress, surrounded by the rest of Liz Harmony.
“As a precaution,” Fred said. He crossed the room and checked under the pillows for hardware. There was nothing. The man was a confirmed civilian. Trained for white collar crime, he could harm whole communities at once, not limit himself to going after his victims in the blue-collar fashion, one at a time.
“So,” Fred said, sitting again. “It’s too late to buy in.”
“Wait a minute. You’re
Fred,” Morgan Flower said, finally waking up. “Liz said you were onto…Where is she? She brought you? Why? No, she would have called. She would have told…wait a minute.”
His movements were sluggish, but he was going to get up. Yes. Boxers. Striped.
“Like Lambert,” Fred said.
“Before your time,” Fred said.
“I’m taking a leak.” Flower moved clumsily toward a door that must lead to a bathroom.
as they’d say in the trade. So you can relieve yourself in the bedroom. Even the robin squirts off the edge of the nest.
“Keep you company,” Fred said.
“What am I, under arrest?” Flower tried to joke. He was not sufficiently awake to make it convincing. His legs were too spindly for the upper body; the feet splayed.
“Not yet,” Fred promised. He stayed beside his man, close enough to smell but not define the alcohol on his breath, and whatever else he was using to bring about this lack of vigilance. The bathroom was illuminated by a dim nightlight.
“That’s all the light we need. Here’s my question,” Fred said.
“Wait a minute. Let me focus. I’m trying to take a leak.”
“I see that. You can be preparing your answer. Try to convince me. John Steuart Curry? Are you serious?”
Morgan Flower finished with his business, fluffed, folded, and put it away. The small parade of two went back into the bedroom. “John Steuart Curry? Sorry. No bell. Not a name I know. He’s with you?” Flower managed, standing next to the bed, in the dark.
“He’s on your flaming lesson plan.
Lives and Loves of the Artists.
Why? He’s a two-bit no-count regional American hack whose only claim to fame…”
You’re joking. Are you? That course. I got the whole thing out of one book. Practically the entire course. That Craven book. Scan the chapters and print them out big and read them aloud, bingo, there’s your lecture. What do they know? They don’t care. You want a drink? I’m going to have one.”
“I think not,” Fred said. “Not yet, anyway. Sit down. Let’s try another name. Tom Meeker.”
Was that relief? Flower was watching as Fred first kicked the pile of his clothing under the chair, and then sat. Flower went to a dressing table and pulled out a small chair; turned it and sat, out of Fred’s reach.
“He’s a friend of a girl there. The girl’s mental. Everyone knows it. Still, he’s the friend of this girl, the student, and the girl claims…
“So he called. Couple nights back. How he got the number I do not have clue one. It’s her private number here. Liz. Unlisted. I can’t use the cell. The other one—for charities and salesmen and all that nonsense—that’s listed and I don’t answer that one. As she probably told you. Well, you know anyway. I need that drink. I’m keeping a low profile. I need…”
Fred shook his head.
“Meeker calls, I answer. What did I know? I thought it was Liz calling back. Meeker told me to drive out there and meet him that night, in my classroom.
“But what, did he think I was crazy?
“He wouldn’t say why. Wouldn’t trust the phone, he said. He’s a no-count joker, but he’s risky. I could hear it. He’s that girl’s friend. What was it, blackmail? Did he plan to shoot me? What did I know? Plus I had no reason to go out there. Plus my car—anyway, long story short, I said yes.”
“Right,” Fred prompted.
“I could use that drink.”
“I see that,” Fred sympathized. “You said yes.”
“I said yes. Then I had a couple drinks and went to bed.”
“I’ll get dressed,” Morgan Flower said.
“That can wait,” Fred assured him. “Meeker told you to come out. Why? Let’s try this again while we think about that drink we’re not having yet. I mean—what reason did Meeker give you?”
Flower’s expression, on a five-year-old, would have signaled the advent of purposeful slyness. “Didn’t give a reason,” he said. “My word against his. He’s dead anyway.”
“What does Missy have on you?” Fred tried.
That startled the man. He turned belligerent. “Whatever he said, which I will deny, what he wanted to do, on account of that other girl, Emma, was beat the shit out of me. I could hear it. In his voice.”
“Emma Rickerby,” Fred said.
“Mental,” Flower repeated.
“Maybe more light,” Fred suggested. He stood and found a wall switch that lighted, simultaneously, multiple wall sconces. “Other names that are presently holding the interest of folks out there in Stillton. Rodney Somerfest?”
He paused long enough to sense that Morgan Flower had nothing to say. In fact he was presumably, by now, resenting the fact that he had said anything at all, about anything.
A blank. “OK,” Fred went on. “Missy Tutunjian.”
“She’s got nothing…” Flower blurted, until intelligence caught up with him. But his silence came too late. Just this much response was enough. As far as Flower knew, Missy existed in the present tense. That was a good thing. She was also, presently, by the sound of it, no friend of his.
