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Authors: Nicholas Kilmer

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical

A Butterfly in Flame (24 page)

BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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Chapter Sixty-three

Meg Harrison responded to Fred’s knock, but slowly. It wasn’t quite six in the morning. “What the fuck!” she declared from her side of the closed door.

“It’s Friday. Big day. Big crit,” Fred called.

“Who is that?” If Meg was impaired by sleep it didn’t sound like it. She woke up running.

“It’s Friday. It’s Fred.”

The door faced Fred blankly. On the far side of it, silence.

“I brought coffee,” Fred said. “It may be cold by now.” No fear. He’d bought it two hours ago, on Charles Street, in Boston. “They have Morgan Flower,” he added.

Meg Harrison opened the door. “Three cups?” she said.

“I get started ordering coffee, I just keep on,” Fred explained. He wandered past Meg into the galley kitchen. “Good. A microwave. I got black, on the theory that it’s easier to add sugar and cream than to take it out. When it comes to the kitchen arts, that’s about what I know.”

The front room was pretty much as he recalled it from the night he had entered, Monday night, his first night in Stillton. The chairs, the three closed doors; though what should be the bedroom door was closed on a trail of red plaid blanket.

“Hasty exit,” Fred said.

The long green robe Meg was wearing did not close, unless she was holding it closed. Underneath was one of those flimsy garments there must surely be an appropriate name for, at least in catalogues.

The closet door with the full-length mirror propped against it.

“Can you do the microwave?” Fred asked. “They all work differently.”

“Morgan Flower,” Meg said dangerously.

“Three cups,” Fred said. “Thinking Missy might want one. It’s early, but it’s a big day, what with the crit. We don’t want her to miss it.”

Meg said, over the microwave’s roar, “Missy’s not…” at the same time as the bedroom door opened on a young woman wrapped in the rest of the red plaid blanket. Her black hair was short and tousled. She stood about five foot six. Her face, pink and pudgy, was hard to make out clearly this early in the morning.

“Hi, Missy. I’m Fred,” Fred said. “The substitute teacher.”

Behind her in the dim bedroom, a navy blue sleeping bag, shoved into the room with haste in response to Fred’s knock.

“I can’t shake your hand,” Missy said. “Let me put on something.”

“Just don’t go out the window,” Fred said. “OK?”

“It’s raining,” Missy said. It was indeed raining—more heavily than when he had come in the front door. The outside in the rainy dark of a dismal morning was not an attractive option anyway. “Besides, I don’t have a car.”

“Just—before you get dressed—so you know. I didn’t want you to miss the big crit. You can participate. I’ll explain after you’re dressed,” Fred said.

The door closed hastily on the falling blanket.

Meg said angrily, “You don’t have a clue. You’ve been in town three days? Here’s your coffee. Sugar? Milk?”

Fred shook his head. “I get pretty good mileage from guesses,” he said. He took his coffee over to one of the chairs and sat looking at the dark window streaked with rain that was lit from this side by the light of the room. Behind him, the sounds of movement could be explained by those of a woman exchanging a blanket for clothing more suitable for daytime wear in a cold wet climate with a foghorn you wanted to strangle.

“What I think,” Fred said, “when we take a look at the drawing Missy’s been working on, later this morning, in the crit; we’re going to see the work of a good potential sculptor. If I’m lucky, Meg, maybe you’ll explain what that means.

The microwave roared until it rang. Meg took out her coffee and added sugar, taking her time stirring.

“Because—and here I’m still guessing,” Fred said. “You are a serious teacher. Therefore you want the best for your student. Therefore…”

“It’s not like you think,” Missy said, bursting in from the bedroom. She was barefoot, with jeans and a big pink sweatshirt that matched her finger- and toenails. Her hair had become slightly more tousled.

“Fred brought coffee for everyone,” Meg said.

“I like tea,” Missy said. She went into the galley kitchen and clattered water into a kettle, and unwrapped a teabag to drop into a mug.

