Thursday, November 3, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

No, not a Monty Python sketch.  But almost.  What follows below, just for a lark, is the first chapter of  “Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red” - my post-World War II “cozy” mystery about a museum heist, a missing child, a murder, a recent ex-con and an even more recent widow, presented as a noir pastiche.  See how many films you recognize from the screen caps.  The actors were all sent over by Central Casting this morning.  They agreed to work for scale, since most of them haven't worked in a long time.

Think of it as a literary "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid".

The story:  In Hartford, Connecticut, 1949, Juliet Van Allen, a museum administrator, discovers that her artist husband is having an affair with another woman. Elmer Vartanian, recently released from prison for a museum robbery, is coerced into helping scout the museum for a heist by a gang that has kidnapped his daughter. When Juliet's husband is murdered, she is the chief suspect and Elmer signs on as her alibi in exchange for something he wants.  Together, dogged by the scandal-monger newsman, the shrewd police detective, and scrutinized by the even more judgmental eye of Hartford’s elite, the rich widow and the ex-con try to outrun them all in a 1948 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, in world where Modern Art meets old-fashioned murder.

Chapter 1

“The last spring of the 1940s.”

Juliet said it out loud this time, with equal parts anticipation and regret. Drumming slender white-gloved fingers on the steering wheel as she waited for the light to turn green, giving it her warmest smile as a thank you, she made a left-hand turn onto Asylum Street.

Past the fashionable Bond Hotel, she stomped her brake hard, with heart-pounding, if momentary, panic on discovering the large and dirty tailgate of the Hampden Ale truck in front of her. “You Get More Out of Hampden”.

Stopping just in time, nearly getting more out of Hampden than she wanted, she chuckled a mea culpa at the motto when the flow of traffic resumed, and she was given a reprieve by still being alive.

Juliet sometimes looked for signposts in her life, more supernatural than what was normally found on beer truck advertising or cooperative traffic lights, and invented them when they were not really there. Only dimly aware of this trait, she would have balked had someone accused her of needing some existential hand-holding. Proud and somewhat vain about her independent streak, nevertheless a vague sense of being imprisoned gnawed at her lately.

Perhaps it was her approaching thirtieth birthday, though Juliet told herself she did not care.

Making love on her free afternoon was all she cared about right now.

She left the car for the parking attendant and shot a glance at the upper floor of the apartment building. Kurt was not expecting her, but she knew he preferred surprises.

Hartford, Connecticut breathed easy, in its own self-superior way, and the sun-warmed sidewalk flecked with the reddish droppings of buds from the maple trees, with their tentative crop of tiny new leaves seemed to indicate that the winter landscape had all been a mirage.

The trees in front of their apartment house were something that she would have painted. But, Kurt would dismiss the idea, with derisive laughter, as a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover, and move onto deeper subjects in his conversation and in his art.

Juliet entered the apartment house lobby. Mr. Percy, the desk manager with the paunch and the jet-black dyed fringe of hair around his bald head said good afternoon. She would have painted Mr. Percy, too, if only for the novelty of his dyed fringe of hair. When she joked about it to Kurt, he suggested with his own peculiar effortless sarcasm that she ask Mr. Percy to model for her nude.

Mr. Percy looked up at her smiling, as if pleasantly surprised, on cue. Juliet stifled a chuckle, invariably reminded of Kurt’s nude remark, which is all she thought of now whenever she saw Mr. Percy.

The officious desk manager, unaware of her comic fantasies, certainly was surprised, for she usually worked until at least six, sometimes later. It was only four o'clock. Juliet considered announcing she had come home early to make love with her husband, but Mr. Percy was just too easy to fluster. She wondered, with what Kurt might say was disingenuous flippancy, if it mightn’t kill him.

Juliet took the elevator to the fourth floor apartment. The elevator operator, a tall, thin, young black man about twenty named Tommy also gave her a somewhat smile of unexpected pleasure. She wondered if this was indicative of a very well-trained and polite staff or if she really had been so hidebound in her habits. And, if anybody, actually, could be that pleased to see her. She hoped Kurt would be.

“Did you take your car off the blocks, yet, Tommy?”

He caught her eye with a conspirator’s look.

“This weekend. I can’t wait.”

