Generous Death, p.1Nancy Pickard
The Voice on the Phone
Had Been Urgent
Come quickly, it said; Your mother is dying. But when I got to the hospital she was sleeping peacefully, her condition unchanged.
Numbly, I agreed that the nurses ought to report the prank call to the police.
They left me alone in the room.
It took me a slow-witted minute to comprehend that being alone was probably not a very smart idea, not smart at all. A thrill of fear propelled me quickly toward the comfort and safety of the hallway.
As I passed the closed door of the private bath in my mother’s room, it opened quietly, swiftly.
“Shut the door,” a voice said, “and turn off the lights.”
A small handgun was pointed in the direction of my mother’s head. I did as I was told ….
“Suspenseful and entertaining … Jennifer Cain is spunky, funny, and smart, … Her cheerfully cynical slant, on Port Frederick’s troubles gives a nice edge to the narration.”
“Jennifer Cain is clever and witty … a thoroughly modern heroine.”
—Kansas City Star
Books by Nancy Pickard
Marriage is Murder
Say No to Murder
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The author sincerely hopes the Testered Bed With Alcove in the superlative Oriental Collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri will never have to endure the rigors to which its fictional counterpart is put in this novel. On the other hand, who knows what mysteries it hides from centuries past…?
POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Copyright © 1984 by Nancy Pickard Cover art copyright © 1987 Richard Bober
Published by arrangement with the author
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 83-91197
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WHO TOLD ME SO.
The Martha Paul Frederick Museum of Fine Art is housed in a, well, house. There’s really no way around that bald and, to some locals, mortifying fact. You may call the house quaint and charming, or you may call it ugly and drafty, depending on your grasp of reality and your affection for truth. But adjectives, even when carefully chosen by our Chamber of Commerce, will never disguise the basic, humble nature of the Martha Paul Frederick Museum of Fine Art. It is no grand, granite edifice built by kings to honor avarice and art.
It’s just a house—a rambling, crumbling four-story monster of a mansion of brick and wood, built in 1768 to shelter the piratical ambitions of the Paul family, those infamous builders of ships for smugglers and slavers. For the last thirty-five years, it has served as our municipal museum, the gift to the city from said Martha Paul, that legendary benefactress to the arts—or, rather, art. With her death and no more Pauls to leave her fortune to, childless Martha managed in one fell swoop to buy her family’s way back into respectability. Unfortunately, when she bequeathed all that money for the purchase of art, she also demanded that it be forever displayed in her home. So we’ve been stuck with it until time and nature tear it down. (The Town Council staged a successful and ironic fight a few years ago to keep the house from being included in the National Register of Historic Buildings. They knew if it ever got on that list, we’d never be able to get rid of it!)
Now it’s all very well to point to other “museum houses,” like the Phillips in Washington, D.C., and then demand to know what it is we’re complaining about—as though to say that if a house is good enough for the Phillips, it should be good enough for little old Port Frederick, Massachusetts. But in so doing, the critic fails to consider that Washington has one or two other cultural landmarks to which it can point with chauvinistic pride. They can afford a little cold, drafty charm. In this town, however, the Martha Paul is all we’ve got. Culturally speaking—and not many of us do that very often—that’s it. Philharmonics have we none, nor ballets do we see outside of touring companies; and the local Women’s Theatre Guild for Tiny Tots has been, until recently, the closest we’ve come to repertory.
In other words, all our cultural marbles are rolling around the cavernous, dank hallways of Martha Paul’s ancestral home. But what marbles! What astoundingly exquisite works of art we’ve cornered up here in Poor Fred, sufficient to inspire pilgrimages to these hinterlands by culture mavens from all over the world. “My God,” they groan when they get their first glimpse of the building; and “my God,” they whisper when they see what’s inside.
You might say the excellence of the art collection at the Martha Paul, has been both our blessing and our curse: blessing because any museum would feel blessed to claim these masterworks as its own; curse because the collection is so good we’ve all become slaves to it. With few other outlets for cultural good works, the town pours most of its time, money, enthusiasm and volunteer efforts into our one claim to worldwide fame.
Port Frederick is definitely a one-horse town. But that one horse (though stabled in a miserable barn) is a thoroughbred Triple Crown winner if there ever was one.
All this is by way of explaining why Mrs. Francie Daniel, an otherwise intelligent woman, was spending Tuesday morning, February 12, conducting grade school children on a tour of the Martha Paul.
Francie knew it was going to be a bad day as soon as she saw the skinny wrist. The little hand attached to it was just reaching out to stick used bubble gum inside the rim, of the seventh-century Tang dynasty jar when Francie grabbed it in the nick of time. At the same instant, she spied the cherubic blond twins bringing up the rear of the grade school art procession.
