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Authors: Nikki Andrews

Tags: #mystery, #murder, #art

Framed (4 page)

BOOK: Framed
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Sure enough, Sunny was already yanking cherry samples off the rug-covered wall, wrenching them as though they were epoxied rather than velcroed. She turned around just as Sue placed two new mats on top of the original discolored ones. “Oh. How interesting. I think I like that. What a difference they make!”

“If you’d like,” Sue offered, “I can unmount the print so the old mats aren’t so distracting. When we remount it, we’ll use acid-free tape, of course.”

“Do you always use acid-free tape?”

“We haven’t used acid in years,” Sue assured her. Ginny, who’d wandered off to answer the phone, choked to conceal her laughter at the double entendre.

An hour later, Sue sent Sunny out the door with a pile of mat samples and half a dozen frame corners, none of them cherry. She collapsed in one of the upholstered armchairs Ginny used to make customers feel at home. “I’m gonna kill her, Ginny,” she moaned. “I swear I’ll kill her. Right after I kill you for tossing her at me!”

Ginny laughed at Sue’s theatrics. “What was she talking about with those darned beach stones?”

“She wanted them glued to the frame. At least I convinced her I couldn’t dye them. Now she wants me to paint them to match the sails!” Sue rolled her eyes, then shut them and let her head fall back against the chair.

“We’ve got to think of something else.” Ginny looked worried. “I can’t let her get away with something like that. It’ll look horrible.”

“Can’t look any worse than it already does,” Sue murmured, her eyes still closed.

Ginny agreed. “Don’t worry about it, Sue. You know she’ll be back in a week with some other crazy idea.”

Sue sighed and looked at the clock. “Looks like I’d better go get some work done, but I do want to hear more about Jerry Berger when you have time.”

****

While Ginny and Sue dealt with Sunny, Elsie was enjoying the tentative warmth of an early spring day. Although snow still clung to the shady spots and ice rimmed the melt-swollen streams, the ground was thawing. Mud was everywhere.

A lot of the mud adhered to her young, brown and white bird dog, Maculato.
Stupid name for a dog.
And why was a German short-haired pointer given the name “Spot” in Italian?
A puppy hadn’t been her idea, but when her husband, Frank, had brought him home, she’d fallen in love with the wiggling little bundle of affection. Now she wouldn’t trade him for the world.

Mac had a positive genius for finding the muddiest places along their regular walks. Today, he discovered the joys of chasing the hordes of frogs on their way to the breeding grounds in the vernal ponds. The first frog he sniffed alongside the road sat absolutely still until he’d sniffed just a little too long. The frog burst into motion, pushed off Mac’s brown-spotted nose, and dove into the underbrush.

This was a marvelous game. The dog almost yanked Elsie’s arm off when he sprang after the frog. She had a major tussle with him before he came to heel. Then there were other frogs to chase, all the way down to the bridge that was their turn-around point, and then all the way back home. Mac had found his calling; he was a frog dog.

Maybe I could rent him out to Jemmie to guard his storeroom.

She enjoyed a quiet laugh at the thought. Jemmie’s obsession with “critters” was ridiculous. He was a prize-winning jeweler, but he just didn’t seem to know how to get along with people. If it weren’t for his staff buffering customers from his outbursts, his business would never survive. Just last week he’d harangued his employees loudly enough to be heard through the walls, and he swore a blue streak whenever the garage door was up longer than he thought it should be.

Elsie sighed. Except for Jemmie, working at Brush & Bevel was wonderful. Not even that unsettling incident with Mike Bingham could diminish her pleasure in the job, even though it had scared her at the time.

The new Jerry Berger only added to her job satisfaction. Elsie had no doubt it was his work. Didn’t she deal with his art all the time? She even recognized Abby as the woman in the painting. She hoped Jenna would agree to deal with Ginny over the painting. She wanted to see it again, cleaned up, framed, and celebrated as it should be. It would be a fine memorial to a woman who didn’t deserve to die.