“I’m surprised you’ve been stalling. Winter’s got to be over by now.”

“You can stop teasing me. I needed a tire.”

Tommy brought her to her floor. When the doors opened, he wished her a good afternoon.

“Thank you, Tommy.” Her footsteps echoed in the empty hall, and she touched the key to the keyhole.

She opened the door quietly, with no shouts of greeting. Surprising him was one thing, disturbing his work was another.

Juliet hoped that Kurt was continuing with the series on the Modern Woman. She put her keys in her purse and placed her purse down on the credenza against the wall, above which there was a mirror here in the alcove before the living room. A half wall with a wrought iron railing, which always made the person looking through the balusters seem as if he were in prison, separated the alcove from the living room. She turned and looked into the mirror to remove her hat, a soft, small peach-colored cap that matched her suit and clung to the crown of her light brown hair. She lifted her arms to reach for the hatpin with her right hand and hold her hat with her left, when her eyes were diverted by the flickered reflection of activity in the living room behind her.

She became only then just aware of a low muffled voice or more like a series of human noises. Lowering her arms slowly, pivoting with a gracefulness as if it had been rehearsed, Juliet looked through the thin, ironwork balustrade into the living room.

She noticed for the first time that the furniture was pushed aside. The two couches were pulled away from each other and the coffee table had been moved against one of them, leaving a large clear area in front of the fireplace. She gripped the wrought iron bars like a prisoner in jail, stood on tiptoe and pulled herself up a couple inches and looked down over one of the couches. Of the two naked people vigorously making love on a blanket on the living room floor, she could recognize Kurt, but not the woman whose face was hidden.

Juliet lowered herself to her heels again. Her heart leaped into second gear, her breathing shot in gasps all the more painful from trying to stifle them. Her throat began to ache. She knew what it was she was seeing, but a fog of more than shock; of resolute stupidity fell over her. She felt that she needed to look again, really look to make sure she understood the situation.

Juliet stepped quietly around the half wall and almost into the living room. She could make herself look no longer than a moment; it was enough, and too much.

Juliet turned quickly, her head snapping in a jerking movement, an involuntary reaction common to horror, great mirth, and being shot, and stepped back to the door. With a shaking hand, she picked up her purse. Shock and humiliation grabbed her by either arm and escorted her out the door, without even really knowing what she was doing. She only knew where, automatically, to retreat.

Back to her office.

Juliet took the stairs down to the street. She did not want to meet Tommy again. She could not return his smile, or greet him, a friend, without an explanation.

The stairwell behind steel fire doors revealed a quiet refuge, echoing cool solitude down four flights. She shattered the silence with the staccato sound of her heels clicking on the all steps, all the way down to the street. Tingling with cold perspiration, slightly lightheaded as if in the middle of a panic attack, she panted like a runner. Once outside again, she met the spring air, a cool lilac-scented breeze, which, after she had retrieved her car, was the only thing she could remember about the drive back to work. It was like a bookmark, between the awful incident and the quiet limbo of her office.

Juliet worked as an assistant director of marketing at the Wadsworth Atheneum, one of the crown jewels of Hartford history. The oldest public art museum in the United States, it had in the 1930s and 1940s begun to shrug off the somewhat stodgy attitude, if not quite all of its reverence for the Hudson River painters, and moved boldly forward to exhibit the works of modern paintings under the direction of its dynamic former curator Chick Austin.

Austin brought Italian Baroque, and theater, to the museum, and dance under Balanchine, and created a wing in the modern international style, the first seen in America. Modern Art, Cubism, Surrealism, the works of people like her husband Kurt, perhaps reflective of a parade of modern talent that led right to Kurt.

The scene she had witnessed on her living room floor might have been realistic, but it seemed very, very surreal to her.

Henry, the security guard looked up at her in surprise when she reentered the building. It was not a look of pleasant surprise, the way Tommy did, the way Mr. Percy did, with solicitude and deference. Just blank surprise. But, he gave her an awkward nod, touched his cap.

“Forgot something,” she said, though, she did not owe him an explanation and he nodded this time with a smile as if, for no reason, he were relieved.

She closed the door to her office and sat there in silence. Only the singular glare from the 60 watt light bulb on her iron desk lamp lit the room, as if she were in a police interrogation office, interrogating herself.

