“Art is Calling For Me”
When I became a private investigator I assumed all my clients would be alive.
I was wrong.
Besides breaking up an illegal baby ring, I’d recently caught a murderer and solved a big case involving the mayor of Parkland’s wife. I’d also helped Camden free a ghost from a mirror. Here’s where things get peculiar. The ghost, Delores Carlyle, had been a restless spirit whose only wish was to see her daughter one last time. Apparently happy with my work, she told all her dead pals in whatever spirit world they inhabit to contact the Randall Detective Agency for all their undead needs. Already, one spooky message had appeared on my own mirror saying “Delores Sent Me.” There was no way to predict how any of this was going to turn out.
This hot Thursday morning in July I had an actual living client sitting in my office in the gracious old home renting rooms to an unusual collection of residents at 302 Grace Street. Leo Pierson was big and overly theatrical. With his large protruding eyes and mane of dark red hair, he looked like the leading man in a seedy acting troupe, the guy who always plays the kings and generals, and in fact, he was an actor. He’d driven up in a pearl gray Mercedes and parked next to my white ’67 Fury. I was already tired of talking to him. But not only was he alive, he had money. So I sat forward in my chair and put on my most attentive face.
“How many items were stolen from your collection, Mr. Pierson?”
He reached into a pocket in his jacket and brought out a piece of paper and some photos. “Here is a list and pictures, Mr. Randall. The police have been completely useless. They simply do not appreciate the value, the mystique, the sensuality of Art Nouveau.”
The items on his list were written in gold ink, all swirls and curlicues. The photos showed a set of silver spoons with twisted leaf-shaped handles, a glass dragonfly with rainbow wings, a poster of a woman surrounded by black and gold flowers, a brass ashtray decorated with a mermaid and flowing flowers, and a bright blue vase stenciled with birds. Okay, so not your usual missing items, but I didn’t mind a challenge.
When I looked up, Leo Pierson fixed me with a goldfish gaze, a goldfish that would very much like a piece of bread. “These are very distinctive,” I said. “I’m sure someone will have seen them.”
Pierson set his silver-headed cane on the floor with a firm tap and placed both hands on top. “The poster and the ashtray are worth around twelve thousand dollars each, but the Lalique peacock vase is worth at least forty thousand dollars, the silverware I last had appraised at two hundred thousand, and the dragonfly is priceless, at least to me. It’s my favorite piece. My father inherited them from a relative of his, Isabelle Duvall, whose great aunt was the model for the poster. They used to decorate her parlor, so they have sentimental value, as well.” He leaned forward. “There is cause for haste, Mr. Randall. My greatest wish is to have my own theater, and one has become available here in Parkland. Now, the dragonfly is worth more than all those other items combined, plus at least another hundred thousand more, but I would never sell it. I am willing to part with my other treasures in order to procure this theater. The seller is open to my offer, and I have a buyer for the items, but I must have payment by the twenty-third.”
I glanced at my desk calendar. Ten days! “I’ll get started right away.”
“Yes, well, where’s the psychic?” He looked around as if expecting someone to crawl out from under my desk. “I understand you have a psychic on your staff who can find lost objects. Camden, I believe his name is, and his wife runs the Psychic Service Network.”
Camden owns this home. Usually, he is at his job as a salesclerk at Tamara’s Boutique, but he wasn’t needed there every day, so he was practicing with his church softball team. I wouldn’t call him “on staff.” Camden becomes involved whether he wants to or not, thanks to his considerable and erratic psychic ability. “I’m sure I can find your items, Mr. Pierson.” I turned to my laptop to make notes. “If you’d give me the details of the robbery.”
“It happened this past Saturday night. Someone managed to dismantle my alarm system. It’s quite a good one, or so I thought. The alarm is up in my bedroom, and if someone tries to break in, I should know immediately. Only this time, the alarm didn’t work. I didn’t hear a thing. The next morning, I found a window broken and my treasures gone. Of course, I called the police, but they were of no help whatsoever.”
I typed this in. “They didn’t get any fingerprints, tire tracks? No clues of any kind?”
“No.” He took out a gray silk handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. “By now, my treasures could be anywhere.”
“What kind of alarm system do you have?”
“A Guardian Electronic, for all the good it did.”
I also typed this information in. “Who knew about your collection?”