Not that Jerry deserved to die, of course. Not for one minute had Elsie ever accepted the conclusion he died by his own hand. Jerry was no saint; his obsession with his art made living with him impossible. Elsie paused in her mud-cleaning; she had never before noticed a similarity between Jemmie Demarais and Jerry Berger. Jerry had pestered poor Abby until at last she agreed to sit for him, just to shut him up. He was demanding and self-centered, like so many artists who saw everything through the lens of their art. Still, he was bright and eager, full of life. He made people feel glad to be around him. The day he brought
A Walk in the Rain
to the shop for framing, he’d been so excited—bursting with well-justified pride, sure this was his breakthrough painting, the one that would make his career. He’d been right. It made his career. His career took off; he was successful and happy, Elsie was sure of that. He would never have killed himself, or anyone else. Why, she had seen him release insects that got through the screen downstairs.

Mike Bingham, now, he was another story. Elsie could picture him squashing bugs, pulling the wings off flies, or worse. She had seen murder in his eyes that day at the gallery, even in the dimness of the still-closed shop. He was a hard man, a ruthless politician in the big city of Mill Falls. Perhaps it was just as well he wouldn’t let Abby adopt a child. No one could have grown up happy with such a man as a father.

Well, Jerry and Abby were dead. Mike was off being ruthless in some hapless city out in Arizona or California. Elsie had better things to do than think about the past.

Chapter Five

A week passed with no more word from Jenna Rudolph. Ginny explained to her employees the fair terms she had offered Jenna to display the little nude if it was confirmed as a Berger. Jerry’s brother Howard and sister Pam were his heirs. She would give them the first option to buy it if Jenna decided to sell, but Ginny really wanted to have the piece in her gallery. She was already mulling over plans for an unveiling and a big advertising campaign.

She was sure there would be a market for prints of the painting. Jerry still had a devoted following and sales of his prints were steady, if not spectacular. Obviously, she couldn’t issue the usual signed and numbered limited edition, since the artist was no longer available to sign the prints. Other estates, however, had offered limited editions, numbered and countersigned by someone close to the artist—a spouse, a model, a close relative. She did some quiet checking into those possibilities while she awaited Jenna’s decision.

In the meantime, business went on as usual at Brush & Bevel. Sunny came back in and traded the sample mats Sue had given her for others that would “work better with my furniture” as she put it, even though they were not right for the print of palms in Bar Harbor. In a lighthearted moment, Sue and Elsie assembled a large group of frog portraits, all displaying their absolute and total lack of teeth, and pinned it to Jemmie’s storeroom door. They could hear him screaming with alarm when he found it, and then they heard the denials of his employees.

“Maybe we should ’fess up,” Sue suggested with a sheepish look on her face. “I didn’t mean to scare him.”

“Let him calm down first.” Ginny had enjoyed the joke as much as her workers did. She had no patience with the man’s quirks. “You told him frogs don’t have teeth.”

“Over and over. He doesn’t believe me.”

The screaming two doors over continued, and Mark Horner, the tall, thin owner and chef at The Chowdah Bowl, popped in to see if they knew what was going on. He brought a sample bowl of his latest recipe with him. He jerked his head toward the jeweler’s. “If he doesn’t shut up soon, I’m calling the cops.”

At that moment, the noise stopped as if a plug had been pulled. Mark shrugged. “Try this.” He offered the bowl. “Tell me what you think.”

The three women each dipped a spoon into the soup and tasted. They chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and looked at each other.

“Are you going to tell him?” Elsie asked Ginny.

“I thought you would.” Ginny shook her head and turned to Sue with an expectant look.

“Not me! You’re the boss.”

Ginny sighed and looked into the bowl again. Mark tipped it considerately toward her, looking hopeful, but she declined. “Mark, I gotta tell you…I gotta say…” She wet her lips and started over. “Mark, that is absolutely the worst thing you’ve ever brought us. It’s too salty, the potatoes are overdone, and I think the fish was past its sale date. I can’t believe you made it.”

Mark’s mobile face fell as he looked at each of the women in turn. “You really think so? It’s that bad?” They all agreed it was pretty bad chowder, not nearly good enough for The Chowdah Bowl.

“If you try to sell that, you’ll kill the Bowl,” Elsie said. She loved seafood, especially chowder.

As they nodded in dolorous agreement, he let out a sudden whoop. “I knew it! I knew they’d screw it up!” He burst into laughter, spreading his arms and shaking his head. “I didn’t make it,” he explained when he began to settle down. “My supplier is trying to sell me that stuff. He says it’s his best seller, all the big restaurants use it!”

