O Sacred Head: A Fred Taylor Art Mystery #3

O Sacred Head: A Fred Taylor Art Mystery #3

Art expert Fred Taylor is the agent for paranoid Beacon Hill collector Clayton Reed, a civilized man yet utterly ruthless collector. Fred supplies not only the brainwork, but the muscle, ...

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 ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The pounding was downstairs, on the front door: authoritative. It made the wind rise and snow batter the windows—the snow that had threatened before sleep.

“Jesus,” Molly said, sitting up naked and trembling for her children and her life. The bedroom’s darkness was confused by light glancing off the whirling flakes outside, tearing away; and by the house shaking, with the storm and the knocking. Fred, already awake, was pulling his pants on.

“It’s three in the morning,” Molly said. The knocker pounded again.

Terry, in the hall, rubbing sleep into her eyes with one hand and into the narrow chest of her Red Sox pajamas with the other, said, “No school, right?” as Fred pushed past  her.

“Stay up here, Terry, all right?” Fred said. “Get in with your mom while I see what this is.” He left the house dark while he felt for the stairs and went down. Sam, Molly’s elder child, fell in silently behind him. Fred hadn’t noticed he was  there.

“I think it’s cops,” Sam whispered. “I looked out my  window.

It looks like an unmarked cop car.”

Another knock as they reached the end of the hall carpet, cold from the draft under the door. Sam was too close, breathing hard with fear, excitement, and the chemistry of combat. “Give me room,” Fred said, “in case I have to  move.”

“Fred?” came Molly’s voice at the top of the stairs, as Fred snapped on the overhead porch light so he could see through the glass panes in the door. The snow was rocketing as if it had a lot of gunpowder behind it. A dark space huddled on itself on the stoop, looking up at the light.

“Cops,” Sam said. “I knew it.”

“One cop. Look, there’s not even a driver in his car,” Fred said, opening the door to a blast of cold air, a scurry of white, and the gnarled, lanky body that Molly said looked like it needed a shave twice a day.

“It’s Bookrajian,” Fred called upstairs.

Bookrajian, a stork, shivering and dropping drifts, made no move to take his black coat off. He was wearing street shoes, with the snow already over three inches on the ground. Terry, escaping her mother and running downstairs, was panting, “No school, right?”

“Idiot, you think they send a messenger?” Sam sneered. “From the police? To tell you there’s no  school?”

“Mom’s in the committee,” Terry argued.

Bookrajian’s face was gray, but he grinned and said, “I can almost promise no school, kids.” He hesitated then and twitched with discomfort.

“Upstairs,” Molly told her children, pulling her tatty blue wrapper tight around her. She was always prettier when alarmed, her dark curls bristling, color appearing in patches on her face like clouds. The children, hearing something in her voice that did not invite argument, retreated to the top of the stairs and hovered there, more or less out of sight.

“What’s up?” Fred asked.

“A mess,” Bookrajian said. He was embarrassed, or distraught. He wore no gloves. He rubbed his knuckly fingers while he talked. “I’d appreciate it if you could come for a ride with me, Fred. Can you do that?”

“You got a warrant?” Molly demanded. Snow, acting for her, tapped impatiently at the house. Molly had never cottoned to Bookrajian.

“I shouldn’t be here, and I don’t have time,” Bookrajian said. “Warrant? What for? Something came up, Fred, and I thought of you. If you’ve got nothing better to do.”

“I’ll put some shoes on,” Fred said, turning for the stairs. He didn’t really know Bookrajian, a Cambridge cop who was over the border and out of his jurisdiction at Molly’s house in Arlington. They’d met in the course of business, and each had quickly realized the other was a hard man to get around.

When Fred came down, wearing his Korean knockoffs of L. L. Bean half-treads and enough clothes to keep him warm, Molly and Bookrajian were facing each other in the hall like boxers who hate each other anyway but are not being paid enough to get hurt. “One thing I know,” Bookrajian said, “it looks like snow.” He opened the door. “You want to ride with  me?”