In a way she was, asking the same questions of how could he? Why?

How long she had sat at her desk quietly crying, staring off to a shadowy wall as if she might find answers there was actually about five hours, a little after nine o'clock. A strange muffled sound roused her from misery. She became conscious after a moment that it came from the ceiling above her. In another moment, she saw the ventilation grate in the ceiling tremble. From inside what she supposed was an air duct, the grate shifted from within the ceiling, revealing a dark hole. Then the worn brown shoes of a man slipped through.

Wrinkled brown socks slipped down to reveal two white, rather hairy ankles, wrinkled brown trousers smeared gray with dust slipped down from the open hole in the ceiling.

The stupor that had overtaken Juliet these last few hours evaporated. She snapped suddenly alert and aware again. Sometime in the past few hours she had taken off her white gloves. They were bunched in her hand, twisted, wrinkled and damp from wiping her tears with them.

Could she alert Henry?

She looked at her delicate gold wristwatch. Nine o'clock. Had she been here so long? Kurt will be worried.

Kurt would be worried? Yes, Kurt would be so worried he might need to go out and get another date. She cursed his immortal soul and wondered if anyone else was working late. Chauncey, would he still be here? No. Chauncey always took a moment to look in on her. She had an idea that Chauncey liked her, maybe more than he should. She tried not to encourage him, but she tried not to discourage him either, because after all he was her boss.

Karen was not here either, the secretary she shared with Chauncey. All the office staff would have long gone home by now. There would only be Henry the night watchman and his two assistants.

The trouser legs became a jacket of a slightly different shade of brown, and likewise streaked gray with dust. Then the man lowered himself, very gently, like an acrobat, and dropped himself with only the slightest noise to the floor.

Too late for her to turn off the desk lamp. He noticed his own shadow on the wall, and turned to face Juliet. She attempted to hide under her desk. But, it was too late.

He saw her. She gasped, drawing her arms close to her chest as if protecting herself, clutching her crumpled gloves. He quickly touched his finger to his lips, the sign to hush.

Then he held both his hands up, palms facing outward as if he were surrendering to her, and he touched his finger to his lips again imploring her to be quiet. He called in a whispered stage voice up to the hole in the ceiling.

“We have to go back. I made a mistake.”

Juliet heard a body shift and some muffled reply in the air shaft somewhere deep behind the ceiling panels above her in an otherworld of ceiling infrastructure. The man took the chair for visitors and brought it to the hole in the ceiling and stood upon it, and called softly into his hole again.

“This office, it’s been made over into a supply closet, door’s locked from the outside. We have to go back and try the other way.”

Another muffled reply in the air shaft.

“I'm not playing games,” he said. “I'm coming back up.”

He looked down at Juliet and touched his finger to his lips again. He called again into the air shaft.

“Someone's coming! Go back! I’ll hide here.”

In another moment, they heard a muffled movement from the ceiling that became more and more faint.

They both knew they were alone. He stared at her intently through the dim glare of the single 60 watt bulb from black iron gooseneck desk lamp, as if he were deciding what to do. Then he replaced the ceiling panel, and stepped down from the chair, never taking his eyes off hers.

“I won't hurt you. Just don't scream, or we’ll both be in for it.” He said it in a slow, calm, deliberate way, as if he were talking to a small fretful child, or training a dog. He kept doing that same gesture with his hands. Both slightly raised, as if he were surrendering, palms facing outward to her, patting the air in front of him gently. She finally began to feel her heartbeat slowing, as if his hand motion was making her slow down. She managed a few deep breaths.

“There's going to be a heist pulled on this museum in two or three days. A week. I don't know yet. I'm not involved in it. I mean, I am, but I'm not a crook. Until about a month ago I was in prison, but I never stole anything or hurt anybody. These guys, they've got me over a barrel. They've got my kid. And if I don't help them pull off their job, they won't tell me where she is. They might even hurt her.

“I want to set them up, so they get caught. I want to fix it so that the cops or your security staff knows when it’s going to happen. But, I don’t want to be here. I don't want them ever to know that I squealed. Do you understand?”

He waited what seemed like weeks for her to nod.

“As soon as I find out what's really happening and when it's going down, I'll contact you. Don't tell them that you found out through me. Just an anonymous tip. Okay?”

