“Murder at the Museum,” Fiction

By Joanne Pateman

Part Two
     Charles Lord’s loss of control provoked a panic attack. When asked why the next exhibit was behind schedule, he screamed at me.
    “I am in charge of all Museum exhibits. Don’t you d . . . d . . . dare to question me,” he stuttered.
    “I just wanted to help.”
    “It’s under control.”
    His face got high-blood-pressure red. His bloodshot blue eyes bulged from his head, and his sparse hair stood on end. I left the room to file some papers.
    Charles couldn’t manipulate the new board as he had the previous one. They were financial planners, educators, and local business owners who were more savvy about finances. They asked questions and his vague answers didn’t satisfy. Trustees were wary. Accusations were made, which Charles Lord denied. The board didn’t have any proof. But things quickly began to smell.
    An $80,000 slant-front Georgian desk was worth half of what the museum paid, as Leigh Keno from Sotheby’s determined in his appraisal. Charles needed the money to stop his lover, Johnny Apple, from blackmailing him. I overheard a phone conversation with Johnny. Charles didn’t hear me enter the room.
    “I can’t get you any more money. I’ve taken all I could.”
    “No. No, please don’t leave me, I’ll find some somewhere.”
    “They’re starting to get suspicious.”
    “Alright, 9 tonight at . . .”
    “But I need more time to get the rest.”
    That night I wore a baseball cap and sat concealed behind a plastic fern. Charles Lord slid into the booth opposite Johnny Apple. Johnny had a Komodo dragon tattooed on his right arm that chased the tail of the dragon on his left arm. He wore a white sleeveless undershirt that showed the dragons rippling over his biceps. They ordered beers. Charles surreptitiously touched Johnny’s tattoo with his finger; he couldn’t keep his hands off him.
    “Lower your voice please,” Charles said to him.
    Johnny rolled his eyes in reply.
    Charles passed an envelope across the table to Johnny, then left with a lingering look over his shoulder. Johnny played country western tunes on the jukebox.
    If the museum board had known about Johnny it would have fired Charles. But being fired would have been better than being dead.
    The board of trustees was suspicious and was in the process of a personnel review of Charles. But Charles Lord was murdered first.
    Charles had been missing for three days. No one knew where he was. Frantic calls to Violet provided no news.
    She said, “He’s at the Society. He’s always at the Society.”
     He had missed important meetings: Executive Board, Education and Collections. Rumor was rampant. Where was Charles Lord?
    A putrid smell alerted the security guard, and a police bloodhound found the source. The dog sniffed and pointed to the early American highboy in the music room, with its crowned shell motif. Charles Lord’s chopped-up body parts were discovered in the 18th- century antique. A yellow crime-scene tape surrounded the highboy, clashing with the colonial decor of the Music Room.
    His head was in one drawer, arms in another, torso in another, and his genitals and legs in still another. The piece wasn’t designed for body parts even with all its drawers and cubbies. Blood had dripped through the drawers down to its carved cabriole legs. The highboy had to be restored at great expense.
    Violet’s husband had died and everyone knew but her. Violet couldn’t cope with his death and disgrace. She hanged herself with a silk cord attached to a Tiffany chandelier in the museum parlor. Her weight pulled the chandelier from its moorings and she crashed to the polished parquet floor, snapping her neck between the fifth and sixth vertebrae. The fixture was shattered. Her life was no longer tenable in a small town, where news of her suicide spread like dandelion seeds on a breezy spring morning.
    Violet’s arms were splayed akimbo, and her legs appeared to be dancing, suggesting a grace she never had in life. Her body was watched over by a portrait of whaling Captain Josiah Herrick, whose dour expression reflected his disapproval.
    Charles Lord was a liar, armored in defenses and self-delusion. He was a convincing actor, for a time, but his deceit became obvious. Incriminating videos were found when the police searched Charles Lord’s house for clues of who murdered him. High-resolution videos posted on the Internet showed that Johnny Apple, Charles Lord, and Violet had been enjoying threesomes on a regular basis.
    The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was in shock. They had just given the museum a large grant for new computer education. Charles’s exploits were an education of a different kind for the D.A.R. ladies.
    The police watched the videos and questioned Johnny but released him for lack of evidence. His alibi was that he was on his boat fishing.
