Harmony in Flesh and Black: A Fred Taylor Art Mystery #1

Harmony in Flesh and Black: A Fred Taylor Art Mystery #1

Fred Taylor, whose job skills were picked up on clandestine operations in Southeast Asia, now assists a Boston art collector. By the time Kilmer is through acquainting readers with the ...

About The Author

Nicholas Kilmer

Nicholas Kilmer, born in Virginia, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Normandy, France. A teacher for many years, and finally Dean ...

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Chapter 1

The dark-haired woman reaches into the pond to gather lilies, frozen amid slashes of yellow blooming flags, the captured light struggling against cloth, the paint laid out to stretch and dry. That’s violence, Fred was thinking. There’s nothing innocent about it, nothing safe anywhere in the operation. He looked across the downstairs room he worked in, at the painting he had pulled out of the bins to think about while keeping his mind clear.

Art is violent from its inception. As long as he had worked for the man, Fred had not been able to make Clayton Reed recognize this. It’s dangerous, Fred was thinking, not to understand the nature of your opponent, to believe it simply lazy, languid, beautiful, and harmless. It’s dangerous to collect and keep it around you, not knowing what it is.

Fred loved pictures, but not the same way Clayton Reed did. Clay acquired them with the enthusiasm of those who collect stamps or rocks or money, as objects they believe have risen above the dirty tug of living in the world. For Fred a picture was alive, an animal, something whose design and color had a feral purpose. This made Fred the hunter, the guide, the beater, out  front— with Clayton often hanging back, rising above, perched on his elephant, his rifle ready. These days they were both edgy on account of the big project they were working on, which something, they both knew, could blow out of the water any minute.

Fred had his jacket on and his keys out, ready to leave Boston to the likes of Clayton Reed and head for Arlington and Molly, when the outside door opened onto old brick and springtime and Clayton stepped from the street into Fred’s office, downstairs from what Clay called his flat, on Mountjoy Street on Beacon Hill. Clay owned the whole building, a brick row house, like himself tall and thin, but with an apron of ivy out front. Fred’s office and Clayton’s storage were downstairs, on the ground floor.

Fred Taylor’s space was filled with books, in cases and stacked, and with the storage racks for Clayton’s paintings. Fred had a desk, file cabinets, and an uncomfortable chair to keep him awake when he wasn’t out and moving. Clay’s flat occupied the three next floors. “The perfect peace of a pure summer day,” Clay said, looking at Curran’s painting of women in summer dresses harvesting floating lilies from a green rowboat, which Fred had propped against the racks. “It’s better than Terra’s,” Clay said. “Curran is thinking in mine. In Terra’s he’s half  asleep.”

Clay sat on the edge of Fred’s desk, tense and trying to look unflappable. He was excited about something.

“I’m glad I’m in time to catch you, Fred,” Clay said. “Would you pick something up for me on your  way?”

Clayton Reed didn’t pick things up. He might suffer a crease. He rubbed his hands, his lanky limbs almost dancing. Though he didn’t smoke, he looked like someone who might pull out a cigarette holder at any moment, with his lean features, prominent nose, and shock of hair prematurely white, which he maintained à la Stokowski. If you needed a character to look like the aesthete for a movie you were doing about the 1920s, Fred’s friend Molly said once, you could ask Clay.

The back of Fred’s neck itched. Obviously Clayton had got up to something on his own, which could mean trouble. The genes for practicality had not been braided into Clayton Reed’s makeup, and he sometimes exacerbated that deficiency by acting with unmerited self-confidence. Clay had enough money so he could make mistakes, but Fred couldn’t stand to let them  happen.

Clay, coming in, was happy with himself, wanting Fred to see he’d landed something good alone and unaided. If Clayton, on a secret project, had done anything to cost them the Heade, Fred wouldn’t forgive him. That was the big thing now.

“Here’s the address, Fred,” Clayton said, handing over one of his neat three-by-five index cards. “Third floor rear. I’ve just come from there. I’m going to get clean. Don’t mention my name, which he does not know. Arthurian is the flag of convenience I elected to sail under in this transaction.” Clay made that expression of his that fell halfway between distaste and exultation.