“Where is she?” Fred asked.
Flower said, “You come with a lot of questions. Why Liz gave you the key…I’m getting that drink.”
Fred put him back in the chair again and loomed over him until the sudden starch had dwindled away. “I notice you have been using Elizabeth Harmony’s bed,” Fred said. “Is this a coincidence?”
Flower’s mouth was tight. He shook his head.
“Rodney Somerfest. He kept coming back,” Fred said.
“He threatened us,” Morgan Flower started, and stopped again. Liz Harmony should have driven her Mercedes over this flower, not given him a place in her bed.
“Another small recital,” Fred said. “I have been waiting so long for the opportune moment. You may listen while you are thinking about that drink. Flowers—well, if anybody / Can the ecstasy define, / Half a transport, half a trouble, / With which flowers humble men, / Anybody find the fountain / From which floods so contra flow, / I will give him all the daisies / Which upon the hillside blow. Thank you, Mrs. Fortuney.
“Let’s have that drink. We’ll drink to Mrs. Fortuney, shall we? She was right after all. You won’t need clothes. It’s warm. Where do we go, downstairs? Or do you have a little something tucked away here?”
“It’s finished,” Flower grumbled.
Fred let him lead the way downstairs. “Two years of my life,” Flower complained as he descended. “Two blessed years.”
“And all so perfectly conceived,” Fred said. “The marina. The lap pools, the restaurants and crematorium. But how were you going to handle the golf?”
“Helipad, with links on the mainland. Memberships automatic in exclusive clubs, twenty minutes away. What’s not to love?”
A dresser in the dining room supported decanters filled with liquids.
“I brew liquor never tasted,” Fred remarked. “Well, almost never. Poetic license.”
Flower disregarded the decanters, opened a cabinet door, and took out vodka, pouring himself a significant helping in a glass that looked to have been designed for sherbet. Glass in hand, he led the way into one of the parlors and sat below a particularly dyspeptic female ancestor the extent of whose disapproval became apparent as soon as Fred turned on lights.
“OK. We can still pull this off,” Flower began. “It was already complicated. And it’s more complicated now. All the publicity and the accidents. I’ve got nothing to do here but think. Which I do and I’ve done. And I can tell you, it’s still do-able.
“The hard thing is, Fred—may I call you Fred?—The hard thing is, Fred, Liz can’t get a line, or at least she can’t explain it to me, on what it is exactly that you want. So make it simple. Man to man. Nobody listening here except us monkeys. What do you want?”
“Nothing,” Fred said.
“You’re fucking joking. Or, no—don’t play cute. There’s times for cute, and there’s times where cute is just a pain in the ass. Nothing?” Morgan Flower’s mouth hung open. The only way he could think to close it was to fill it with vodka and let the muscles recall that the liquid would leak out again unless the lips were sealed.
“Correction,” Fred said. “I do want something. I want a phone.” He went to an odd little table that had been designed for a telephone long before the phone was invented, picked the phone up and dialed.
“Your principal,” Flower concluded. “Makes sense. Who you with?”
“Silent partner,” Fred said. He let the ring persist until it produced the sleepy and angry voice of Detective Seymour. “Sorry,” Fred told him. “I didn’t notice your first name. Fred Taylor here.”
“Where the devil are you?”
“I have Morgan Flower,” Fred said, and gave the address. Flower, standing suddenly enough to slosh vodka, seemed prepared to run. Fred moved closer to him, giving the address. “If you can, get someone over here to scrape him up. That would be good. He’s drinking, and I don’t have the patience to get between him and it.”
“You can hold him?”
Fred looked across the room. Morgan Flower, with his bottle and in his skivvies, was exploring the enormous, vague territory that lies between astonishment, hope, and despair. “Sure,” Fred said.
“He broke in here,” Flower shouted.
“It’s OK,” Fred said. “Someone’s coming along to arrest me.” He hung up and Flower made a lunge for it.
“Better we talk while we can,” Fred said. “Between us. Just man to man.”
It was an hour before a group of local uniforms marched Morgan Flower away “for questioning.” Twenty minutes of that time had been involved in countering Flower’s claim that Fred had broken in. The word of a man in hiding who is wanted for questioning in a matter of murder is not much better, in fact, than the unspoken word of a dead man. Worthless, even if true.
“I’ll be back in Stillton by breakfast time,” Fred promised. “I’ll lock up.”
But they watched him leave the house, and locked it behind him, before they drove away.
Fred left the Lexus in Clayton’s space, next to his own car, and entered the Mountjoy Street basement. He’d use the phone there. Then, if there was time, he could take an hour or two on the couch or—even better—have a look at Clay’s Bierstadt research. He was rusty on Bierstadt. Likely as not Gordon Hendricks’ big
Albert Bierstadt, Painter of the American West,
was at this moment sitting on Fred’s desk, bristling with Clayton’s Post-it notes.
He’d telephone, then decide if sleep was necessary.