Fred looked at the weather and thought about captivity. “I’ll follow you,” he said. “Give me thirty seconds to warm up old Betsy.” Bookrajian started wading down Molly’s walk toward his car. The snow was up to his shoe tops. Molly’s car being in the garage, Fred had left his in the drive. He knocked snow off the windows while the engine warmed. He took his time. The engine needed two minutes at least.

“Just for fun, where are you going?” Molly  called.

“Cambridge,” Bookrajian shouted before his door thwocked closed.

The storm was a phenomenon, filled with beauty, mystery, action, and snowplows that were not making much headway. Aside from the plows, almost nothing was on the road other than drifts and broken branches. Bookrajian drove too fast along Massachusetts Avenue, through the center of Arlington, disregarding traffic lights and natural hazards. He turned right along the parkway toward Fresh Pond and Cambridge. Fred, following, tried his ra- dio for a hint of what was happening, but the radio hadn’t worked in six years, except once in a long while, if you fiddled with it just right. Driving with one hand in these conditions wasn’t bright. Their speed, the packed silence under the wheels, and the turbulence outdoors made nothing real, until they reached the pack of frolicking blue lights in the horseshoe driveway at 1001 Memorial Drive, the apartment building with the Gucci and Godiva reputation, next to the river. Enough cops were gathered around the bastion of the gown to fend off all the townie rabble of Cambridge.

Fred found a place to park away from the snarl of strobes packed against the building. When he joined him at the entrance, under the canopy, Ernie—Fred suddenly remembered Bookrajian’s first name—was bawling out a  knot of uniformed officers. “Cut off those lights and keep it down. What’s the matter, you don’t have enough excitement in your lives, you got to start a circus every time the phone rings? Are the medics and techies here  yet?”

“In the hall upstairs,” someone said. “Waiting on you. You said no one goes in—no one went in.”

A crowd of wakeful sleepers from the building stood in the lobby in varied dishabille, worried, talking among themselves like strangers at a bomb site. The crowd made Fred feel strangely nervous until he realized why: he saw no one under the age of thirty. Back of the desk, the uniformed night watchperson was tearing her hair and crying, saying something Fred couldn’t catch about “the manager.” A cop stood over her, in back of the counter. “They don’t look like much,” Bookrajian muttered, leading Fred through the chunky slop that was building up in ridges on the plate-glass lobby’s upscale neutral carpeting, “especially in their nightshirts, but there’s more Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers and would-be Dershowitzes and whatnot-have-you per pound in that gang than there is peanuts in a Snickers. That means enough potential interference to derail Amtrak’s finest, once they get past their shock and start shoving in their two centses—so let’s  move.”

A cop in uniform stood at the bank of elevators. Nobody was getting back upstairs, not even residents. They were not getting outside, either, and they were not making phone calls. Bookrajian had this thing, whatever it was, sealed off.

Closed into the elevator, which smelled of the canned hope they spray into used cars, Fred listened to the whisk of packaged speed upward and asked, “You want to fill me in, Ernie?”

“Anything I could say would only get in your way,” Bookrajian said, shrugging out of his coat. “I took one look around and thought of you. You’re sneaky and you’re tricky and you put something over on me on that Cover-Hoover thing. But so what? The IRS is gonna get her. The IRS is like pneumonia—the old cop’s friend.”

The elevator stopped on the seventh floor, and the door opened. About twenty cops jostled in the hallway, watching each other, dripping on the carpet, some, in plain clothes and lab coats, unpacking the instruments appropriate to a crime scene. One youngster with a spool of yellow crime-scene tape stood wondering how to use it in a corridor.

“Also,” Bookrajian said, heading along the hallway, “I can talk to you. I go to an expert at that college down the river, I spend all my time worrying how much he has to pay to have his undies washed in French Champagne. So if you can help, you save me some aggravation, OK?”

At the end of the hall, a female linebacker in uniform faced them from the place where she was planted, blocking entrance to 710. She and Bookrajian exchanged nods. Nature had intended her to be black, but she was mostly greenish-gray. “No one’s been in?” Bookrajian questioned.

“Sweet mother of Jesus, no,” the officer said. She took a deep breath. “Nobody got past Gus, either. He’s on the fire  exit.”

