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Claudia and the mystery.., p.6
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       Claudia and the Mystery in the Painting, p.6

           Ann M. Martin
 
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  Talking about Grandmother Madden’s work made Mrs. O’Neal come alive too. Her eyes sparkled, the lines on her forehead relaxed, and she used her hands to make her point. Anybody who had this much enthusiasm for art would be a good person to talk to kids about it. Maybe the BSC members could help her with the part of her job that involved working with kids.

  “I always like looking for the cat,” she added.

  “What cat?” I asked. Was she talking about Goldie?

  “Grandmother Madden put a small yellow cat in each of her paintings. That, the size and shape, and the way her paintings fit together are trademarks of her work,” Mrs. O’Neal explained.

  Here was something else I didn’t know about Grandmother Madden. And what had she meant about the size and shape? “I knew her paintings were small,” I said. “Are they all exactly the same size?”

  “Each painting is a ten-inch by ten-inch square. And it fits with three other paintings in a series to form a bigger picture.”

  The last part I already knew. However, I wouldn’t be able to see it by looking at just one painting.

  “I think I’ll try to go see the painting.” Mrs. O’Neal had made me excited about Grandmother Madden’s work all over again. “Mary Anne will be here tomorrow afternoon with a few of the children we baby-sit for to try out the Kaleidoscope Room again,” I added.

  “I’d love for you to attend the opening on Friday night,” said Mrs. O’Neal. “Maybe you could even help out a little?”

  “I’d be glad to,” I said, feeling guilty that I hadn’t been able to help out before.

  “Around seven?”

  “See you then.” I headed to the gallery before Mrs. O’Neal could ask me to do anything else.

  When I found the Grandmother Madden painting, two people were standing in front of it, blocking my view. I held back, waiting for them to go on, then realized I knew who they were. It was Mr. Ogura and Ms. Madden.

  The woman turned her head and looked in my direction. I started to wave but lowered my hand quickly. It wasn’t Ms. Madden after all. It was the woman I’d mistaken for her on Monday, the one who’d driven so far to have a look at Grandmother Madden’s house. Or so she’d said.

  I ducked around the corner before Mr. Ogura saw me, then took another peek. It was amazing how much this woman reminded me of Ms. Madden. They looked more alike than Janine and I do — and we’re sisters.

  The woman and Mr. Ogura were talking. I tried to hear what they were saying. “Measure,” I heard, and peered around the corner to see what they were doing.

  Mr. Ogura pulled a tape measure out of his jacket pocket and held it up to the painting. The woman nodded, then pointed at a corner of the painting.

  I wanted to hear what they were talking about in the worst way. And it gave me a weird feeling to see them together. Why didn’t the woman ask Mr. Ogura to bring her to the house to show her around?

  What kind of business was Estates Unlimited? I’d never heard of it. I filed the question away, planning to look it up in the phone book at home.

  Mr. Ogura and the woman backed up a few steps, then turned and walked toward the exit across the room. I waited until they passed through the door, then darted after them. By the time I reached the lobby, they were nowhere in sight.

  I took a deep breath, counted to ten, then opened the front door slowly. Mr. Ogura was standing beside his car and the woman was unlocking the door to a gray car. The word “Friday” drifted between the woman and Mr. Ogura. Then she climbed into her car and drove away.

  Mr. Ogura sat in his car a few minutes before he pulled out of the parking lot.

  I walked back to the gallery, now deserted except for a security guard at the far end. I stood in front of the painting. It was one I recognized from the catalog, an autumn scene with a scarecrow, pumpkins, and some children dressed in Halloween costumes. I moved a little closer and searched the painting inch by inch for … Goldie. The golden cat was perched on a front-porch railing belonging to a house much like Grandmother Madden’s.

  “Excuse me, sir,” I said to the guard on duty in the room.

  “May I help you?” he asked.

  “Do you have a tape measure?” I asked.

  He stuck his hands in his pockets, like he wasn’t sure whether he’d find one there or not, then shook his head.

  “Do you know where I might find one?” Mr. Ogura and the woman had been interested in the measurements of the painting. I decided I’d better know what they were too.

