“Fred, here’s the situation,” Clay said. “As of two days ago, one of the instructors went missing. His disappearance would not be an issue, except for the fact…”
“One of his students is missing also,” Parker Stillton added. The three men in the Clayton Reed’s front parlor were seated, holding cut-glass sherry glasses. Parker Stillton was familiar, a man rendered bulky by good fortune. The other…
“Forgive me,” Clay said. “Because the occasion hints at the Homeric, I have begun in medias res. May I present Fred Taylor? Parker Stillton I believe you know,” Clay continued as the familiar one inclined his head. “Mr. Abraham Baum.” Clay gestured to the other man who, as he stood to hold up his right hand, corrected, “Abe.” His hand was large, red, hairy, friendly, moist.
“Fred,” Fred confirmed. “Fill me in.”
Abe Baum sat again, lowering himself with a careful discomfort calibrated to acknowledge the delicacy of the Queen Anne chair Clay had put him in. When he picked up the sherry glass again from the side table where he’d placed it in order to execute this maneuver, he and the glass looked as if they had come from opposite planets. Both of Clay’s visitors were dressed, like Clay, for Boston: gray suit, white shirt, and tie. Stillton and Baum were patently bedecked by Brooks Brothers. Clayton’s version of exactly the same outfit came from a place where you are out of luck unless they know you.
Fred had thrown on his second-hand Keezer’s sport coat as he climbed the stairs, responding to the emergency signal from the buzzer at his desk. He’d burned his necktie years ago.
Clay lifted his glass to the level of his elaborate tangle of white wind-swept hair. “Sherry?” he invited. So Fred’s inclusion was, or was to appear, social.
Fred shook his head and sat.
“Background,” Parker Stillton said. “Of course. You know Stillton Academy, Stillton Academy of Art, I should say, to give the college its full title.”
Fred said, “Give me the high points.”
“Not the full orchestral version,” Abe Baum growled. Parker Stillton’s cough reminded the world of his importance.
He spread his hands to indicate impending brevity. “You will have noted the coincidence, which I won’t belabor. Stillton Academy of Art is in Stillton, Massachusetts, an erstwhile fishing town on the North Shore which, since it was located on a narrow promontory, has escaped the random and obscene development that has metastasized from Rockport, for example; or Newburyport or Gloucester.
“A distant collateral ancestor of mine left New England and made a small fortune in Wyoming, I don’t know how. I don’t care how. It was Wyoming. Even so, mindful of the fact that he and the town of his origin both owed their names to the same vital source—Stilltons were among the earliest European settlers—he thought of the town when it came his time to die. Being childless, he left as much of his small fortune as he could manage to the charitable organization he directed should be established by his bequest. Like most such late-nineteenth- century exercises, the project was more generous than carefully thought out.”
Abe put in, “That doesn’t concern us. What Josephus Stillton contemplated was a quiet place of retreat where the widows and daughters of deceased fishermen might find refuge while they were given instruction in useful domestic trades.”
“I’ve driven past Stillton, Massachusetts,” Fred said. “Heading north. But I’ve never driven down that promontory. What is it, five miles? Ten? Twenty? I never bothered.”
“Which is why the town has survived. So far,” Abe Baum said. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, thumbing the empty glass. “That’s the origin myth,” Parker Stillton resumed, turning his head so as to follow Fred while he rose to put the decanter within reach. “Of course, no bequest is foolproof. The world turns, and as it turns, it exposes loopholes. The refuge became a school; the school became an academy; the academy became an art school, went co-ed, is now an almost-credible four-year college and is, as we speak, seeking accreditation by the NEASC.”
He paused portentously.
Fred resisted providing the rewarding comment, “Well, I never,” limiting himself to inquiring, “NEASC? I’m guessing the N and the E stand for New England. After that, you’ve got me.” “Association of Schools and Colleges,” Abe Baum interrupted. “Professional organization. Which is why we cannot take our concern to law enforcement, notoriously indiscreet.
It’s vital for Stillton Academy that they pass the accreditation reviews. Vital.”
“So that it can award degrees,” Parker added.
“At the moment, the best Stillton Academy can award is a certificate,” Baum said. “Take that and your portfolio to the admissions office of any graduate school, you hear them laughing before you open the office door. Hell, try to transfer Stillton’s credits to an undergraduate art program like Cooper Union— they’ll laugh as hard. Never mind the significant achievements of such an alumnus as, for example, Basil Houel. ‘I don’t care how well you can draw’, the committee will say. ‘Start over!’”
“Houel can draw, but he shouldn’t,” Clay said. “Salvador Dali shared the disease.”
“This has been very interesting,” Fred told the group, rising. “You mentioned a missing instructor. A missing student.”
“You need background,” Clay objected.
“Even more than I need background, I need beer,” Fred said. “If I may, Clay? Abe, will you join me?”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Baum said. “No offense to the sherry. The instructor is male. The student female. The female is the problem. In my experience, the female always is the…strike that,” Abe said.
“Background first,” Clay insisted.
Fred nipped into the kitchen and returned with two bottles of Clayton’s Amstel, opened, with a mug for Abe.
“Stillton Academy is simply not viable as it is,” Abe announced. “The endowment is next to depleted. Without accreditation, it will certainly die.”
Parker Stillton, helping himself to sherry, went on, “If all it has to sell is worthless certificates of time served and courses completed, why should anyone buy those?”
“It might help if I knew where I fit in,” Fred said.