Bookrajian dropped his coat on the carpet and knelt to take his wet shoes off. He motioned Fred to follow suit. “Don’t want to complicate things, tracking stuff inside,” he said. “We’ve got plenty to keep my techies happy as it is.”

“Sweet Jesus knows that’s true,” the guard affirmed, handing over two pairs of latex gloves. Fred, standing in his socks, pulled his on.

“Give me six minutes,” Bookrajian announced to the hall. “After, I want the photo people first, then the medics and techies. I am going to say this once: if one photograph gets to the press, you are all going to wish you had it as easy as this guy did.” He opened the door with the key the guard handed him, telling Fred over his shoulder, “Did I mention it’s not  pretty?”

The look of the woman at the door had prepared Fred for the stench of decay, but the air that met them in the dark apartment was bland and recycled, like airplane air after a long trip. Beige, Molly would call it. Fred followed Bookrajian into the dark and heard the door close while his eyes adjusted to the gloom, enlivened by light cast into the distant rooms by snow thrashing big windows that must overlook the river. They passed through a niggly entranceway with closets. The kitchenette off it hummed from an exhaust fan. It smelled like breakfast. Then quickly they were in a big dark space that should be the living room: silhouette of a couch next to the window filled with the glancing storm, and the river lighted by streetlights on either side, and plows working the far side, along Storrow Drive; silhouettes of end tables and oversized lamps with big stupid shades on the right, either end of the couch.

On the left, a naked body leaned out oddly from the wall— correction: mantelpiece—whiter than the darkness in the room, but darker than the snow behind it, in the window. Bookrajian fumbled at the wall. The body gestured a welcome. It looked very wrong. “Don’t touch anything,” Bookrajian warned. “I can’t find  the switch.” Fred waited until the lamps at either end of the couch came on. The corpse was headless, adult, male, in that order— propped strangely, the arms splayed out along the mantelpiece. Bookrajian, saying, “Got it,” found another light, a spot, that fell above the headless corpse, where its head should be, illuminating a brown painting that gave Fred a little jolt, its being the head of Christ, crowned with thorns, pop-eyed with meretricious agony. A matched set of china dogs pointed in eager attendance, one on each side.

“Jesus,” Fred said.

The wrists of the headless corpse were nailed to the mantelpiece, and the nails checked his aborted looping-forward, swandive arc. The ringed neck was ragged but almost bloodless. The bunched mess at the man’s genitals resolved itself into pink ribbon tied in a florist’s flourish around the penis.

“So much decoration makes me uneasy,” Fred said. “Artistic but not pretty,” Bookrajian agreed.

“Therefore you thought of me,” Fred answered, swallowing bile, still taking in the scene. The corpse’s feet—not nailed—were splayed to either side like those of da Vinci’s perfect gentleman. The object appearing between them, behind the Easter ribbon, looked like a foot and a half of broom handle; so the rest of it was stored inside.

“Incidentally,” Bookrajian said, “anybody asks you, you were never here, you got that? What are those, about twelve-penny nails? Fourteens?”

“Twenties,” Fred said. “Common. Galvanized. They won’t rust. He’ll be fine.” The palms of the man’s hands, pulled into weak grasping gestures by the weight of his body against the nails, were black, crusty. Bookrajian, noticing the direction of Fred’s gaze, said, “They’re burned. Frying pan in the kitchen. All I want you for is the artwork.”

Fred looked again at the painting of Jesus in agony. A nimbus of coincidental holiness lit the brown sky in back of him. Drops of blood leaked from the forehead where the thorns had pierced the skin. The thorns cast shadows on his face. The painting had quality: Fred’s original instinct had been to write it off as a holy card turned out before lithography could do it cheaper.

“So tell me about the artwork,” Bookrajian demanded. “I gotta get moving.”

The gilded frame looked like about two hundred dollars’ worth to Fred. As for the painting itself—Fred moved in closer, aware of the intimate scents of the man’s opened neck, and the sharp char of the hands. The fireplace had not been used. Dried flowers hunched in it, in a vase in back of the hanging broomstick. Fred noted the remarkable length of the corpse’s foreskin, from which the bow was a distraction. Once past all that, the painting was not badly done for what it was, putting aside the subject matter, which, gruesome and sentimental, was not Fred’s cup of tea.