Fred couldn’t make Clay understand the principle of the ambush: Don’t move. Do not call attention to yourself. Unless you’ve tried it, you can’t know the experience of lying all night and half a day in swamp, waiting for something to come down the trail looking to kill you. You don’t want them to see the water shake.

“You’re playing games, Clay,” Fred muttered. “You’re going to cute yourself right out of the Heade. Keep your eye on the main objective. Otherwise you start losing your people.”

“One of the good things about the art business, Fred,” Clay said, “—and perhaps an improvement over a previous occupation of your own—is that in the art business losing is not normally measured in terms of numbers killed.”

“As we’re going for the Heade I don’t want anything else to muddy the water,” Fred said. “If you’re using a fake name, you’re out of your depth.”

“I was inspired by the moment. I must wash. I acquired a painting,” Clay said. “A virgin. The conditions in which I found it are obscene. I want it out of there, Fred. You’ll understand why I was moved to represent myself under a nom de plume. I don’t want anything I own to remain in that hideous place. I’d appreciate your retrieving the picture on your way home.”

Clay looked down at his gray suit and rubbed invisible stains from it with the inside of his wrist. He shuddered. “You are receiving it from a Mr. Henry Smykal. The name’s on the card. He expects you. It is not out of your way, Fred. Bring the painting Monday. Find a safe place to keep it till then, if you would.”

“I wish you’d stay clear of the secret-agent stuff,” Fred said. But there was no correcting the fact that a natural hazard of Fred’s current occupation was the quirk of absolute bullheaded secretiveness in his employer. Clay’s business was Clay’s business, unless he made it yours.

“It’s a slight detour—nothing that will intrude on our main objective, as you call it,” Clay said. “But it’s been an unsettling experience for me,” he added, mounting the spiral staircase toward his living quarters. “I am shaken.”

“You want to tell me what the picture is?” Fred suggested. “So I know what I’m picking up?”

“Smykal’s a fool,” Clay said. “But he knows what I bought.  I’m upset, Fred. I must wash. I can’t stand my picture to be in his hands any longer. You’ll understand. Please don’t dillydally. Think of it as a rescue mission.”

# # #

Traffic this Friday evening, after Fred left the office, was slow and heavy out of Boston. He drove with the window open, enjoying the cool air. The Charles River was steel gray, like the sky. The city and land showed hints of spring—strokes of green, splurges of incipient blossom. Fred took the River Street bridge and cut through Central Square. The middle of Cambridge was not on his way home unless he made this  detour.

Driving, Fred told himself that Clay was right to keep him guessing. Clay knew he was a sucker for a new painting. There was nothing like it. A good painting is filled with unique intricacy, and intimate with ferocious purpose. It is something and it does something. It is like reading a hermit’s mind—a hermit with no inhibitions. A good painting is as much a revelation as looking out over acres of Iowa farmland, knowing that’s good dirt eight feet down. That’s wheat in there. That’s corn. And it’ll hold a tractor up. Not like the fucking swamps with thin green hairs of rice growing, flat gleam of floodwater, and under it the spikes, the mines, the bones—well, but that had been filled with beauty, too, hadn’t it? Fred had left beauty behind him there as well as  terror.

It was amazing that Clay did not know, surrounded by his collection, how a painting could have both love and terror in it. It is a sunny pasture where children run and scream in birthday games. A painting is what you see when looking from shadowed jungle into a burned-out village in the rain.

At this point, however, Fred’s instinct told him that almost anything could spoil their concentration on the prime objective, the object of their present stalk, “The Heade”—the big project he and Clayton had been working on for months. It was scheduled to come to a climax in a week, at Doolan’s, the Boston area’s main auction house for works of art.

Whatever Fred was making this detour into Cambridge for, it couldn’t be worth what they would stand to lose if Clay, with his alias, had made the water shake.

The current status of the project was delicate and tense. Some months before, Fred had been doing research in the microfilm collection at the Archives of American Art, whose Boston office was a few blocks from Clayton’s place on Beacon Hill. He was skimming the journals of Fanny Apthorp, a nineteenth-century resident of Newburyport who had gathered paintings as well as Dutch china and chinoiserie.

Fred was grinding the crank of the microfilm reading machine, seasick, finding Fanny Apthorp drowsy work. She had much to say about the weather, none of it original. Her most interesting observations—spiteful commentaries on servants, friends, and relatives—did not advance the cause.

