“Murder at the Museum,” Fiction

By Joanne Pateman

    My mother sits in her yellow leather recliner. It cradles her the way a catcher’s mitt embraces a baseball, her body’s impressions molded into its contours.

    She uses a golf cart to get around the fields of flowers and vegetables grown on the farm that has been in her family for centuries. The farmstand is open all summer, and a locked metal box with chipped green paint accommodates customers and accepts money after Thanksgiving. To supplement the money from vegetables and flowers, we raise cows and make artisanal cheeses like triple creme, Brie, and cheddar that we sell at farmers markets and gourmet stores.

    We just made an investment in goats to expand our cheese line. It now includes a creamy goat cheese and a crumbly feta that I use in a salad with Mom’s heirloom red and orange beets, for a delicious combination of salt and sweet. Mustafa, a goat farmer from Yemen, is helping with goat husbandry.

    Delightful Doe, our “goatique” line — regenerating cleanser, rejuvenating serum, and replenishing nutrient cream — is based on goat milk and guarantees beautiful skin. I use my marketing expertise to package and promote the products. We also sell cow manure, Patty Plant Pleasers, for fertilizer, and goat droppings, Golden Nug­gets, are sold in five-pound bags for $10, available at Agway. 
     
    We also slaughter sheep that we sell to local gourmet stores, and the lamb testicles to a fancy French restaurant in Manhattan where we’re told they melt in your mouth. We dispatch them to the restaurant via the Jitney packed with ice in a red-and-white plastic picnic cooler, like corneas for transplants are shipped.

    It feels right to be home, being productive and in sync with the seasons. I don’t mind the hard work. I feel virtuous to be physically tired at the end of the day instead of stressed like when I worked in the city and had my marketing plan rejected.

    Looking out I see one black sheep that interrupts the well-behaved, evenly spaced white flock. Charles Lord reminds me of the black sheep. He ended up being slaughtered too.

    The first time I met Charles Lord he had recently been made director of the Burton Hampton Historical Society. He was looking for someone to write press releases, and I needed a job at the time, so I went to interview with him.

    He sat at a massive Georgian partners’ desk, early 19th-century with gilt tooling around the black leather writing surface. Neat piles of papers equidistant from the other, pens, and a yellow legal pad at right angles. Charles rose and offered a surprisingly strong handshake for such a slight man. The desk was a barrier and served to demarcate his turf. I sat opposite in a flimsy, antique side chair that was so brittle I feared I’d break it. He blinked his eyes open and shut them tightly as if he was trying to block something out. He couldn’t sit still, and shifted from one cheek to the other.

    The job was part time, two days a week, and fit nicely into my schedule. It was the perfect work for me, Sophie Daniels, newly returned from living in the city and ready to sink into my old roots, into the local sod where my family’s ancestors farmed near the local waters.

    I was born at Burton Hampton Hospital, graduated from Burton Hampton High School, and went away to college. My family impressed Charles. The Daniels family was among the early settlers and whaling captains, and streets still bore our name: Daniels Lane, Daniels Crossing, Daniels Path, and Daniels Street. Not much had changed concerning real estate in more than 300 years. In the early 1600s nonlocals were kept out by special taxes, just as today there’s a transaction tax on house sales and a community preservation tax and very expensive summer rentals to limit people crossing the imaginary moat.

    Charles was charming and witty. I developed a crush on him that led to fantasies of being together as a couple. Later, I changed my mind. Charles knew everything about the local families — the Hillocks, Derricks, Fosters, Corwins, Corwiths, Rogers, Whites, and Blacks. Charles had a fascination with genealogy, a prurient interest in making history spicy. He could recite stories of whaling captains and their voyages learned from reading the ships’ logs and could list the treasure the whaling captains brought home from travels to the Orient: Japanese fans, bone scrimshaw, and blue-and-white export china. But he made people cringe when he called Hampton Bays “Hampton’s Bay.”

    Charles Lord kept his secret life hidden like dust mites under an antique oriental carpet. His death revealed that he wasn’t what he appeared to be. He and his wife, Violet, acted like they had always lived in Burton Hampton, but I found out Charles was from a depressed South Carolina town. It turned out he had been an adjunct art history professor at a small community college in his hometown and had never headed a historic house museum, as he said.

    The Burton Hampton Historical Society was as musty and fusty as the board of trustees that governed it. They all worshiped at the local church. There was Gigi Needles, who knitted through board meetings, needles rhythmically click-clattering. The treasurer, Jeff Higgins, didn’t have a clue about money, which was why the museum was in such dire financial straits. His wife prepared the monthly financial reports for the board but they were difficult to read with the rows of figures staggering this way and that like a drunken sailor.

    So Charles was a breath of fresh air who guided the Collections Committee to edit and get rid of duplicate objects. Charles enlisted Sotheby’s and Christie’s to auction some early American furniture, and sold off Native American artifacts of dubious merit and duplicate farm tools, including 10 spinning wheels.

    Always on the prowl for quality additions to the museum’s collections, Charles saw a football in the antique store, Second Hand Rose, and had to have it. Other vintage sports equipment surrounded it: a cricket bat, wooden golf clubs, and some 1890s gutta-percha golf balls. The cracked pigskin leather was wrinkled like an old grandmother who was a heavy smoker. Spalding, it said on the side. It was squishy and textured as Charles touched the tiny hole where the air was pumped in.