“Girls!” she called out with a practiced blend of sugar and steel, “don’t kick the legs of the tables, please. They’ve already survived five hundred years; I don’t think we need to test their endurance further.”
Francie cast an admonishing glare at the accompanying fourth grade teacher from the Greaves Country Day School. The teacher, a good twenty years younger than Francie, managed somehow always to be looking the other way.
One of the fourth graders flicked a dirty fingernail against a priceless ivory Buddhist sculpture. He seemed pleased with the resulting soft thud.
At that point, Francie decided this was going to be one of those tours for which she’d better walk backward all the way if she wanted the revered Oriental galleries to resemble anything othe
“Children! Please don’t pull the loose threads out of the silk wall hangings!”
Few of the grade school classes Francie guided through the museum were like this one. Most were sufficiently intimidated to be pleasingly docile. But now and then in her ten years as a volunteer docent at the museum, Francie encountered a classful of Holy Terrors. She remembered with horror one class in particular that she had shuffled through the Native American Wing (converted servants’ quarters). Three years after the fact, the curator of Native American art still had not forgiven her for the missing eagle feathers in the eight-foot Sioux headdress.
Francie had a sinking feeling that this day’s fourth grade class was going to be a legendary Holy Terror, perhaps even one that docents in years to come would speak of in hushed, almost reverent tones.
Backward, she rounded the corner of one gallery of Oriental treasures and led the way toward another. Her gum sole shoes—worn for comfort, not beauty—trod silently, but the old hardwood floors creaked and moaned piteously as if begging people to stop walking on them. Francie’s eyes swept the children like those of a soldier searching for land mines. The analogy was not altogether farfetched.
“Now children,” she announced in her best clear, pleasant docent voice, “we are entering the gallery of Chinese furniture…”
“I wanna sit down,” whined a little girl—a bad omen considering the tour had started only five minutes earlier. They didn’t usually begin to droop until the tour reached the collection of Early American cooking utensils. Francie always considered that room one of the challenges of the tour since she not only had to revive small and weary spirits, but also somehow had to find a way to describe pots and pans without talking about food. At that point, the children were hungry and thirsty as well as pooped.
“You’ll get a chance to sit on the floor in a moment,” Francie said brightly, and prayed for the well-being of the exquisite, sturdily constructed but admittedly ancient chairs in the Chinese furniture collection.
She backed through the doorway.
The guard, knowing how to interpret the fearsome signal of a docent striding backward, stiffened into wary, watchful life. Despite his advanced years and creaky joints, he was fast enough to catch the class track and field star in mid-leap as she tried to hurdle the two-foot-high sculpted lions that graced the entrance to the gallery. Her tennis shoe nicked the edge of the porcelain and set it wobbling for a breathtaking moment. The lion and the old guard’s heart settled back into place in the same instant.
“Most of the beautiful furniture in this room has been given to the museum in recent years by one of our great philanthropists,” Francie was saying, while she stared in hypnotized horror at the offending tennis shoe. She jerked her eyes away but didn’t blink. She was afraid to blink. Centuries could fall in ruin before a determined fourth grade class in the wink of an errant eye. She inquired doggedly, with no great hope, “Do any of you know what a philanthropist is?”
A fat little boy took his finger out of his nose, where he had been keeping it warm on this cold day. He paused in his business long enough to say, “It’s somebody who gives things away to other people.”
Francie said later that that was when she felt the first tickle of sheer terror tease her stomach. If there is anything more frightening than a classful of little monsters, it is a classful of intelligent ones.
“Yeah, so they can get a tax deduction.” This from a budding CPA.
Francie-remembered stroking the arm of a Pin-Yang chair and feeling as one with its fragile vulnerability. “I was,” she said later, “only a middle-aged woman alone against the gathering storm.” She and the old guard eyed each other like the officers in Hamlet having seen the Ghost. Horatio, she thought wildly, you tremble and look pale.
“Good now, sit down,” she said aloud, unconsciously further quoting the Bard. “Sit around me in a half circle on the floor and I’ll tell you about this magnificent Chinese bed behind me.”
Giggles from the children.
“Well,” she told us later, “that I was used to. Giggles I could handle.” So she relaxed a bit, tucked a loose end of her blouse into her skirt and began her spiel about the most important, verily almost sacred, object in the Chinese collection.
“This is a Testered Bed With an Alcove,” she told them, “and a very rare sight to see …”
More giggles and some pointing.
“… the word tester refers to the canopy, or roof, that shelters the bed and the alcove. If you had been born into a wealthy Chinese family many years ago, you could have entertained a friend in the alcove, or curled up for a little nap on the bed …”
Downright peals of laughter, and even the teacher was smiling.