“A few friends and acquaintances from the art world. Lawrence Stein, who’s on the board of the Parkland Art Museum; and Nancy Piper, who also works there in the finance department; Richard Mason, who runs the Little Gallery here in town; and Samuel Gallant, curator of the Princeton Art Museum in Madison.”
“Any problems with these friends?”
“Oh, no. In fact, I had them to my house for luncheon and a private viewing a week ago.”
The perfect opportunity for any one of them to case the joint, as we hard-boiled gumshoes like to say. I added this to my list. “Anything else I should know?”
“Nothing comes to mind at the moment. This reminds me of my role as Inspector Trumpet in Railway to Murder, Mr. Randall. There’s a wonderful speech at the end of Act Two.” He stood, shook back his hair, and pointed one finger toward the sky. “‘The fewest clues I’ve ever assembled, but by far, the cleverest. No mere criminal shall deter me!’ He fixed me with his large eyes as if I were responsible for this imaginary crime. “I’m sure you’ve seen the play.”
“I’ve missed that one, sorry.”
“Unfortunately, real life can’t be solved in three acts. Get back to me as soon as you can.”
Pierson hadn’t been gone five minutes when I heard another car drive up, and Jordan Finley from the Parkland Police Department soon filled my office doorway. And by filled, I mean filled. Jordan’s as large and square as a pro fullback. His short black hair bristled and his little blue eyes fixed me with a piercing stare.
“Did I see Leo Pierson leaving your house?”
“He hired me to find some missing artwork.”
“I don’t suppose he mentioned he’s a suspect in a possible murder investigation?”
What the—? “No, he left out that part.”
“Gee, I wonder why?” Jordan squeezed himself in the office chair. “What did he tell you?”
I indicated the photos on my desk. “He said his house was broken into and several valuable Art Nouveau items had been stolen. What’s the deal? Did he kill the burglar?”
“Samuel Gallant is missing. Pierson was the last one to see him, and neighbors report hearing a quarrel between the two men the day before Gallant disappeared.”
Gallant had been at Pierson’s luncheon and viewing. “When did this happen?”
“This past Saturday, and it looks like the break-in happened late Saturday night or early Sunday.”
Why didn’t Pierson tell me about this? “Does Gallant have any sort of criminal record? Does Pierson?”
“Gallant, not even so much as a traffic ticket. We’ve searched his home and his place of business. As for Pierson, his record’s clean, too. For now. You need to back away.”
“I can’t do that. Pierson just hired me.”
Jordan’s eyes narrowed. “Look. Right now we don’t care about his artsy little doodads. We want to find out what happened to Samuel Gallant. I’m only sharing this info with you so you’ll drop Pierson and let us handle this.”
“How about this? You hunt for Gallant. I’ll hunt for the doodads. I doubt our paths will cross.”
Jordan gave a snort and pushed himself up. “Our paths always cross. But not this time. Do you hear me?”
I heard him, but that didn’t mean I was going to listen.
As soon as Jordan left, I called Pierson. “You left out a few important details. Samuel Gallant’s missing, and you’re suspect number one. What’s going on?”
Pierson heaved a huge theatrical sigh. “I don’t see the relevance to the robbery. He wouldn’t have taken my treasures. He had no interest in Art Nouveau and made that perfectly clear at my party. I have no idea where he is. He’s very indecisive. He’s probably standing in the middle of an airport somewhere trying to decide where to go.”
“Neighbors heard you arguing with him the day before he disappeared.”
“Of course I was arguing with him. He owed me money, and he was very late paying me back. Then he had the nerve to ask to borrow more, and I refused. That’s what our quarrel was about. The fact I was the last one to see him is irrelevant.”
“The police don’t see it that way.”
“I can’t help that.” There was a pause. “This isn’t going to affect our working relationship, is it?”
“No, but you should have told me up front. Got any more secrets I oughta know?”
“I sincerely promise there are no more secrets.”
I sincerely doubted that.
• • • • •
I went online and found some information about my theatrical client. He was independently wealthy and spent most of his time acting with theater groups here in North Carolina, as well as taking part in regional productions in neighboring states. Many pictures of Pierson in costume showed his face contorted with emotion, his large eyes bulging. I didn’t recognize the plays, except Arsenic and Old Lace and My Fair Lady. I never had much interest in theater—aside from dating a very attractive theater major in college—but a previous case had involved actors and those very plays, so I’d learned enough to know that actors could be extremely needy and jealous. Leo Pierson didn’t fit this mold—yet.