“Most everything’s not like I think,” Fred agreed. “But it turns out it’s always like something.”

“She is already a good sculptor,” Meg said.

“Plus I’m doing your assignment,” Missy said, without turning around. “Which I don’t understand it. And Meg can’t explain it either. This kettle takes forever.”

“You had the assignment from Susan Muller,” Fred said.

Silence. The back of Missy’s neck tensed, then relaxed.

“It’s OK,” Fred said. “Susan’s a very good liar. She’s also a loyal friend. Loyal, and subtle and, I’d say, completely reliable. She didn’t tell me where you were. And she hasn’t told anyone else. I’m sure of it.”

“My father,” Missy said, turning, with accusation.

“He’s in the dark,” Fred said. “As far as I know, anyway. But my guesses are only so good so far. I’ll fill you in. Then, if there’s time, to save time, maybe the two of you will agree to give me some facts.”

The kettle screamed.

Chapter Sixty-four

Missy sat on the floor in a corner, with tea so doctored with sugar and milk that it would satisfy the minimum daily requirements for everything but tea. Fred said, “First, I’ll tell you what I think is none of my business. The question, is a first-year student having an affair with her so-called Lit teacher? That’s not my business. If it’s anyone’s business at all, it’s not mine.

“Now…”

“There’s nothing to eat,” Meg said. “There’ll be donuts later, at the crit. The academy’s too cheap to pay for them. I do. Randy’ll have them ready. There’s never enough, people think—but there are always some left over. So, if you can wait…”

“Thanks,” Fred said. “Now. In addition to everything else that can go wrong, and
should
go wrong, between a father and a daughter—and this is a subject I know nothing about at all since I have never been either of these things, a father or a daughter…

“Let me back up. Missy, speaking just as your teacher, tell me, did it make sense to you, that theory about the people who made the pyramids getting their plans from folks who came down from the stars?”

Missy chewed her plump lower lip. “I like the theory. And they made it sound good. But it’s crazy.”

Fred told Meg, “Just so you know, the TV was on too much for an empty apartment. Even if you don’t pay your own electric…”

“I do,” Meg said.

“The TV stayed on, back there in the bedroom, when I first came and we talked here in this room. Then that night, when you weren’t here and I happened to pass and the TV was on, back of the blind, last Tuesday. That program was on at the time. Everyone in town was watching.”

“I was drawing. In here,” Missy denied it. “I was
listening
to the program is all. You can’t draw and watch TV both at the same time.”

“So,” Fred said, “I reckoned the apartment had more than one person in it. And remembering how you bought more burgers and fries than you needed, Meg—also, more important, how fast you raced upstairs when you thought Morgan Flower had come back…”

“I gave her refuge,” Meg said. “It has to happen sometimes. We take risks for our students. All the time.”

“I’d taken some papers and stuff,” Missy said.

“Missy…” Meg interrupted sharply.

Fred agreed. “Meg is right. It’s prudent to breast your cards. Make the other guy show his hand before you show yours, if you can. If I were going to hunt for those papers, and I’m not, I’d look to see if they might be in a plastic bag concealed inside the wet clay of a figure that’s been wrapped to keep it moist. Since that’s where I’d look, someone else might also think of it.”

Silence.

“Point noted,” Meg said.

Fred went on, “My speculation was, or is, Missy—don’t answer this—your loyalties got knocked sideways. Your loyalty to the academy…”

“He made me come. My father,” Missy said. “An accountant was my dream. Can you believe it? An accountant with a great car.” She laughed. “What did I know from accountants? I saw a show…”

Fred continued, “Missy, you learned, or you understood, that your father’s interest, his financial interest, his bank, rather than being helpful as it seemed, giving mortgages, might lead to the collapse of the academy. In fact, that was the plan.”

“Meg explained it,” Missy said.

“And Morgan Flower was working against the academy, and with your father.”

“To blow the whole thing apart and build this foolish resort,” Missy said. “It’s a good place. They believe in me.”