“I don't believe any of this.” Juliet finally said, in a faint, shaky voice, the first thing she had said in hours and it was true, and she meant more than just the strange man falling out of the ceiling, or the museum going to be robbed. She meant Kurt McLeod, that miserable lying cheating pig of a husband, whose superior artistic talent was surpassed only by his lust, and perhaps by his arrogance.

“I swear it's true. I want to stop these guys and I don't want to get involved. I got out of prison a month ago. I want to start my life over.”

“What were you in prison for?”

“Breaking into a museum, so some guys could rob it.”

Oh, swell.

Juliet had been gripping the armrests of her office chair. She pulled her white-knuckled grip off the chair, put her hands in her lap and began to rub them, leaving her white cotton gloves in knotted ball on the desk. Her wedding ring lay on the desk blotter by the gloves. She had wriggled it off hours ago. Rose gold with three diamonds. Kurt bought it with his separation pay from the Army. Or, he said he did. Suddenly her entire history with him was a question mark.

She looked up at the man, noticing that he saw the ring.

“You can have it, the ring…and here, my watch, if you just leave me alone.”

“I don’t want them. I swear, lady, I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I'm not alone. I could scream, or call and get help very quickly.”

“There's a security guard on the outside of the building and one on the inside on the first floor. You're alone and there's no one to hear you.”

She swallowed audibly and her heart began to pound again, hammering blood to her temples. Again he lifted his hands.

“I don't say that to scare you. I know the routines of your schedule and others. You sure weren’t supposed to be here tonight.

“But, I'm not here to hurt you. We’re going to walk out of here, you and I, right through the lobby where the security guy is sitting alone. When we pass him, I’m going to look right at him, so that he knows my face. When the cops get involved, he’ll be able to identify me later on if he has to. When we’re out of the building, I’ll leave you. And we won't see each other anymore, but I will contact you when I know what the plans are for the break-in so you can alert your staff.

“I’ll even tell you my name, but I’d rather you not tell it to anybody, not yet. But, if you need to tell the cops who I am, eventually, my name is Elmer Vartanian. I’ll trust you, if you trust me.”

The name meant nothing to her. She'd never heard it before. Her first thought was that it was a made-up name. It sounded silly enough to be a made-up name.

“Well, Miss Van Allen? Do we have an agreement?”

“You know my name?”

“It's painted there on the glass of your office door, Miss Van Allen, Associate Director, Marketing.” They both looked at the glass and read it, backwards.

“You want me to wait for your call to tell me when the break-in is going to occur and to alert my security staff to catch them. But, you don't want me to mention your name to the police. Is that it?”

“Yes. That way, I don't get in trouble with these people. And I get my daughter back, and you don't get your museum robbed. Is it a deal?”

“What are these people supposed to be stealing?”

“You’ve got a collection of gold on the first floor, plates and cups and things on loan from the Southwest Museum.”

“It's an Aztec collection.”

“They don't care about that. They expect to get a fortune when it’s fenced.”


“Do we have a deal?”

“I want something else, too.”

“What?” He frowned, hesitating.

“I want you to destroy some paintings.”

He look of incredulity encouraged her. She explained quickly, with a sense of sureness that had finally returned to her after the last miserable hours.

“There are seven paintings in the third floor gallery, a collection of modern art by Kurt McLeod. I want them destroyed.”

If you haven't figured it out already, this is an insidious publicity ploy.   For those of you brave enough to continue the story without screen caps, the novel is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Sony, Kobo, and Diesel.
I won't be posting next week as I have some other fish to fry, but I'll be back with a new post on Monday, November 14th.


nick said...

As a chemist by profession, any book with an element in the title interests me! Many cadmium compounds have been used in paints, but rather toxic stuff. Good luck with the book.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Nick. The names of toxic elements do catch the eye, don't they? Something lurid about them. I must write a sequel and somehow get the word "Strontium 90" in the title. I may work my way through the Periodic Table.

Caftan Woman said...

Publicity ploy worked! I'm not waiting for that e-reader. The netbook is not too heavy to tote to the laundry and coffee shop.

Also, I'm having strange sensations of Vertigo and I think I'm looking for a Mr. 880.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Oh, no, I have you in my evil clutches! You poor thing.