  “Maybe at the front desk,” he said, scratching his head.

  I returned to the lobby and asked the woman at the counter if she had a tape measure.

  “Is this for a school project?” she asked me.

  “Sort of,” I said.

  The woman opened a drawer and handed me a yellow tape measure. “Please be sure to bring it back to me when you’re finished,” she said. “And we close in fifteen minutes.”

  I looked up at the clock. If I didn’t hurry, I’d be late for the BSC meeting. Back in the gallery, I placed the tape against the wall alongside the picture — ten inches by ten inches, just as I’d expected.

  I took one last look at the painting, then rolled the tape measure up, and returned it to the woman at the desk.

  By the time I returned home from the museum, I was starving. I took a shoe box down from the top shelf of my closet and opened it. I could smell the chocolate even before I tore the wrapping off the Hershey’s bar. My mouth was actually watering. I broke it into squares and put three into my mouth at once, letting them melt.

  Then I reached for the telephone book under my bed and turned to the business pages. There it was, Estates Unlimited, in bold letters. I picked up the phone to dial the number listed and heard Kristy on the stairs.

  “Hi, Claud. I’m starved,” she said.

  I popped the last chocolate squares in my mouth, then opened a desk drawer and rooted around until I found some Hershey’s Kisses. I tossed Kristy a couple and kept a few for myself. I also set out a bag of white cheddar popcorn and some Gummy Bears, in case anyone else was hungry.

  “Can you believe that man?” I heard Mary Anne say to Stacey as they ran up the stairs.

  “He acted as if it were his house!” Stacey said.

  “Who are you talking about?” I asked.

  “Mr. Ogura,” they said in unison.

  “I was so glad when he finally left,” said Stacey.

  “He was at the Madden house?”

  Stacey nodded.

  “I saw him at the museum too,” I said.

  “Did you talk to Mrs. O’Neal?” Abby asked as she burst into the room.

  “She’s going to try it again,” I said. “She wants some kids there tomorrow. I told her you would be there too, Mary Anne. Is that still okay?”

  Mary Anne nodded. “I already wrote it down. Abby, are you coming?”

  “I was planning on it. I’m supposed to sit for Jamie, and his mom is going to drop us off at the museum.”

  “Who else might want to go?” Mary Anne asked.

  “Go where?” Mal replied. She and Jessi sank down to the floor beside the bed.

  “We’re going to try something new at the Kaleidoscope Room before it opens on Friday,” said Mary Anne.

  “Margo might want to go,” Mal said. “I think the rest of the kids have something to do tomorrow. I’ll check with Mom and call you.” Margo is Mal’s seven-year-old sister. If we’re not careful, she’ll take charge of the Kaleidoscope Room and Mrs. O’Neal all by herself. She’s going through a bossy stage these days.

  “What about Becca?” Mary Anne asked Jessi.

  “Can’t. She has a doctor’s appointment.”

  “Corrie is always willing to try an art project,” I said.

  “She might not be after the last time,” said Abby.

  “But she has a lot of imagination. I’ll call her mom and tell her that it’s going to be different this time. And what about Jimmy Cook? He might like to leave h
is house for a change. And he said he likes to paint.”

  “How’s the cat, by the way?” Mal asked.

  “She’s doing fine,” said Mary Anne. “In fact, she acts as if she’s always lived in the house, as queen of the place. Jimmy fixed her a basket to sleep in, and they bought her some food. She won’t let anyone pass by without petting her. It’s so funny! She meows and sticks her head under your hand. Goldie is almost as sweet as Tigger.”

  “Has anyone called? The owner? Jessi and I hung up signs all over the neighborhood,” said Mal.

  “If anyone called, Ms. Madden didn’t say anything about it, but she was only there for a few minutes,” Mary Anne reported. “She said she had to go to a meeting at the estate sale place.”

  “Estates Unlimited?” I asked, sitting up.

  “I think that was the name,” said Stacey.

  “But you said Mr. Ogura was at the house.”