I wanted sustenance before I went on what would probably be a wild goose chase for Pierson’s treasures, so I crossed the foyer and headed for the kitchen. We call the center of the main room “the island,” a cluster of worn comfortable Goodwill chairs and a sofa where everybody sits to relax, read, watch TV, whatever. Kary’s piano stands in the front left corner, a battered upright she can make sound like a concert grand. There are lots of plants, books, and the usual clutter. By the back bay window is a large round table and chairs for group meals. Separating this area from the kitchen is a counter and stools if you want to perch and snack.
Our home, 302 Grace Street, is in the older, greener part of what used to be Parkland’s ritzy section. The house is an old yellow three-story structure with a big front porch and a yard full of huge old oak trees. It also has a leaky roof, unpredictable plumbing, and all the other charming quirks of a house built in the late Thirties. With its big windows, clean bare floors, and informal furniture, the place reminds me of a beach house or a well-kept frat house, but it’s actually a boardinghouse. You’ve heard of halfway houses for runaways, flops, and failures. Well, this is an all-the-way house for Camden’s refugees.
One of our latest tenants was a skinny would-be rock star named Kit who’d recently found success with his band, Runaway Truck Ramp. Kit and his attitude had been a real pain in the rear until Camden discovered the young man was also psychic and didn’t know how to deal with the constant stream of unwanted information bombarding him all day. Once he’d shown Kit how to keep the worst of the visions at bay, Kit had become almost normal. He usually slept during the day, preparing for his nightly gigs at local clubs.
Our other new tenant was a woman named—I promise—Vermillion. She’d been wandering in the neighborhood and sleeping on a park bench. The local women’s shelter was overcrowded, so Camden told her she could stay a few days. A few days had stretched into a couple of weeks.
Vermillion was a wannabe flower child in her late thirties. Her hair looked like something you’d find clumped in the loft of an abandoned barn, but dyed tomato-soup red. Everything about her was tie-dyed and fringed. Everything she said was full of peace, love, and harmony except when she was hungry or got up too early. Then she was grumpy like a regular person. I didn’t see her anywhere and figured she was probably over in the park having a sit in with her fellow hippies and smoking some illegal substances.
With Camden’s wife, Ellin, at work, our regular extra-large tenants Rufus and Angie visiting Angie’s sister in South Carolina, Kary rehearsing for a music festival at the Performing Arts Center downtown, and Camden at a softball game, I had the whole house to myself. This was not necessarily a good thing.
I got a Coke out of the fridge. I filled the water dish for our housecats, Cindy and Oreo, and made a few peanut butter crackers to hold me until supper. I took my snack out to the front porch and sat down in one of the worn wooden rocking chairs. Cicadas sawed away in the trees, and the sparrows and cardinals argued over the seeds in the feeder. A few cars went by, but this was a quiet neighborhood, and everyone else was inside to escape the July heat. We can’t afford central air, but we have air conditioners in the bedrooms and ceiling fans, and the big house is usually cool enough, thanks to all the oak trees. A slight breeze stirred the thick leaves that shaded the porch. I’d almost gotten used to summers in the South. There wasn’t much you could do this time of day except sit and think.
This wasn’t how I’d planned things. I’d had a wife, a child, and a home. We ate dinner around the table every night and talked about what we did all day, as nice and normal as any family could be in this century. I was going to find lost things and solve crimes and clean up the world. Barbara was going to lead the Women’s League and Garden Club, win tennis championships, and climb mountains. Lindsey was going to—well, Lindsey never had the chance to discover what wonderful things she could accomplish when a car accident killed her and Barbara left. But something wonderful had happened lately, easing my grief. I now looked forward to my dreams of Lindsey. Safe and happy in a celestial playground, she often reminded me of the many spirits that needed my help. I was beginning to believe she and Delores had their own investigation service going on over there.
Enough sitting and thinking! I had a list of names and ten days to find Pierson’s artwork. I started down the porch steps when a horn beeped, and a red Ford pickup pulled up out front, full of laughing men in blue-and-white tee-shirts. Camden hopped out and waved good-bye as the truck sped away. He came up the walk, tossing a softball into his glove, his cap on backwards like some twelve-year-old, which is pretty much what he looks like.
