by Robert Weibezahl
Enjoy this mystery short story previously published in CrimeSpree.
He loathed the thing with a grand passion that far exceeded its worth. What was it exactly? Officially it was art, but you couldn’t prove that by him. Even setting aside the philosophical argument over what is and what is not art, the thing was undeniably ugly. Sometimes Neena called it a sculpture, sometimes she referred to it as an installation. Whatever it was, Reggie hated the thing.
“You only hate it because it’s Edmond’s work,” Neena would say when he would suggest that perhaps they could sell it, or whenever she caught him glaring at it with disdain. He did this often, for the thing was positioned right in the middle of their loft and it was impossible to find refuge from its looming presence in the otherwise airy space they shared just east of downtown.
He didn’t hate it because it was Edmond’s work. He hated it because it was irredeemably vile. True, he disliked Edmond. Not because Edmond was Neena’s ex, mind you, but because he too was vile–a disagreeable, pompous and decidedly second-rate poseur who had the temerity to believe himself a great artist. What could be worse? Unfortunately, Neena had remained on friendly terms with Edmond after their divorce and even after she had married Reggie. And Reggie could not abide the pretentious clod.
But it was not Edmond coming between them. It was the hideous thing suspended from the tall ceiling of the loft, a visual cacophony of twisted metal and paint-splattered fabric. Reggie took to calling the sculpture, or the installation, or whatever it was, the “objet d’art,” a designation that first irked Neena and then quickly worked its way under her skin.
“You make it sound like some worthless thing we picked up in a tourist shop in Athens or Florence,” Neena protested.
“Or Madame Tussaud’s,” Reggie muttered.
“What do you know about art, anyway?” she countered. “You’re just a graphic designer, for godsake.”
This was a hurtful remark and they both knew it. He was not just a graphic designer; he was one of the most celebrated and highly paid graphic designers in the city. Unless you were a hermit, you couldn’t get through the day without seeing one of his hip visual creations in a magazine, on a billboard, on a package in the grocery store. He was the best at what he did and he made a lot of money–far more than he would have made if he had followed his original plan to be a painter and far more than Edmond.
“Look who’s talking,” Reggie said limply. “You’re nothing but a glorified receptionist at that so-called gallery.”
They would withdraw to neutral corners after these increasingly frequent squabbles. Yes, silly as it seemed, the very presence of the sculpture was putting an ever-mounting strain on their marriage. The more Reggie pleaded with Neena to be reasonable and get rid of the thing, though, the deeper she dug in her heels.
“Listen,” she said one day during a particularly heated argument. “I think Edmond is on the verge of hitting it big. The sculpture will be worth ten times what it’s worth right now if we just wait a while. I promise, we’ll sell it then.”
Reggie couldn’t imagine that Edmond would ever hit it big, at least not with his art. Maybe in the scrap metal business. “You’re delusional if you think that creep will ever be a success as an artist. He has no talent.”
“Look at Jeff Koons,” she countered.
He shrugged. “Okay, strange things happen,” he said. “But trust me. Even Edmond, with his high opinion of himself and his flare for the dramatic, can’t parlay that–” he pointed at the pile of cast-off junk “– into a successful career. Edmond is not some misunderstood genius, waiting to be recognized, laboring away in obscurity only to become famous after he’s dead. He’s not Van Gogh.”
That was the moment the idea began to take shape.
Edmond DuPré’s death was a cause célèbre, not only in the circumscribed art world, but in the entire city and beyond. No one was more surprised than Neena or Reggie when the account of his apparent suicide was given prominent space on the front page of the Metro section instead of being relegated to the cultural news briefs, or merely placed among the obits. The reporter from the Times spared none of the grisly details in her account of how Edmond’s attenuated corpse was found in his grimy apartment, dangling from a length of coaxial cable, hoisted from the floor by a block and tackle device he had used to work on his sculpture. Coaxial cable, a reporter on Channel 4 revealed with a breathless air of authority, had been Edmond’s current medium of choice for his art.
Overnight, the dead artist, whose name would have elicited blank stares from most people the day before his death, was an instant celebrity, the subject of endless discussions at chic dinner parties and over the bristling airwaves of talk radio. True, very few amid the swell of public mourners knew much or cared about art, but everyone, it seemed, loved the tragic story of a disappointed, tortured artist giving into despair and hanging himself.
The value of original DuPrés began to rise with increasing–some would say alarming – speed. A small museum south of Toledo, which only recently had been regretting an impulse purchase of six DuPrés a few years back, quickly organized a retrospective and positioned itself as the repository of that great artist’s work. Collectors in New York, in Los Angeles and even in Paris and Berlin, began snapping up anything that came on the market. One early work, done by Edmond when he was barely out of art school and judged inferior even by his most vociferous advocates, surfaced from a private collection and broke the million-dollar barrier at a Sotheby’s auction not three months after poor Edmond was found swinging from the hunk of cable.