“Oil on canvas,” Fred said. “You’ll want to put a tape on it, but I’d say about twenty-four by twenty inches, and it’s old, maybe—let’s see the back, Ernie.”

“Someone went to a lot of trouble to make this look right,” Bookrajian said, “let’s not mess it up. If you want, we’ll lean it forward. We can do that without moving anything. I’ll hold it. You look.”

The china dogs wobbled and chattered when the painting was tipped to expose its backside. The canvas was brown and stiff, mended in one place with silver duct tape, a do-it-yourself repair Fred hadn’t noticed the need for from the front—there was too much information coming in at once. They had to handle the painting and examine it without rubbing against the naked, wounded body.

“I’m noticing this blackened area,” Fred said. The center of the canvas, behind the victim’s face, was dark. It smelled like ironing. The stretcher was old but not remarkable. Fred was not that familiar with the materials of the Old Masters; he was more comfortable from the early nineteenth century on. “Nothing written on it anywhere,” Fred said, “unless there’s something under the tape.”

“Don’t touch that,” Bookrajian barked. “Of course not.”

They leaned the painting back into place, where it more or less served as the missing portion of the corpse. A jostle and knocking at the door made Bookrajian shout, “Hold it!” He looked at Fred. “Well?”

“Italian,” Fred said, deciding. “The image and the execution are seventeenth-century. I can’t place the object with an exact date. Say sixteen fifty, give or take thirty years. It could be a good copy made later. It’s by someone who repents of Mannerism, who’s concluded Caravaggio is full of shit. Or, as I say, it’s a good copy.  I don’t need to mention that the subject is not original: just in seventeenth-century Italy, there must have been maybe three hundred painters—”

“Look,” Bookrajian interrupted, “in five minutes I am going to have the Staties in here, and the Fibbies, and for all I know the fucking CI and A, and besides them I am up to the ass in my own experts. We are in a building where next thing I know, they say the king of Thailand keeps his pad here, for him and his thirteen snow-bunnies, and he would appreciate it if we don’t make trouble. Everyone is going to read this their own way and fight to make their version true. All I want is to keep it simple. What I need from you is, so I know if it’s an issue, tell me what that painting is worth.”

“There’s no blood,” Fred  observed.

“Plenty in the bathroom. What do you say, Fred? Are we looking at real money here?”

“Depending on who it’s by and if anyone cares and if it’s not a copy, between five thousand and a quarter of a million bucks,” Fred said, “for a seat-of-the-pants guess. The market for a holy picture is real soft, even if it were a Van Dyke or a Rubens— which it ain’t, if it’s Italian.”

Bookrajian grunted with disgust. “As long as you’re here, look around and see if there’s other artwork you can tell me is worth something. Stay out of the bathroom.” He shouted at the door, or maybe at Fred, “One minute.” Snow was beating against the big window. Fred had lost track of the storm, what with the corpse and the painting.

There was nothing more in this room but travel posters in Nielsen frames showing bikinied women at peace, or exercising, in luscious and exotic places. Fred followed Bookrajian through the entry passage again, and through the kitchenette, whose fan still worked to exhaust the odor of fried fingerprints, and into a master bedroom as bland and beige as the rest of the place. The bedroom enjoyed its own luxurious spread of window over the river, opposite a wall of mirror against which leaned an overearnest still-life painting of zinnias, over-the-sofa size, in an appropriate frame.

Fred told Bookrajian, “That big Jane Peterson set somebody back about twenty grand if they were fool enough to buy it on Newbury Street. Peterson’s a false market—but then what market isn’t?”

“I’ve gotta let my people in,” Bookrajian said, moving himself and Fred toward the door.

“I’d guess the flowers used to be over the mantelpiece,” Fred said, “until this recent decorator got more avant-garde  ideas.”

“You can’t help me with the Jesus picture, that’s what you’re saying?” Bookrajian asked, standing inside the door and almost pleading.

“Get me a good photo. I’ll see what I can  do.”

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