“You had some people worried,” Fred said. “But not worried enough. When you disappeared.”

“She sent him a note,” Meg said. “I insisted.”

“‘I’m OK, don’t try to find me,’ like that,” Missy explained. “Just enough.”

“And there wasn’t much sign of your mother in the mix,” Fred said.

“My mother lets him do it,” Missy said. “As long as she thinks I’m not dead.”

“Well,” Fred said. “Here’s
my
cards on the table. I was minding my own business, in Boston, when these two guys walked in. Abe Baum, the lawyer for the board, and Parker Stillton, who represents himself as a friend of the academy. They say that Missy and Flower have run off together. Maybe that’s a crime. And/ or they’re worried it was a suicide pact. Because of a note on Missy’s desk.”

“It worked!” Missy exclaimed. “Susan thought of it. ‘I died for beauty.’ I said, ‘No way would anyone take a poem seriously.’”

“But in any case,” Fred pushed on, “No way was your father worried about your life. He knew you and Morgan Flower were not together. And he also knew that you had whatever it was you had, which is also not my business though I would be interested. He wanted me to find you, because he wanted whatever you had. And he sent that Abe Baum to get me. Not the best move he ever made.”

“I have to get dressed,” Meg said. “We’ve got twenty-five drawings to put up before eight o’clock.”

“Twenty-
six,
” Missy said, getting up from the floor in a single fluid motion so quick you’d have to play it in stop-frame in order to understand the release and interactions of the various stresses and supports of muscle and bone.

Meg Harrison, shedding her robe, strode into the bedroom saying over her shoulder, “It’s better you stay out of sight, Missy. If Fred can be trusted. Fred, am I right? No one else knows?”

“It’s a small town,” Fred said. “All I can tell you is, I haven’t talked.”

“I’m not missing Basil Houel,” Missy said.

Meg came out of the bedroom belting her jeans. She was otherwise dressed in scuffed work boots and a quilted poncho of patchwork fabric. “Wait a minute,” she said. “I thought you were lying, Fred. To get in the door. Is it true, what you said? You said, ‘They have Morgan Flower. What do you mean, they
found
him?”

“He has family in San Diego,” Missy said.

“So he
said.
Everyone lies,” Meg said.

“They wanted to talk to Flower about Rodney Somerfest. What I heard, last night, they picked him up for questioning. I wouldn’t mention it outside this room, maybe. If you don’t mind?”

“Trouble shooter,” Meg said. She drank the end of her coffee. “Don’t you two talk while I’m in the bathroom.”

She went in and turned on the fan. Fred and Missy stared at the rain.

Chapter Sixty-five

It was letting up, the rain. “It’s like this in the morning,” Missy said. “In Stillton. Water all around, there might as well be water everywhere else. It, like, saves time.”

She and Meg were gathering themselves together, Meg being resigned to Missy’s decision to come out of hiding. Fred had told them, “The plan they had, that Morgan Flower was part of—I can tell you right now, that plan is coming apart.”

“Is he all right?” Missy asked.

“I didn’t hear,” Fred said. “Those papers you have, you’ll make sure they are in a safe place.”

Meg nodded grimly.

“Oh. The homework,” Missy said. She put her rolled drawing under her arm and moved the mirror so as to open the closet door. She pulled out a brown envelope, sealed, and addressed to
Professor Fred.
“Susan didn’t catch your last name,” Missy said. “This is the best I could do. I didn’t have the book, and all.”

Fred said, “I appreciate it. I’ll look forward to this. We’ll walk over together?” The women had raincoats. Fred had picked up his own jacket, which Clayton had left on the back of his desk chair, with a courteous note. Bill Wamp’s jacket was in the back seat of his car. “Or we can drive,” Fred offered.

He let them off at Stillton Hall. “Just drop in if you have nothing better to do,” Meg said. “It can be interesting. You know the students a little bit now. Also, there’s going to be Basil Houel.”