The plan had worked. The time had come to sell the sculpture that for so long had plagued the marriage of Neena and Reggie. Neena, of course, wanted to hold off a bit longer, convinced (rightly, it would turn out) that the inflated prices for DuPrés had not yet reached their pinnacle. But Reggie reminded her of their agreement to dispose of the work and Neena reluctantly capitulated. They made an appointment with the gallery owner who was handling Edmond’s estate.
It was on the very day of their appointment that Reggie was arrested for the murder of Edmond DuPré.
The trial and conviction of Reginald Pratt brought a new round of media attention to the tragic life and untimely death of that newly discovered genius, Edmond DuPré. Right from the beginning, it would seem, the police suspected homicide, but they had kept their investigation low-key due to the high profile of the death and the bothersome lack of suspects. The presence of a large quantity of sedatives in Edmond’s system suggested that he had been drugged and then hung from the cable by someone. His death by asphyxiation had not been a desperate act of suicide, but a cold-blooded act of murder.
Reggie denied everything, but the evidence weighed heavily against him. One of Edmond’s neighbors, a middle-aged woman and alleged drug addict, had seen Reggie at the apartment the morning the artist died. Forensics lifted Reggie’s prints from numerous surfaces, including a glass, left in the sink, which also bore traces of the sedative that had lulled poor Edmond into his final sleep. Reggie admitted that he had been at the apartment that morning, but only to drop off some legal papers on behalf of Neena. The distraught Neena confirmed this errand. Seeming genuinely perplexed, Reggie told the police and later the jury, that he had no explanation for the sedative-tainted glass containing his prints, for though it had been a hot day, Edmond had not offered him so much as a glass of tap water.
But then there was the matter of motive. Reggie was married to Edmond’s ex-wife, after all. It was highly plausible that some measure of bad blood flowed between them. On the witness stand, put there by the defense but used to greater effect by the prosecution, Neena had admitted with great reluctance that Reggie had often called Edmond a talentless bore. Could Reggie, whom the Times referred to more than once as a “failed painter,” have harbored some deep professional jealousy for a man who–unlike himself–had not compromised his dream, had made the ultimate sacrifice and dedicated himself to his art?
The jury of twelve newly-born art aficionados recommended the death penalty for the stunned graphic artist. The compassionate judge, who felt he knew a thing or two about art himself, converted Reggie’s sentence to life imprisonment.
With the prospect of life behind bars ahead of him, Reggie agreed to a divorce, freeing Neena to marry again. When she did, she once more stayed within the comfortable world she had come to know so well. For husband number three, this latter day Alma Mahler–married first to that beloved conceptual artist Edmond DuPré, and next to the innovative graphic artist Reginald Pratt–chose Edmond’s executor, the renowned art dealer Jenner Bryant, who had been so supportive throughout her ordeal, and who had helped her get a wildly-inflated price when she finally sold Edmond’s sculpture along with some other works. She sold the loft too, and moved across town to Jenner’s palatial mid-century digs.
Neena proved herself indispensable to Jenner and his thriving art business, and soon she was a full partner at the gallery. She completely took over the handling of the DuPré estate, which over the next few years became a thriving enterprise all its own. With so little inventory from an artist who had died so tragically young, those pieces that did come on the market commanded increasingly outrageous prices at auction. Having once been DuPré’s wife, Neena donned the mantle of genius’s widow with aplomb. She was sought out as the expert on the life and times of Edmond DuPré, and was even prominently featured in a PBS documentary about the sculptor.
Occasionally Neena’s thoughts would turn to poor Reggie, wasting away in the state penitentiary, his numerous appeals coming to naught. She even, on occasion, would feel a momentary pang of sadness that things had turned out as they had. But her sadness would pass quickly enough, for she had so much to attend to, so much to distract her from those horrible events. She liked to dwell on the positive and anyone could see that things were going her way.
An unexpected visitor, a graduate student in art history from the university, arrived at the gallery one sunny January day about three years after Edmond’s murder.
“Oh, please call me Fiona,” the girl enthused, when Jenner introduced her to Neena as “Ms. Clarkson.” She was an eager young thing, no more than twenty-five Neena guessed, and pretty in an off-beat, starving student sort of way. Neena noticed how attentive Jenner was around the girl.
“It’s so amazing of Mr. Bryant to agree to talk to me. And to introduce me to you,” Fiona said with oozing solicitude.
“Fiona is working on her dissertation,” Jenner explained. “She’s writing about Edmond.”
Neena had to suppress an ironic smile; her first thought being what poor Reggie would say if he ever learned someone was writing a graduate dissertation on Edmond’s work.
