This is my 2nd Round entry for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2014. Having never attempted anything “Mystery” before, the 2000 word and 72 hour time limit became even more of a challenge . . . but in the end, I had fun & it was a good experience to have pushed myself to work through this. If you read the story, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Heat 3 Assignment: Mystery, Tour Guide, Debt
Guilty as Lambs
When a valuable landscape painting goes missing from a Museum already on
the verge of financial collapse, Director Haley Lindon sets out to find the culprit
before the heist hits the news. Little does she know that the truth is more personal
and, in fact, more strange than she could have ever imagined.
It was just before six o’clock, closing time, when Haley Lindon received a call from the lower floor of the Museum. “Sorry to bother you,” Ellyn Myer said, “but something’s wrong down here.”
“I’ll come right down,” Haley replied, pushing back from her desk.
Haley was the newly-hired and extraordinarily young Director of FAMAC, the French Abstract Museum of Albany County. Her first month had been uneventful. She had spent most of it trying to sort through the museum’s financial backlog. The last thing she needed now was “something wrong.”
Haley rushed down the stairs, nearly catching a high heel a few times. Sure, she thought, a tumble down the stairs would be great. Nothing says authority like a body cast. Note to self: Next time, take the elevator. In the Annex, she spotted Ellyn, who was pointing to an empty crate.
Ellyn was the Museum’s ‘Group Experience Liaison’ and still the best Tour Guide on staff, which stood to reason. She’d been there since the seventies when her then-boyfriend, Bernard Bouchard, had turned an inheritance into Museum startup funds. By virtue of association, Ellyn was the matriarch of the Museum, and almost everyone knew to stay out of her way.
“What is it?” Haley asked.
“It’s what it isn’t that’s the problem!” Ellyn shrilled, wagging her finger toward the crate. “That! That is where the Cézanne should be. It’s . . . it’s missing!”
The Museum was small and had only a handful of works by artists the world would consider Masters. A landscape by the famed French artist and so-called ‘Father of Abstraction,’ Paul Cézanne, was among the prized few.
Haley knew that Ms. Marlena DuPhrane-Baxter had donated the painting. It was now an unlikely twist of fate that she was also one of the Museum’s few remaining benefactors.
“I don’t suppose it could have just been . . . misplaced in the chaos of moving?” Haley gestured to the other crates and packing materials.
“Well, Sweetie,” Ellyn said, her tone carefully flirting with the thin line between motherly and condescending, “I thought the same at first, but I’ve gone through the whole inventory, and it’s nowhere to be found. I think it may have been . . . oh, I shudder to think . . . it may have been stolen.”
“I know you must understand the situation this puts us in,” Haley said, in a hushed tone. “I think it best if we don’t notify anyone right away. If we can find the landscape before Monday morning, we can avoid any bad press.”
Ellyn nodded. “Don’t worry, Ms. Lindon. I don’t mind working with you this weekend if you want to do some investigating. I’ve always been keen a good crime drama.”
They agreed that Ellyn would double-check the vestibule to make sure all of the guests were out of the building, and then they’d meet in Haley’s office.
Haley was wired on anxiety while she waited. She tried to sit behind her desk but began pacing instead. “How could this happen?” She asked herself out loud, and then her thoughts raced ahead. Ohmygoodness, I can’t lose this job.
Haley envisioned the Patriot Bank credit card she had maxed out as a high-school student. It had now been following her for more than a decade, whispering “twenty-eight percent” in a menacing tone at the least opportune moments. The looming threat of having to move back into her parents’ home was her primary source of professional ambition.
A knock on the door pulled Haley back into the moment. “Come in,” she called. Ellyn entered, and Haley motioned for her to sit as she dialed the security office. Deke Rawlins, head of Security, answered the phone. “Hello?”
“Deke, it’s Haley. Can you come to my office?” Great, she thought. I can trust Deke. Between he and Ellyn, we should have this cleared up in no time.
When Deke arrived, Haley explained the situation, asking him to go down to the Annex and secure the area. He assured her that he’d handle it. As he headed out the door, he added, “Oh, and of course I’ll also check the surveillance tapes.”
Haley turned to Ellyn. “You had some tour groups today, right? Can you tell me about them?”
“Sure,” Ellyn rewound the day’s events. “At eleven, there was a group from Cambria Senior Center. We took the tour pretty slowly. There were lots of comments about not understanding this ‘new-fangled art’ and such, but I tried to remind them that abstraction was born before the twentieth century. I was wishing that we had the remaining permanent collection pieces hanging, rather than in moving crates. They would have helped my argument.
“Oh, and, one gentleman from the Cambria staff did excuse himself partway through the tour, saying something about a ‘family emergency,’ but . . .”
“Interesting.” Haley had pulled a pad of paper from a desk drawer and was making notes. “Anything else?”
“Well, around three, I had a group of rowdy fourth-graders, plus a handful of teachers and chaperones.”
“Sounds . . . intense.”
“You bet. Oh, I should probably mention that I recognized one of the chaperones—Richard Janson. He used to be one of the museum’s trustees.”
“I hadn’t seen him in years, so we had a pleasant little catch-up—he was there with his Grandson’s class.”
“Would he have any motive to steal a painting?”
“Well,” Ellyn paused and cleared her throat, shifting her eyes slightly. “He and Bernard Bouchard didn’t see eye-to-eye on a lot of things. Around the time the museum was really starting to flourish, they had a bit of a falling out.”
“Wow, I didn’t realize.”