He threw me the ball. I caught it and tossed it back. “Did you win?”
“Five to three. Emmanuel Baptist is history.” He took off his cap and wiped his face with the edge of his sweaty tee-shirt. His pale hair was beyond tousled. I’ve seen many a brave comb commit suicide rather than make the attempt. “We could use another outfielder. The guys asked if you were interested.”
“I’m surprised they let you play. Must be a real challenge for you.”
He flopped down on the porch swing and grinned. “I only use my powers for good. You know that.”
That grin is one reason every female within fifty miles thinks he’s, in their words, “cute.” The blue eyes are another. Someone once said the eyes were windows to the soul, or something Hallmarkish like that. If that’s the case, then Camden’s are cathedral style, floor to ceiling. When he wants to, he can give you a look that peels back every layer of your brain. You’d swear he was flipping through the synapses to find the info he needed. It’s damned annoying. He could sit there, looking as innocent as he pleased. I knew he’d read the pitcher’s mind and the catcher’s and everyone else’s on the rival team. Emmanuel Baptist didn’t have a chance.
He smacked the ball in his glove a couple of times and then gave me one of those long eerie blue stares. “Something on your mind, Randall?”
“You tell me.”
Another long look. I swear I could feel little fingers picking around in my brain. Camden and I have a strange psychic link. This link can be useful when I need to find him, but I’m not exactly sure how it works. It’s not useful when I’d rather keep my emotions to myself.
I leaned on the porch rail. “I really thought this last case would do it. I expected to be on top for once. But every time, it’s like I’m starting all over. Like things never change. I want change. I want something to happen. I’m stagnating here. I’m circling the drain.”
“Damn.” Camden looked impressed. “That’s poetic.”
“An indication of how low I’ve sunk.”
“But you have a new client.”
I straightened. “And a deadline. A two-for-the-price-of-one special named Leo Pierson. Not only did someone steal articles from his Art Nouveau collection, he’s a suspect in the disappearance of art museum board member Samuel Gallant. Jordan delivered his standard warning, and Pierson insists he’s not a murderer, so there you are. I’m on my way to hunt for all his little stuff, and I might do a spot of investigating into Gallant’s disappearance, purely by accident. Want to come along?”
Before he could answer, the screen door squeaked and Kit came out, blinking in the daylight. He wore his usual tight black jeans and black vest studded with safety pins over a white tee-shirt that clung to his rail-thin body. His hair stuck up like a patch of stubby weeds.
“You’re up early,” I said.
He scratched his chin where all attempts to grow a goatee had failed. “Yeah, I gotta go see about an amp. Fella said he’d be at Foster’s right about now. He was going to pawn it, but he might cut me a deal.” He paused to give Camden a searching look. “You still thinking about that girl? I told you there was no way you could’ve stopped her.”
“I know I could’ve done something to help.”
The two of them obviously conversed on another plane. “What are you talking about?”
“My drummer’s sister committed suicide,” Kit said. “She wasn’t gonna let anybody help her, no matter what. We both saw it coming, but Cam thought he could prevent it. Told him he couldn’t. It was a pretty bad scene.”
Since Camden can’t see his own future, Kit makes a handy early warning system, but he can’t keep the worst incidents from replaying. Camden had taught Kit what he called a “Shut the Door” technique to halt unwanted visions. It sounded to me like it didn’t work this time.
“You couldn’t shut the door on this one?”
Camden rubbed his forehead. “No. I’ve had quite a few intense visions lately. I hope I’m not headed for an upgrade.”
“I got your back,” Kit said. “I’ll let you know if anything really bad comes up.” He ran down the porch steps to his gleaming black motorcycle parked under one of the large oak trees. In a few moments, he roared down Grace Street, rattling the trash cans on the curb.
Camden watched him go and then turned back to me. “You know, I’ve only now gotten used to the telekinesis. Extra visions are not what I want.”
“You don’t want change. I want change. Same song, second verse. We’re not going to sit around moaning about it. I’ve got ten days to find Pierson’s treasures. Kit reminded me about Foster’s. We could check there for Pierson’s stuff.”
Camden pushed himself out of the swing. “Yeah, I could use a diversion.”
“Okay, partner, let’s ride.”