“How…original,” Neena said, with a coarse smile.
“And I’m hoping…you know…” the girl hesitated in a way Neena found artful, if practiced, “that you would be willing to help me as I do my research. I mean, no one knew Edmond DuPré as well as you.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Neena said. She had never before thought about it quite that way and for some reason it made her sad.
Over the next few months, Fiona came to Neena with many questions about Edmond’s life and work, and Neena answered them when she could or pointed the girl to other sources when she could not. When that source was Jenner, Neena was careful to be present at their meetings. She had never been the jealous type and was fully aware of her own charms, but she was nobody’s fool either. Happy with the way things were with husband number three, she was not about to risk losing him.
Then one day in April, Fiona–who recently had been concentrating on the period surrounding Edmond’s final days–arrived at the gallery with a cache of new documents that she had managed to obtain from a young police detective. It was the file from the DuPré murder investigation.
Though she had no illusions about how Fiona had managed to finagle this information from the cop, Neena was still appalled. She had no interest in wading through these gruesome details of the crime and she emphatically said so. As Jenner went through the file with Fiona, Neena retreated to a corner of the office and pretended to be absorbed in some paperwork, keeping a watchful eye on her husband and the nubile grad student.
Much to Neena’s dismay, Jenner not only did not share her sense of propriety, but he seemed to relish the task of going through the police records. He read bits of transcripts aloud, commenting on them as if the case had nothing to do with his life, as if he had never known Edmond, or Reggie, or Neena for that matter, and it were just some true crime chronicle in Vanity Fair. Neena found the whole thing distasteful and was about to say so, when the mood in the room palpably shifted. Jenner had stopped reading and was sifting through a stack of photographs.
“Those are from the crime scene,” Fiona explained. “You don’t have to look at them if you don’t–”
But on the contrary, Jenner was absorbed in the grisly images. He looked at each for far longer than Neena felt appropriate before moving on to the next. When he arrived at one photo, his expression melted into a perplexed look.
“What’s this one doing in here?” he asked.
“What’s that?” Fiona asked.
“It’s a picture of the sculpture.” He held up the picture for Neena to see. “Edmond’s sculpture. The one you had in the loft. The one we sold after–”
Fiona took the photo from him, glanced at it, and handed it back. “No,” she said, “that’s not a sculpture. That’s…” she hesitated. “That’s Edmond. His body, I mean, before they took it down.”
Neena felt a chill wind, though the window of Jenner’s office was firmly shut. She looked up and saw him staring at her. “Come see,” he said. “Edmond’s body. It looks just like your sculpture.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Neena said, with just a little too much vehemence in her voice.
It was her tone that betrayed her. Jenner’s eyes locked on hers, and at that moment she knew that he knew what she had done.
What Jenner didn’t know–could never fully understand–was how Reggie had grown so tiresome, just as Edmond had before him and what a relief it had been to have them both out of her life. How Reggie himself had so innocently planted the idea in her head with that offhand remark about Van Gogh, and how easy it had been to carry out. She had sent Reggie to Edmond’s that morning, quite certain that he would be seen by someone. Of course, when she went there herself a few hours later, she took special care not to be noticed. Edmond had seemed so pleased to see her. As luck would have it–she had always been lucky–he was celebrating a new commission, and he marveled that she had thought to bring a bottle of wine. The Merlot masked the bitter taste of the sedatives perfectly.
How lucky, too, that Edmond had taken some of their kitchen glassware when they had split up the contents of their apartment after the divorce. Having the same water tumblers had made it so much easier for her to bring along the one from home, the one Reggie had drunk from that morning, leaving those deliciously clear fingerprints. It was a snap adding some residue from the sedatives to the glass and planting it among the disarray in Edmond’s kitchen. The wine glasses she carefully scrubbed and put away were probably the first and only things washed in that kitchen in a week.
She had thought it such a clever irony, the way she had left Edmond hanging there from the ceiling, mimicking the posture of the suspended sculpture that had started it all. Her decision to do so had been a work of art in itself. No one noticed, of course. She had always had the soul of an artist, even if the men in her life failed to recognize the creative spirit that was such an essential part of who she was. Wasn’t artifice the supreme object of art? Hadn’t this crime been an act of pure artistry? Her only regret had been that she would always have to remain silent about the genius of her art. Yet now that someone–Jenner–had recognized it, she regretted that, too.
His eyes were fixed on her still; unblinking, she stared back. What he would do with this knowledge, she wondered. Would he turn her in? Or would he appreciate the irony of it all? He really should thank her. After all, hadn’t her actions helped make him a rich man? But if he didn’t see things her way… the alternatives would not be pretty, no matter which of them proved the victor.
“Fiona,” Neena said, with an icy lack of inflection. “Could you give Jenner and me a moment alone?”
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