Fred pulled up in front of the admissions / administration building just as Phil Oumaloff arrived, on foot, in the company of a narrow male of indeterminate age, dressed in a blue greatcoat and one of those Greek fisherman’s caps. Phil was on parade in the guise of Aristide Bruant, in that broad-brimmed hat of wet leather and a cape that almost screamed, “Who do you think you are, for God’s sake?”

Keeping ahead of Fred, and disregarding him, Phil herded his companion past the rented lady of yesterday, whose early morning disapproval searched beyond the room and into the darkest corners of the universe.

“We are expected for coffee,” Oumaloff announced. The woman’s questioning look forced him to add, “With President Harmony.”

“I’ll ring her again,” the lady said. She took a badge from her purse and managed to pin it to her gray cotton blouse with one hand while she worked the switchboard.
Mrs. Druse.

“She should be here,” Oumaloff said. “This was arranged.”

“President Harmony doesn’t answer her line. It’s all I can tell you. In the manse. She’s not in the office either. It’s locked.”

Dampness dripped from the men’s outer garments. Mrs. Druse regarded the falling drops with disfavor.

“Never mind,” Phil said. “I misunderstood. Since we are expected, it will be at her home. Mr. Houel is our guest today. Should anyone need us, we shall be at the manse.”

Basil Houel, having been introduced to the temporary secretarial staff, allowed his cap to tilt forward far enough for drops of water to fall from its visor onto the papers on her desk.

“It isn’t far, Basil,” Phil said, sweeping the cape, and the artist, toward the entrance. “Far more appropriate. More private in the manse.”

“The fat man makes paintings of boats,” Fred told Mrs. Druse as the door closed. “The thin man does trash.”

Mrs. Druse gave a long sigh. “May I help you?”

“I’m Fred Taylor,” Fred said. “We met yesterday. I’m new here too. I think—don’t we have faculty mailboxes?”

“If you’re expecting a message, I have to line them up. I’m just getting settled. There’s messages on the main line, and then I’ve got blinking lights on her private machine, her line to the desk. I was just trying to reach her. She doesn’t answer. I told you. It’ll take me a half hour to sort them out. Can you come back?”

“I’ll wait,” Fred said. He found a chair and pulled it across the vestibule until it stood near the desk, but not so near as to be intimidating. “I expected to see President Harmony,” Fred reminded her.

Liz Harmony’s voice spoke aloud into the room from the machine, “Doris, please telephone…” until Mrs. Druse deftly switched the machine to silence as she fitted an earpiece. She listened, taking notes that she fielded from Fred’s eyes. She listened and took notes for twelve minutes until the tape ran out.

“That’s
Professor
Taylor?” Mrs. Druse asked, folding the pages of notes away briskly.

“Fair enough,” Fred admitted.

“President Harmony has scheduled your report for the executive committee of the board, meeting in executive session, this evening at six-thirty. Please be prompt.”

“Got it,” Fred said.

Mrs. Druse said severely, “In a second message she adds, ‘Be sure Professor Taylor understands that this meeting is limited to himself and the executive committee of the board.’”

“Got it,” Fred said. “Would you help me get oriented? You must have a list of who’s on the board, and who’s who, and who the executive committee might be?”

“I might have that,” Mrs. Druse said. If she did, however, she had no intention of sharing it. Fred stood. Mrs. Druse added, “If you need anything typed, for the meeting, I can’t help you.”

“Got it,” Fred said.

The phone rang. “Good morning. Stillton Academy of Art,” Mrs. Druse said. She listened, said, “He’s right here…No…Yes…Oh, I’m sorry, Detective. All right. But please, don’t tie up the line.”

She held her receiver toward Fred. “Don’t tie up the line,” she instructed.

Seymour’s voice. “So. At least you’re in town. It’s no damned use to me you’re in town if I don’t know where you are.”

“That makes sense,” Fred said. His gesture to Mrs. Druse might translate, “This’ll just be a moment.” The line clicked. Another call trying and failing.

“We’ll talk in the cruiser,” Seymour said. “Come on outside.”

BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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