  “He arrived soon after we did,” said Mary Anne. “And right after Ms. Madden left. He said he forgot where they were supposed to meet, but that didn’t keep him from sticking around to bother us. All the books that Jessi and I had sorted and shelved were mixed up and spread all over the library. When I said something to Mr. Ogura about it, he said I better get busy then, because it was only a few days until the sale. Can you believe it? I saw him come out of the library right before I went in and found the mess.”

  “I saw Mr. Ogura at the museum around four-thirty. When was he meeting with Ms. Madden?” I picked up the telephone and dialed it.

  “What are you doing?” Kristy asked. “A client might be trying to call us.”

  I put my forefinger to my lips. The phone rang a few times, then an answering machine picked up. “Estates Unlimited,” said a woman’s voice. “I’m sorry but our office is closed for the evening. Please call back tomorrow between the hours of ten and five. We’ll be looking forward to talking to you.” I hung up.

  “Who are you calling?” Kristy wanted to know.

  “Estates Unlimited, to see if Mr. Ogura really works there. He’s always trying to get inside to look around the Madden house, saying that he works for the company, but why doesn’t he have a key? And who was Rebecca meeting with if Mr. Ogura was at the house? Also, you know what? When I saw him at the museum today, he was with that woman who came to the house wanting to get in early. Remember her, Kristy? The one who looked sort of like Ms. Madden?”

  “Yeah, I remember. She left before Ms. Madden had a chance to talk to her.”

  “She wasn’t at the house today, was she?” I asked Mary Anne.

  “The only other person who came by was a deliveryman,” said Stacey. “But that turned out kind of weird too.”

  “What do you mean?” I leaned in closer.

  Stacey sighed. “This deliveryman, who didn’t really look like a deliveryman …”

  “Meaning?” I wanted to know every detail.

  “Meaning he didn’t have any pizza?” Abby asked.

  Stacey ignored her. “He was very good-looking and he was dressed in a navy blue blazer and khaki pants, wearing a tie. That’s pretty dressed up for most of the deliverymen I’ve seen. Anyway, he dropped off some big, flat packages wrapped in brown paper and said to be sure that Ms. Madden got them. When she came home at about a quarter to five, I showed her the packages and asked if I should unpack them. She said no, really fast, then said we’d worked hard enough for one day and it was time for us to go. You know, I think there were paintings or pictures in those packages. It reminded me of the way you wrap up your paintings, Claud.”

  “Paintings?” My ears perked up. I remembered Ms. Madden talking on the telephone the first day, promising to get some paintings to someone. “How big were they?”

  “Big,” said Stacey. “The man was staggering as he carried them inside.”

  They weren’t Grandmother Madden’s work, then. All her paintings, I now knew, were less than a foot square. Even if there were four of them put together the painting wouldn’t be very big. “What kind of delivery truck?” I asked.

  “I didn’t see the truck,” Stacey said. “But another thing about Mr. Ogura — when he came downstairs, I noticed that he had flakes of paint all over his pants. But he’s an appraiser, not a contractor.”

  “Hmm,” I said. “I know we haven’t learned anything that would prove Grandmother Madden didn’t destroy her paintings,” I continued, “but there’s also nothing to say that she did.”

  “Except that there aren’t any paintings,” Abby reminded me.

  “Well, no one’s been able to find them. I keep trying to bring up the idea that the paintings still exist, but Ms. Madden doesn’t want to talk about it. And one day I heard her say to someone on the phone that she couldn’t deliver the paintings she’d promised because there was a problem. She wouldn’t let me touch a painting loaded into the trunk of her car, and she wouldn’t let Stacey unpack the paintings that came today. Plus, she couldn’t have met with Mr. Ogura today. When did he have time? He was at the house, then at the museum this afternoon. Did Ms. Madden mention that she’d missed Mr. Ogura?”

  “She didn’t say anything at all about what she was doing while she was gone,” said Stacey.

  “You know, it’s not just you, Stacey. Mr. Ogura gives me the creeps too,” said Mary Anne.

  Okay. That was it. Mary Anne is always the last one to say anything bad about anybody.

  “He sneaks around the house and watches everybody,” she continued. “He always wants to see Ms. Madden, but I’ve never seen them together.”