“… It’s a beautiful piece of furniture, isn’t it? And it looks comfortable, too, don’t you agree?”
Absolute hysteria. Tears running down chubby little cheeks.
“Children, please!” Francie felt insulted and torn. Insulted because the bed was her favorite piece in the whole museum; she’d never heard anyone, not even previous Holy Terrors, actually laugh at it. And torn because she was afraid to turn around and see what could possibly be so funny. She wished the guard would look her way, but he was practically deaf and blind, and anyway, he was still busily shaking an arthritic finger at the erstwhile hurdler.
She frowned and raised her voice over the, hilarity.
“This wonderful bed comes to us through the generosity of Mr. Arnold P. Culverson, one of our major benefactors. He has provided the funds to purchase most of the important pieces in our Chinese collection. But this is his favorite gift, as it is mine. In fact, Mr. Arnold Culverson loves this bed so much that he often stops by the museum just to see it.” Francie smiled in prelude to Arnie Culverson’s favorite jest. “He says he wishes he could bring over a pillow and sleep here!”
Pandemonium. Little fists pounding the floor, small bodies rolling about in helpless fits of giggles.
Francie could stand it no longer.
She turned to look at the Testered Bed With an Alcove.
It was occupied.
“Mr. Culverson!” Francie cried, and began to laugh too. She hadn’t thought the famous philanthropist had a reputation as a practical joker, but one never knew.
Francie walked to the bed and stepped carefully up onto the lovely wood floor of the alcove so she could peer down at Arnold Culverson on the bed. He really did look quite funny lying there with his eyes closed and his mouth curved in a sweet little smile. A soft pillow cradled his bald head; a baby blue comforter, pulled up under his double chins, furthered the comical effect.
“Okay, Mr. Culverson,” Francie said, good-humoredly going along with the rather eccentric joke. “It’s time to get up now!”
She reached forward to give the old man a gentle shake, causing the children to scream with delight again. Her hand brushed the soft bluish skin of Mr. Culverson’s face. It was deadly cold.
In the moment she stood there, frozen over the body in the ancient bed, Francie felt as if she had reached, horribly, through the present into a dead past. Her left hand reached out to grasp one of the wooden supports of the bed; her right hand rested heavily on its knuckles on the modern blue comforter. Steadied thus between two times and cultures, Francie Daniel smelled death.
Somehow, she managed to raise herself to a standing position again. She turned around and calmly smiled down, at the children.
“Okay, kids.” Her voice did not tremble. “Mr. Culverson says he wants to sleep a little longer.” She paused for squeals and giggles. “So let’s tiptoe out of here and go into the next gallery.”
Caught up in what they perceived as fun and mischief, the Holy Terrors obeyed. When they were safely ensconced in the Persian Gallery, Francie abandoned them—for once in her career as a docent heedless of any harm they might wreak—and stumbled frantically down the long dim corridors to the office of the museum director.
Arnie Culverson’s death—and the peculiar manner of its discovery—caused quite a stir in our offices. For one thing, the coroner called it suicide and no one had expected that of Arnie. His body was loaded with a lethal combination of liquor and the pills he took for hypertension and migraines. It might have been an accidental overdose but for the rather eccentric fact of his having crawled up on that beloved bed to die. Two pill bottles were found on him—one of them empty, the other nearly so. There was absolutely no sign of foul play. Neither was there a suicide note, but we all expected one to show up.
His death also stirred the waters because he was one of the few truly wealthy people in town. And like many of that elite group, he filtered his philanthropy through our foundation. I say our not because any of the money is mine, but because I administer the disposition of the millions of dollars of revenue it generates.
Everybody calls it The Foundation as if there were no other. In truth, of course, there are thousands of charitable foundations scattered across the country. But there’s only one whose sole function is “to protect and promote the well-being; the cultural, spiritual and mental development and the superior achievement of all kinds of the citizens of Port Frederick, Massachusetts.” That pretty well covers the waterfront, I’d say, which is exactly what the founders wanted. “If we state the objectives of The Foundation in bland and general terms, we can do whatever we damn well please with the money,” they might also have said, and probably did behind closed doors.
Officially, legally, it’s the Port Frederick, Massachusetts, Civic Foundation. It was established in 1968 by a family who, to paraphrase the rhyme about the old lady in the shoe, had so much money they didn’t know what to do. So, having done well, they did good. Still more to their credit, they encouraged their rich friends to bequeath all or part of their estates to The Foundation, thus compounding not only its net worth and yearly income but also its potential for charitable grants.
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