Fred’s objective was to see if Fanny had ever mentioned Fitz Hugh Lane, who had painted a ship portrait that Clayton owned of the Hester A. Prynne, a schooner that went down in a Pacific storm along with Captain Apthorp and a cargo of dried sea slugs loaded in Fiji and bound for China.

Lane wasn’t showing up on the gray film, but suddenly Fred’s hunting instincts sparked. “July seven,” Fanny Apthorp wrote. “Damp. Martin H. for tea. Entranced by an effect on the marshes back of the house. Said he must paint it. Could I give him a surface? I let him have the lovers dear Dickie gave me, which I never could abide. It served admirably. The little man has given me the picture for a keepsake. Put it to dry in the attic. Catherine in a pet. May clear.” Martin H., Fred reckoned, had to be Heade.

Martin Johnson Heade had painted haystacks, magnolias, and sunsets in the late 1800s. He had painted the best sunsets in St. Augustine, Florida, the best magnolias in the world, and the best haystacks in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

When Fred mentioned the reference, Clayton’s eyes lit up and he began pacing the area they kept clear, in Fred’s office, for that very purpose.

“The lovers,” Clay said. “By golly, it makes sense. North Shore, China Trade;  and Fanny  Apthorp wouldn’t  know a  Sèvres  vase from a chamber pot. Here they are, the devils. Hidden in a haystack all this time. It has to be my  Vermeer.”

Occasionally, as now, the combined forces of luck and intelligence produced strokes of brilliance between them. It allowed them to withstand each other.

Fanny’s “lovers,” Clay reasoned, had to be the lost painting by Vermeer that, unbeknownst to Fred, he had been trying to get a line on for years. Clay knew the picture had once been in Boston because it had been exhibited at the Mechanics Hall in the mid-1800s. He had a description of the painting and a rough drawing of it but no name for its  owner.

“It makes perfect sense,” Clay said. “Why not let Heade paint over it if she didn’t like it? A Vermeer, in those days, was worthless costume drama. It was ballast, like Ming china—and perfect from Heade’s point of view, too, since it would present a smooth surface to work on. You wouldn’t waste a week sanding down the lumps, the way you’d have to if you wanted to paint over a van  Gogh.”

Fred said, “Coincidence or not, this seems a stretch. There was plenty of junk around to be painted over. Why aren’t we talking about some bad Victorian—okay, pre-Victorian—parlor schmaltz with doves in it? Unless there’s something you’re not telling me, this Vermeer seems a blue-sky proposition to me,  Clay.”

“I do have other evidence,” Clay said. He pursed his lips. “I may or may not share it with you. It will depend upon your need to know. It is of a delicate nature. Suffice it to say I have been hunting many trails that lead in this direction.”

What Clay did not say was that he simply hated to share a research triumph. It was bad enough he had to share coincidence when it was visited upon them by an act of God or  serendipity.

In a coincidence by no means rare with such operations—once the broth is stirred, everything from the depths starts visiting the surface—Doolan’s, a few weeks later, announced that it would  sell at auction, for the (partial) benefit of a couple of hospitals, the residue of the old Apthorp estate. Sure enough, there in the flier, illustrated alongside the blue and white Ming spittoons, was a small, square, indifferent Heade representing haystacks at teatime.

The value of the Heade was well under a hundred thousand dollars. But the Vermeer that might lurk beneath it could be worth eight figures, the high eight figures—miles beyond Clayton’s range. Because it was to be offered at auction, the whole thing was a gamble whose outcome couldn’t be predicted. Clay couldn’t buy the object except by participating in the auction, where wrestling bulls might drive the price up too far for a Heade and hence beyond what Clayton wanted to hazard; because of course there might be no Vermeer under the Heade after all. There was no way to find out beforehand without ruining their chances, for if they even hinted at the wrong question, the tide of excited speculation that would result would blow the painting out of the sale and beyond reach forever.

Clay had to become the owner of the Heade, as cheaply as possible, and then find out.

A project of this magnitude was worth keeping your concentration fixed on. It made Fred uneasy to have Clayton Reed wandering alone into Cambridge, with his codes and secret spy rings, playing games, with so much at stake and so near the goal. “He’s going to screw it up,” Fred said through his teeth, turning his car from Massachusetts Avenue onto Turbridge Street.

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