    Charles Lord loved football but wasn’t good at sports; he was too slender, not very coordinated, and hated getting dirty. He was never chosen to be on a team. He could never master the spiral throw. His classmates said he threw like a girl. Charles Lord wasn’t a jock, but a jock sniffer, hanging around the players in the locker room, keeping stats of completed plays, and cutting up oranges for halftime.

    He bought the football for the historical society’s sports memorabilia collection underwritten by the Lillywhite family, whose original toy and sporting goods store was in London’s Piccadilly Circus.

    Charles Lord wanted the museum to be first rate so he could be reflected in its glory, and his aspirations went beyond the board’s wildest dreams. Our Charles had many good qualities. He flattered everyone and assured them they were the most important people he had ever met. It was easy to be seduced by him and his self-deprecating wit.

    I was a loyal follower of the architectural walking tours of Burton Hampton that Charles gave in the summer that featured a different neighborhood each week. Charles Lord loved an admiring audience. He relished being on local radio, promoting the museum’s programs, and being interviewed for the newspaper, The Burton Hampton Express.

    He wowed the architectural aficionados with his knowledge of Queen Anne, Greek Revival, Italian Renaissance, Arts and Crafts, and the local Shingle Style. After the second year I caught him in a number of mistakes but he didn’t like being challenged, so I didn’t say a word. He charged the museum for his time leading the tours, but he also got a sponsorship from a real estate firm that he pocketed.

    Charles’s wife Violet was as shy and soft-spoken as her name. She didn’t shrink as much as cower. Rumor suggested abuse.

    “What happened to your arm? I asked.

    “I bruise easily,” she said.

    When she spoke, you had to lean close to hear. But she hardly uttered a word, so not much leaning was needed.

    “Violet can do it,” Charles said when walls had to be painted for a new exhibit. Violet hunched like a turtle trying to get back into her shell. She had straight, mousy brown hair that hung like two curtains on either side of her beak-like nose. Her eyes were too close together, and she favored long, droopy skirts that hid her thick ankles. She shuffled as she walked, as if her feet had been bound in Qing Dynasty China.

    Charles Lord’s teeth were crooked in the front, one overlapping the other in a random, lazy way as if they couldn’t decide which direction to go. He was self-conscious of his smile and perfected a closed-mouth grin. Not everyone with crooked teeth is a crook, but Charles was one.

    Charles would talk about antiques as if he were on intimate terms with the Dominy brothers who crafted beautiful tables in the 1700s. He loved old silver, especially anything by DuBois, a Huguenot master silversmith in Colonial times. A DuBois teapot on “Antiques Roadshow” was estimated to be worth close to $20,000. Charles Lord had the ability to make history come alive. He made cold silver warm and sensuous. I watched his finger follow the spout of his favorite DuBois creamer the way a lover traced the curve of his beloved.

    The twinkle in his robin’s egg eyes was magnified through his steel-rimmed glasses. I didn’t see the duplicity that lurked beneath. Perhaps I chose not to. Charles’s flannel shirts and faded jeans that barely stayed on his slim hips were a ruse. He would have preferred Ralph Lauren or custom Brooks Brothers shirts. It took five years for the truth to be extricated from his web of crime.

    He loved gossip and was sweet as honey to your face but then destroyed you the moment you left the room. He could be charming when he needed you and mean and devious as a snake if thwarted. He spoke slowly and deliberately when he wasn’t shouting hysterically on the phone. When I called him at home to check a fact for a press release, his voice on the answering machine picked up.

    “You’ve reached Charles Lord of Burton Hampton.”

    The self-important tone gave me a clue to the real Charles Lord. He thought highly of himself and his Burton Hampton address. He was judgmental. He was a container of false modesty. He was a dirty blonde version of Uriah Heep.

    He knew all about Jebediah Perkins, a local sea captain who made his money from the opium trade, transporting raw opium from India to China for the East India Company. Charles wanted the Perkins house. He sweet-talked descendant Rebecca Perkins into leaving the 1750s house with the captain’s walk to the museum.

    At her death she gave it without restrictions, and Charles Lord moved in. The board painted the house and put in stainless steel appliances and a Garland stove. He had a fund-raiser for new furnishings and borrowed pieces from the society’s collection.

    After his death it was discovered that he had never filed the requisite annual forms to record what the museum sold or acquired in the previous five years. This paperwork was necessary to keep the museum’s state charter but Charles couldn’t be bothered with the details of museum management.

    While at the museum, I discovered he put revenue from collection sales into the general operating fund, a no-no in the bylaws of the Museum. Charles Lord used this money to buy DuBois silver on Ebay. Forged bills of sale were found. He took large commissions. The board knew nothing. How he managed to deceive so many people for as long remains a mystery. An investigation found he was using the museum’s e-mail account to access gay porn. After his messy demise, his homosexuality was revealed. Charles Lord’s life was a soap opera with drama, intrigue, and sexual peccadilloes. He stayed in the closet till his death; but not even a closet with beautiful, Colonial Revival molding could save him.

TO BE CONTINUED


    Joanne Pateman received a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Southampton College. She has previously published fiction and “Guestwords” columns in The Star.