“In fact, that’s why Richard left the Board, and then, . . .” Ellyn paused. “It wasn’t long afterward that Bernard resigned and . . . left us.”
Haley gave a somber nod as she finished scrawling. “Ellyn, could you bring me the registration info for the tours? I’ll head down to talk to Deke. Can you join us in Security?”
“Actually, one more question before you go—if you don’t mind . . . ?”
“I’ve heard that you dated Mr. Bouchard. Did you have any hard feelings toward Richard Janson?”
Ellyn straightened her back in the chair and leveled her eyes at Haley. “Ms. Lindon, Bernard Bouchard and I were in love, but I figured it was just men’s business, so I stayed out of it. I knew my place, as I do now.”
Haley nodded, hoping not to push too far but not wanting to miss anything, “And how long after Bernard left did you marry Clyde?”
Ellyn bristled. She didn’t like to think about those two events simultaneously. “Well, Ms. Lindon, Mr. Myer and I married five years later.”
Just then, an alarm blared, causing both women to jolt to their feet. “Holy smokes, what now?” Haley shouted over the shrieking beeps.
Since it was after hours, only a few people were in the building, but as everyone spilled onto the dark sidewalk, Haley was on the alert. Maya Deloso, the Director of the Museum Shop, emerged clutching the collar of her large purple overcoat, and Ryan Mimmering, from the Information Desk, lit a cigarette as soon as he reached the street. “Wild, eh?” he said, nudging Haley.
“That’s one word for it.”
“What happened?” Haley asked Deke, who was already there when she arrived.
“Dunno,” he said. “I was rolling through security footage when all of a sudden the alarm went.”
“Great. Anything on the tapes?”
“Actually, Ma’am,” Deke said, gesturing to the others, “let’s discuss it privately.”
Haley was more than eager to hear what Deke might have discovered, so she told the rest of the staff to go ahead home. She’d stay with Deke until the alarm issue was resolved.
“Let’s meet back here in the morning,” she said to Ellyn. “My office at eight.”
As Ellyn entered her living room and slipped off her coat and scarf, she spotted Mr. Charlie, their near-sighted Scottie, lapping vanilla ice cream out of his dish. Clyde was in his blue armchair with the sports section of the Albany Herald.
“Hello, Dear,” he said from behind the paper.
“Clyde, how many times have we talked about not feeding him people food?”
“He was worried because you were running late. I thought it would calm him down. How did it go?” Clyde asked.
Ellyn settled onto the couch and kicked off her shoes. “That girl is an idiot.”
Mr. Charlie hopped up onto the couch next to Ellyn and wagged his tail. He still had a dab of ice cream on his nose.
“I knew she’d do this,” Ellyn continued. “Just one more reason she has to go. What kind of a moron thinks she should handle the investigation of a multi-million dollar painting heist on her own?”
“Well, you know what I suggested yesterday. What I’m still suggesting.”
“Don’t start, Clyde.”
“Seriously, though, we should split. We can just head south of the border. Find a little casa and lay low for a while. Eventually, when the dust settles, we cash in.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ellyn said, cutting him off. “We don’t know anything about living as lambs. No. We follow the plan.”
“I think you mean living ‘on the lam,’ and I swear we could make it work.”
“That’s just crazy, Clyde,” Ellyn snapped.
“Now, Dear, I don’t think you really want to go toe-to-toe on crazy. You’re the one who decided to take up larceny in her fifties. A lot of women go with needlepoint or Bridge.”
Ellyn couldn’t argue. She knew she’d dismissed his concerns about the scheme flat out. She had been convinced it would be the perfect crime—and that it was the only way to save her beloved museum. Bad press to oust Haley. Insurance money to pay the bills.
Ellyn stared at the living room windows. The night was cold and the streetlights made the windowpanes an opaque ashy color that reminded her of Picasso’s grey period. Finally, she broke the silence. “I think I’ll just go to bed now. Today was exhausting.”
“Before you go,” Clyde said, rising and putting his arms around her. “Please just consider dreaming about the fortune you have stashed under the flowered couch, and if you’re up to it in the morning, I’ll review my plans with you. I know just how that thing can transform my quiet retirement into a taste of the good life.”
The next morning, Ellyn awoke to the sound of music. She stirred and slipped on her pale yellow housecoat. In the living room, she was greeted with salsa music and the sight of furniture draped in red, green and gold banners. For a second, she thought she was dreaming . . . but no.
“Clyyyde,” she shouted. “What on earth is this?”
On cue, Clyde emerged from the kitchen, smiling. “This is Cantina Tropical, the scene of our first date.” He chuckled as he handed Ellyn a margarita glass full of juice.
“My friend Señor Charlie and I have a surprise for you.”
At the sound of his name, Charlie entered, dressed in a miniature mariachi costume and saddled with a tiny backpack. “Open the bag,” Clyde prodded.
Ellyn looked skeptical but couldn’t stifle her laughter as she scooped up Charlie. “You boys are trouble,” she said and then gasped. Inside the backpack, she found two airplane tickets and two passports identifying them as Mr. and Mrs. Jones.
She looked at Clyde, and he simply grabbed her by the hand and began to twirl her around the living room in time to the music.
“Come away with me, mi Amor,” he said, depositing her safely in a nearby chair and kneeling by her side.
Breathless and laughing, Ellyn reached for the phone. “I’m sorry, Ms. Lindon,” she coughed. “I’m feeling sick and won’t be able to help you with the investigation this weekend after all.”