“Well, that explains it,” Ginny remarked. “No wonder everyone comes to you, if that’s the best they can get anywhere else.” She started to say more, but nothing came out of her mouth as she stared out the window to the parking lot. “I don’t believe it!”

They all turned to look. Jemmie’s four assistants were marching out to their cars, jackets and purses slung over their shoulders. They realized someone was watching and waved cheerily. One of the women, Sandy, veered over to Brush & Bevel and poked her head in the door. “We’ve had it,” she said, without much distress. “Jemmie’s out of his mind, and we can’t take any more of his abuse.”

Sue made a face. “Look, I put those pictures up. Do you want me to apologize?”

Sandy chuckled. “No, no. I’m glad you did. We’ve put up with so much of his nonsense, and that was the final straw. It just all added up and here we are.”

“But—your jobs,” Ginny protested.

“Oh, we’ll be back tomorrow. It’s just that we told Jemmie we would walk out the next time he started in on us, and we did it. If he starts up again, we’ll walk out again. Sooner or later, he’ll catch on. Bye!”

Mark slapped his knee as he watched her go. “The man needs more than a walkout, but it’s a start! Hey, next time can we call the cops?”

In the end, as they all headed back to work, they decided to leave it up to Jemmie’s employees, unless he started in on someone else.

The tracking board was pleasantly full with plenty of frame orders to work on. Sue asked Elsie to check a measurement before she ordered a frame, then they worked together to assemble an oversized print.

Ginny turned back to her paperwork, but the altercation at Jemmie’s upset her. If he could get so upset over frog pictures, what might he do if something serious happened? What could she do about it? She put in a call to the Westford police and asked to have an officer stop by for a consultation.

****

Two days later, just after nine o’clock, Officer Tom DiAndreo pulled up in front of Brush & Bevel and knocked on the locked door. Ginny let him in and offered coffee.

“Only if you’re having some,” he replied. “Unfortunately, some folks would consider it an ‘inducement.’”

Ginny rolled her eyes. “I’ll get some for both of us. Sue and Elsie already have theirs.” When she returned with the cups, he was staring upward. She followed his gaze but couldn’t determine what he was looking at. She nudged his elbow. “Something interesting up there?”

He grinned boyishly and accepted the coffee. “Nice ceiling. No spitballs.”

“I should hope not.” She raised an eyebrow, inviting an explanation.

“There are sixteen spitballs in the ceiling over my desk. Been there since I started twelve years ago. I keep complaining, but the cleaning staff never gets rid of ’em.”

Ginny chuckled. “That’s why I do my own cleaning.”

“Yeah, well, the town won’t spend money on a decent cleaning service. They’d rather spend it on ‘essentials’ like fireworks.” He shook his head and took a swig of coffee. “This is good. Thanks. Gets the dust of the file room out of my throat.”

“Let me guess, they won’t spring for a proper filing system, either.”

He winked. “One reason I’m applying to the state police.”

Within a few minutes, Ed the landlord showed up and Carol from the deli came in, too. They each took a seat, some in the upholstered chairs and some on the tall swivel chairs.

Mark scooted in and perched a hip on the design desk. DiAndreo stood beside the faux fireplace and waited until the chitchat died down.

“You don’t look very surprised to see us all,” Ginny said.

“Let me guess. It’s about Jemmie Demarais, right?”

At their nod, he sighed. “Any time you feel threatened, I mean
any
time, call us. We’ll be right over. We all know he’s got a couple screws loose, even though we don’t think he’d actually hurt anyone. He doesn’t have to hurt someone to get in trouble with the law. Just threatening can be a crime. Now, do you have anything concrete against him?”

They looked at each other, but it was Ginny who jumped in first. “He’s a royal pain, although I’ve never been afraid of him. I think he needs help, but I’m certainly not going to say that to him.”

“No, I don’t think you should. It has to come from somebody close to him, or else from an official. Leave that part of it alone. What about his staff?”

“They yell back, and now they’ve started walking out,” Elsie said. “I don’t want another situation like the one ten years ago…” She paused to see if DiAndreo remembered when Mike Bingham had frightened her so and went on at his nod, “and it’s not right that our customers have to hear that kind of stuff.”

“Does he get profane? Because if he does, we can charge him with indecency.”

“Not that I’ve heard,” Ginny started, but Mark spoke over her.

BOOK: Framed
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