    It was a misty winter day when Johnny Apple’s body was found on Dune Beach. The ocean foamed, and the gray sky merged with the scowling sea. Johnny was good-looking, with sun-bleached hair. But arrogance convinced him he could outrun waves and get away with murder. Not this time. His white Chevy pickup rolled off an incline as he speeded along the edge of the ocean. The sea scooped him up in its angry arms, and he drowned when the door to his truck wouldn’t open. His lungs filled with water.
    The rescue people dragged the lifeless body from the vehicle and zipped it into a body bag like leftovers going into the freezer. A film of fog made a surreal purgatory and softened the ambulance’s red and blue flashing lights.
    The murder weapon, an antique saber from the museum’s collection, was found with Johnny’s fingerprints on it. Johnny Apple had killed Charles Lord. He too was gone, pickled in brine like an old limp cucumber.
    I once cared for Charles Lord and he scorned me but I remember him with affection. I notified the members of the board of trustees to get them to come to Charles Lord’s funeral. No one would come. The president of the board of trustees said,
    “I couldn’t. I belong to the Bathing Corp. and the Meadow Club. No, I’m sorry.”
    It was pouring cold wetness around the freshly dug hole. I got the priest from the Episcopal Church to say a few words. Charles Lord, who wanted so desperately to be part of Burton Hampton society, was alone.
    When the priest came to “dust to dust, ashes to ashes,” I thought to Charles, “I’m sorry I loved you. I couldn’t help myself. You betrayed your wife, Violet, for Johnny Apple, and you would have betrayed me. I stayed behind at the museum polishing DuBois silver, rubbing tarnish away till it gleamed, reflecting my sadness. I was hoping a genie would pop out and grant me my wish to be loved by you. I wanted a kind word but you never noticed me.”
    Charles, you would have looked so handsome in your coffin if you hadn’t gotten mixed up with that Johnny Apple. Now you were in pieces. A tear slid down my face. I caught it with my tongue and tasted the bitterness of my longing. Then it was over.
    But interrupting my grief, a young girl, who I didn’t recognize, joined the priest and me. She said,
    “Did you know my father?”
    I didn’t know Charles Lord was a father.
    I answered, “Yes, I worked for him. I didn’t know he had children.”
     “I never knew him. My mother saw the obit in the paper and said his real name was Charles Levine and that he changed it to Charles Lord after a drug charge. “
    “Really?” I said.
    “My mother had an affair with him before Charles Levine moved away. He didn’t know my mother was pregnant.”
    People acted as if Charles Lord hadn’t duped the whole town. No surprise at his grisly death. They pretended he hadn’t betrayed them. They were gullible. They bought into his charm and flattery. They didn’t recognize his duplicitous behavior until it was too late and he was chopped up like a horse butchered for dog food.
    People forgive and forget. I forgave him so I could get on with my life. The mayor suggested a Charles Lord scholarship and the town rehabilitated Charles Lord’s reputation to vindicate their own. The village decided that he had done much good for the town. Charles got the boarded up DuBois Shop opened. He installed a designer from Tiffany’s to give jewelry-making classes. Charles Lord received the kudos and accolades he felt he deserved as the DuBois Shop turned into a profit center for the museum.
    After the scandal had died down the village put up a discreet plaque that said “The Charles Lord Community Garden” in back of the DuBois Shop. The local Boy Scouts maintained it.
    In the end his body parts came together, just not the way they were originally assembled. The rain stopped and the clouds closed in all pink and grey to obscure the sunny day. The leaves hinted at change and the green ferns turned to gold right before my eyes.
    My infatuation for Charles Lord ended when I met Bob Harding, who had his own landscaping business. I met him at the Public House one Friday night when he bought me a pumpkin ale. I liked his blue eyes, same as Charles Lord’s. Bob was refreshing after the arrogant, investment bankers I dated in the city who offered a spreadsheet of their net worth without being asked.
    Bob took me fishing, and he caught a striped bass that I stuffed with crabmeat and fennel. He moved into the Daniels homestead with me. The artisanal cheeses, lamb testicles, and the goat milk cosmetics are booming. Sales spiked after the beauty editor of Vogue gave us a nice write-up for our Delightful Doe beauty line. We barter cheese and lamb for wine from North Fork vineyards. We lead an authentic, ordinary existence.
    Life goes on, and Charles Lord is finally history.

    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.