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Authors: Nicholas Kilmer

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / Historical

A Butterfly in Flame (27 page)

BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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Chapter Seventy

Fred told Mrs. Halper, “The sneakers were a godsend. Do you mind? Will you trust me? I’ll FedEx them back.”

He’d brought the box of papers, including the Bierstadt butterfly card, for Mrs. Halper to hold at the desk until Meg Harrison called for it. He’d have to call Meg and explain.

“Overnight,” Mrs. Halper said. “Have you seen Susan Muller? She’s supposed to be at the desk. Listen…”

She did not wait for an answer. Good thing. Susan Muller was drinking beer in the life room, where Seymour was manfully avoiding the issue of wisps of illegal smoke.

“Listen,” Mrs. Halper said. “Lillian Krasic really wanted to see you. And it looks like you’re heading out now, though you’ll have to pay for tonight. Twelve hour notice. That’s the policy.”

“You’ll get it. Where is she?” Fred asked her. “Tell you the truth, I have a phone call to make, to my employer, that I’ll be really glad to put off.”

“Third floor. She’s in back. Where you can see the lighthouse and if the weather is good…”

“I’ll drop in now if it’s not too late,” Fred said.

“I’ll phone her you’re coming.”

***

Lillian Krasic opened the door into 1950, everything plastic and chrome and Herculon covered with clear vinyl and couches and carpets and herself in a housecoat and a spectacular painting by Albert Bierstadt hanging directly opposite the door:
Storm in the Rocky Mountains;
no possible doubt. Big picture, ballsy and dirty, about two foot by three, turbulent, even under all that dirt, with rock and cloud.

“Please come in, Mr. Taylor,” Lillian Krasic said. The housecoat was poppies on a field of broad woman—maybe seventy years’ worth of woman.

“Thank you,” Fred said. According to Molly it was not polite to enter a person’s living space and look only at the walls. Here were no books, but magazines. Aside from the Bierstadt, the pictures were only clowns, and flowers in vases, and student versions of the lighthouse, or boats, or a female portrait of a tender girl who had a lot of blonde curls.

“The thing was, why I wanted to see you,” Fred said.

“Everyone else in the world. Every stranger,” Lillian Krasic said. “Sit. Everyone comes saying one thing but what they want, really, is to buy my house out from under me. So I don’t let them in. No one gets in.

“I loved that school. I love it. The people. The work. Everything going on. Never mind. I just wanted to lay eyes on you. Because you gave good advice.”

“Don’t sell, you mean?” Fred prompted. He’d followed her directions and sat in a plastic chair from which he could enjoy the incongruous magnificence of the unframed Bierstadt while Lillian Krasic said whatever she wanted to say.

“So I figured out, if you weren’t trying to buy the Stillton Inn and leave me in an old folks home, like Mrs. Harmony wanted to do, and all the rest of them, what
were
you here for? I’d offer a cup of tea, but you won’t be here that long.

“So I asked around,” Lillian Krasic said. “Fred Taylor. Boston. Nobody knew.”

Knickknacks everywhere. Cats, especially. China cats. A strong smell of cat in the room. And that of the cat box. Everything in the place was clean, except for the painting. Underneath all that dirt, a chorus that was all the color and speed of light.

Lillian Krasic continued, “Until I found someone who knew. Never mind who. You work with a man in Boston. Very private. Very all to himself. A collector. Yes? Named Reed. Mr. Reed?”

“Yes,” Fred said.

“Because the thing is, this painting,” Lillian Krasic said, “On the wall there. The one you keep trying not to look at, out of politeness. It’s by Albert Bierstadt.”

“I see that,” Fred said.

“There were three. Mr. Stillton wanted my grandfather to have them. So he did. Now this one is mine. One’s with my sister in Denver. The other one, I don’t know. It was smaller. My parents…anyway it doesn’t fit.”

“I like it a lot,” Fred said.

“And sure, I won’t sell the Inn. But I still can use money. I’d like to travel the world. So I asked them from Skinner’s.”

Boston’s must successful auction house for art, as well as a hundred kinds of other things: instruments, jewelry.

“Two nice people came out. This was two years ago. Because I wanted to know. I knew it was worth good money, but how much? And these things can change.”

“It’s true,” Fred said.

Wind against rain against cloud against light; as life itself defies light, and feeds on it. A showman, Bierstadt. A showman with a decent soul.

“They said four to six million dollars if they sold it for me,” Lillian Krasic said. “And they’d put it on the cover, there’d be a newspaper article, people from the museums would bid against each other…”

“It’s true,” Fred said. “They can do a good show, these auction houses. And everyone applauds when the bill runs up to where it should choke a horse. It’s as good as the circus.”

“But I don’t want that,” Lillian Krasic said.

“So you’ll keep it,” Fred said. “I would. Maybe get it cleaned if you can afford that.”

“No,” Lillian Krasic said. She had sat down on the couch, denting the vinyl covering, so that Fred could enjoy the painting behind her without seeming to look away. “I want to travel first class. And I don’t want anyone to know how I came into money. It would ruin my friends. What I want to know—this Mr. Reed. Since Skinner’s said four to six million dollars, might he be interested for seven million? I know that’s an extra million, but to me it seems…”

“I’ll ask him,” Fred said.

If Clay wanted to dicker, he could dicker.

It wouldn’t be like him not to.

***

There wasn’t much left to gather together. Some books—the Emily Dickinson, Craven’s
Famous Artists and their Models,
a couple more, belonged to Morgan Flower. Along with his key to Morgan Flower’s apartment, Fred left the books with a note on his bedside table,
Property of Morgan Flower.

Not that Morgan would want them back.

As Fred drove out of town, a lone seagull gave an ambiguous cry.

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BOOK: A Butterfly in Flame
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