“There must not be a hint of scandal,” Clay said. “At this point, the slightest breath of scandal would at least postpone the accreditation examination. On top of everything else, if it’s postponed, it might as well be cancelled. Should this happen…” Clay paused. Fred had the choice of allowing the pregnant pause to extend into the coming week, or of supplying the prompt Clay’s pause entreated.
“Should this happen,” Fred helped.
“The board disposes of the remaining assets,” Parker Stillton said ominously.
Abe said, “Everything becomes public. Everything becomes open. Everything becomes subject to the cold, hard gaze of Charity.”
“Assets?” Fred said. “What are there? Easels? Desks?” “A stampede could bring disaster,” Clay said.
“And perhaps sensing that all was not well in this little Eden, one of the instructors found better work at a McDonald’s?” Fred asked. The beer was cold and thin and vaguely urinous. He took another sip. “You are connected in some way to Stillton Academy?” he asked, letting the question extend to both the visitors.
“I advise them,” Abe Beam granted. “I am an attorney. Not contracted to them. A friend. I do give them advice. When asked. And Parker is a colleague.”
“An attorney also, as you know,” Clay reminded Fred.
“I have been invited to join the board of trustees,” Parker said. “The invitation is being taken under advisement. That fact should not leave this room.”
“From what I know so far, it sounds like being invited to pilot the Titanic,” Fred said, “after the iceberg hove in sight.”
“The situation is parlous,” Parker Stillton said.
Neither he nor Abe Baum showed the slightest interest in the surroundings. The paintings on the walls, just in this room, were enough to occupy anyone with an eye for many hours. Dominating the room—it would have dominated any room— was Turner’s Danae. Clayton had finally, and recently, given his discovery a name. Since it was his discovery, he could call it whatever he wished. It filled the wall above the fireplace, which was never used. What vandal would subject paintings to smoke? Six feet by four, in a gold frame just barely enough to conceal its edges, it represented a writhing coil of gold and flesh and crimson that embodied, as Clay put it, “the most carnal expres- sions of the male spiritual force and the female human power.”
“Or he could save himself the trouble and just call it ‘a girl humping a god,’” Molly had remarked. “With maybe some money changing hands.”
And the Turner was just a start.
“It gets worse,” Parker Stillton went on. “The board fired the director last October. Some minor peccadillo. The endowment, as I told you, has dwindled drastically. The present board demurs at the idea of hiring a fund-raiser, and in any case, how do you mount a capital campaign without the likely prospect of accreditation? The buildings are in bad shape, calling for at least three new roofs. The tuition is already low but even so, many students depend on state or federal grants or loans to pay them, and those grants or loans, in turn, depend on the prospect of accreditation. At the same time, of course, the academy’s basic survival depends on those tuitions. Maintenance is chiefly at the whim of students on work-study programs…”
“How many students?” Fred asked.
“Over a hundred. Not much over a hundred,” Baum said. “I’m not that close to the operation.”
“Hundred and seven,” Parker Stillton said. “That’s live bodies, not tuitions. Not full-time equivalents. Lots of students are part time. As of last week, when I talked with their steering committee. The same steering committee that set their course in the direction of the aforementioned iceberg.”
“Well,” Fred said. He looked toward Clayton. Where was this heading? A conversation this long, between consenting adults all of whom spoke the same language, should by now have revealed the direction in which at least one of its participants wished it to go. “Plus there is significant faculty unrest,” Baum said, “if you can call anything generated by that motley gang significant.” “Tenure and all that?” Fred asked. “I have to tell you, my own experience of college life was minimal.” “Fred’s a Harvard Man,” Clay inserted.
“For long enough to learn where Elsie’s was, and the Fogg Museum. I got done with college faster than most. In the years since, though, I’ve noticed that an unhappy faculty and tenure issues can go together.”
“Tenure’s not an issue at Stillton,” Abe assured him. “Once accreditation comes, it could become so. Maybe. Maybe not. But up to now, the board and the directors—right through the one who was canned last October—have kept the faculty to one-year contracts. And there aren’t that many anyway. Lots are part-time.” “Such as they are, then,” Fred said, “they are underpaid and overworked and looking for work. How do I fit in? You mentioned assets a few paragraphs back. And it’s an art school. Do I assume, Clay—after all, here you are!—that among the assets…” Clay interrupted sharply, holding up a hand and shaking his head slightly. “The female is the main concern. She is eighteen. A first year student. Daughter of the academy’s only significant donor. The instructor missed his classes last Saturday. And the girl hasn’t been seen since, either.” “She must be found,” Abe said.
“It’s a pretty old story,” Fred said. “Once we fight our way past all the scenery you spread around getting up to this action, it’s one old story. A girl gets caught in a romance with an older guy. He’s married? Still an old story. Gossip, sure, there will be—but where’s your scandal?”
“There’s no sign of either of them,” Baum said. “That may be their plan.”
“What we fear is a double suicide,” Parker Stillton said. “And the fear is well based.”
Abe pulled a folded paper from his jacket pocket, opened it flat, and handed it to Fred. “Read this,” he said. “It’s her handwriting. Melissa Tutunjian. Found on her desk by her roommate. Read it.”
A spidery round hand in peacock blue ink, the “i”s dotted with little hearts, on plain copy paper. Fred read aloud, “I died for beauty but was scarce / Adjusted in the tomb, / When one who died for truth was lain / In an adjoining room.”
“Poetry is always a bad sign,” Clay said. “We want you to find out what happened.”