You can't read at the laundry, you have to watch TCM there. What with the manager lady say?

Your sensations of Vertigo are right on the money, but as for Mr. 880, there is no one here by that name.

Caftan Woman said...

Drat! Is anyone on "Trial"?

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

No, nobody is on Trial. But I've been meaning to blog about that movie for the longest time. Maybe after the holidays.

Thanks for being such a charming contestant, though. Don Pardo, tell her what she's won!

Yes! It's a year's supply of Rice-a-Roni!

(Here's where you jump up and down and squeal like a little girl.)

Caftan Woman said...

Well, I am jumping up and down and squealing, but not over the San Francisco treat. An article on "Trial" intrigues me. I first saw the movie when I was about 12 and I think it had a major impact on my attitude toward politics (not to mention commies). It made me a confirmed and jaundiced non-joiner. Heck, I won't even do the wave at the ballpark.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

You remind me of my mother. But she was less afraid of Commies than the government. The 1950s witch-hunts so freaked her out that she was a confirmed non-joiner. She wouldn't even subscribe to magazines because she figured someday a sleazy politician or hate group might have something against "Good Housekeeping" or "Ladie's Home Journal", and she'd get branded as a fellow traveler. She would pay full price for them at the store, pay in cash, and stuff them under her trenchcoat, making sure she wasn't followed home. Then she'd read the articles about making placemats with old winter coats, while hiding in a closet, reading to the light of a single flashlight.

Or something like that. You get the idea.

Caftan Woman said...

I get the idea and I'm totally on board. Trust no one.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

She would have been apalled to hear about a much younger generation sharing their most intimate thoughts, and activities, on the Internet.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I've been meaning to get a copy of CADMIUM YELLOW, BLOOD RED (CYBR) ever since I started reading your blog, but somehow I never got around to it, and now that I've read and enjoyed your first chapter, I'd very much like to read the rest, even without VERTIGO references! :-) I liked your comparison to DEAD MEN DON'T WEAR PLAID! I think all of us writers are inspired one way or another by the books, movies, and of course, real life.

I thought some of the other photos might have been from I WAKE UP SCREAMING, but I could be mistaken. Got an answer key on you? :-) Incidentally, I knew the word "cadmium" from my dear late mom, who was a painter, among her other many talents. I love your photos of your Connecticut burg, too!

I'm afraid I don't own an e-book (I simply can't afford one right now), but if CYBR is available in good old-fashioned paper, here's my money! :-)

Since you've been generous enough to share your excellent writing with us as both a blogger and an author, you've encouraged me to share the first chapter of my novel THE PARANOIA CLUB, too, if you and/or everyone else here is interested. Here's the link:

Good luck, Jacqueline; we're rooting for you! We writers much support each other!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Dorian. I'm looking forward to reading your first chapter, and I would encourage all our readers to pop across the hall to your place as well and have a look.

Nope, no "I Wake Up Screaming" shots. Good guess, though. I love that title. Got to review that movie sometime or other.

Don't worry about buying an e-reader. You don't really need one. Amazon has free software you download to your computer to read ebooks, and Smashwords can download them to your computer in any format you want: Word, PDF. Easy as pie.

I would love to produce print books sometime, but it's not in the cards right now.

Good luck with "The Paranoia Club"!

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, thanks a million for the tip about Amazon's free software, as well as your kind suggestion to readers to pop across the hall for a look at Chapter One of THE PARANOIA CLUB! :-) I've also put a shoutout about CADMIUM YELLOW, BLOOD RED on my Facebook page, too. Every little bit helps!

Since you brought up I WAKE UP SCREAMING, if you're interested, here's a link to my April blog post about it over at TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED, so you'll be rarin' to go when you eventually write your own assuredly terrific blog post about IWUS! :-)

Laura said...

Wow you are very talented! Thanks for sharing Ms. Lynch! Best wishes to you. May you get filthy rich off your writing endeavors.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Laura. Especially about the filthy rich part. But I'm really just trying to pay the electric bill.

Yvette said...

Great idea putting pictures to text - VERY clever and fun. :)

I enjoyed the book very much. (Well, you knew that.)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Yvette, so much. Putting the screen captures together with the story was a little like playing with paper dolls.

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