  “Claudia, remember that day he had a telephone call at the Maddens’? He left the phone off the hook when he was finished. Maybe it wasn’t an accident. Maybe he didn’t want anybody else to call,” Kristy said. “If he’s not who he says he is, then he wouldn’t want to talk to someone who wanted to talk to Mr. Ogura.”

  “I’m going to call Estates Unlimited again, as soon as I can. We’ll see whether he really works for them or not,” I said, resolving to know the answer before the next BSC meeting.

  “Don’t forget about the woman who showed up at the door, then disappeared,” said Kristy.

  “Only to turn up at the museum with Mr. Ogura,” I said. “We need to keep our eyes open for her. She said she’d driven a hundred miles for the estate sale. But if Mr. Ogura works for the estate company, why doesn’t he bring the woman with him to see the house?”

  “And what about Jimmy’s dad?” Stacey asked.

  “Yeah, there is something weird about him,” I said. “He doesn’t want Ms. Madden to go to art school, for one thing. Jimmy said his dad doesn’t want his mom to paint. In fact, Jimmy likes to paint, but doesn’t want to tell his dad because he’s afraid his dad will get mad at him. If any of you happen to see Mr. Cook around the house, pay attention to what he says and does. I’d like to know what’s up with him.”

  “He was very nice to Goldie,” Mal said. “And Jimmy adores his dad.”

  “Jimmy’s been a different kid since his dad arrived,” I agreed.

  Kristy was clearly thinking about something else. “Have you had a chance to look at the paintings in the studio?” she asked. “Can we match them to that list of paintings Mary Anne found?”

  “I haven’t had a chance to work in the studio since Mr. Cook arrived,” I replied, “but I know that the paintings in there are student work. They don’t have any connection to the list Mary Anne found.”

  “Where is that list of paintings?” Mary Anne asked. “Maybe we need to find out how many paintings are actually missing.”

  “I don’t know where the original is, but I have a copy of it that I found on the stairs.” I’d stuck the list in the pocket of my jeans and forgotten about it until Mary Anne mentioned it. “Some of the paintings have been crossed out and check marks have been made by others. I wanted to try to figure out what it all meant, but I haven’t had much time. Maybe I can stop by the library tomorrow and do some research.”

  “What about the catal
og that was with the list? Can we use it to find out what we want to know?” Stacey asked.

  “If we could find it, we might be able to,” I said.

  “That’s something we could do while we’re working at the Madden house,” said Mal. “Look for the catalog.”

  “And try to talk to Mr. Cook,” said Kristy.

  “And this is something else I really want to know — where’s that portrait of the Japanese woman I saw the first day?” I asked. “It was in the studio one minute, then when I came back it was gone. Nobody else even remembers seeing it.”

  “We’ve all been looking for that,” said Jessi, “but I haven’t seen anything like it.”

  “Claudia, do you think Ms. Madden has some of her grandmother’s paintings hidden someplace?” Abby asked.

  “I don’t know,” I admitted. “If she does, it would definitely explain some of her suspicious behavior. All right. We’ll try talking to Ms. Madden, Mr. Cook, and Mr. Ogura. And I’ll try to find out more about Estates Unlimited and exactly where the existing Grandmother Madden paintings are,” I said.

  “All this and sorting too!” said Abby. “Who knew that baby-sitting at the Maddens would be such a big job?” She flopped on my floor in fake exhaustion. “I’m almost looking forward to working at the museum tomorrow.”

  I threw a Gummy Bear at her.

  She was right, though. It was a lot of work. And with the sale only three days away, we didn’t have much time.

  I wasn’t surprised when Mary Anne told me that the “new” Kaleidoscope Room was a big hit with the kids. But I was a little surprised to hear how much Abby had gotten into the spirit of things.

  Mary Anne, Abby, and Jamie arrived a little before the rest of the group. Mrs. O’Neal let them into the room, then left.

  “You think she’s mad?” Abby asked.

  “From what Claudia said, I think she doesn’t want to see anything messed up,” said Mary Anne.

  “Where’s the clay?” Jamie asked. “I want to make some more snakes.”

 
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