The Cincinnati Art Academy constituted a wing of the Art Museum. All the interior connections between the academy and the museum had been bricked up on the orders of the retired FBI agent, Mr. A. J. Simpson, who was in charge of security.
The guards he trusted up to a point. That is, he trusted them as long as they weren't subjected to serious temptation. Since they didn't know which works of art could be sold effectively if stolen, and how to market them, they weren't terribly likely to try to sneak rolled-up paintings out under their coats. On the other hand, the art academy students might well have that knowledge. Moreover, Mr. Simpson believed many of them to be natural thieves. The bricked-up doorways were meant to keep the two sets of people apart, most especially by keeping the guards out of the academy cafeteria at odd hours of the day.
The instructors at the academy seemed to be little different from the students, but there was a third culture, one that somewhat concerned Mr. Simpson. This consisted of the rich ladies who volunteered for the dozens of little jobs around the museum, and who dragged their husbands and families to the museum for the rather formal openings of exhibitions.
Mr. Simpson believed many of these women to be silly, all to have too much time on their hands, and some to be natural victims. A bored lazy upper-class woman, pre- menopausal but approaching middle age, could be an easy prey for a youngish artist or pseudo-artist, or art hanger-on, who wanted to relax for a bit from making a so-called living. There were many such who, even if the lady was less than beautiful, could still get it up satisfactorily. Mr. Simpson was quite aware that such things weren't his responsibility, or even his business. But they offended his sense of order.
He was immediately alarmed when, at the opening of a new exhibition, he saw Melissa Medway with Jethro Turner. Of course, Melissa was much younger and much better-looking than the sort of woman usually to be found in that situation. He nevertheless saw exactly what had happened.
Matters were scarcely less complex for Mrs. Henry Medway, a widow who had long been a volunteer at the museum. She would have attended a Museum opening as a matter of course, and known exactly how to behave. But this one was in the Academy gallery on the wrong side of the bricked-up wall. Moreover, where the museum exhibitions often ran to well-bred decorative art, some of it lent from households such as her own, this exhibition of the works of graduates of the academy wasn't calculated to go with anyone's blue couch. Some of it was actually rather disturbing, and there seemed to be no softening touches anywhere.
It wasn't, of course, improper for Mrs. Medway to attend. The volunteers and members of the board encouraged the students in a vague distant way, recognizing that, while the students were too scruffy to be touched or inadvertantly sniffed, it was important to ensure a future supply of artists. In this instance, her daughter had particularly urged her to attend. Knowing the pattern of her daughter's manipulations, it was no surprise to Mrs. Medway when she saw Melissa with Mr. Jethro Turner. Without knowing it, her feelings and beliefs were remarkably like those of Mr. Simpson.
Melissa herself thought that it was the best occasion that was ever likely to present itself. Jethro's work was prominently displayed, and, even though it was unlikely that any of it would be sold, it was much admired by those present.
It was unfortunate that none of the paintings were very recent, and that Jethro's present efforts in sculpture and masks were less exciting. He himself joked that the exhibition was a "retrospective", and that nothing he was likely to produce in the future would be worth displaying. Melissa took strong issue on the point, arguing that, if he worked as hard as he had formerly, the results would be just as good. But she never got more than a sceptical smile in return.
Jethro was nevertheless in good spirits, and seemed to have forgotten about his self-proclaimed decline as an artist. Indeed, to a good many of the people milling around the lobby and the gallery, Jethro was a home-town hero. None of the other work on display was nearly as good as his.
Mrs. Medway, whatever her failings, had an exquisite social sense. She would realize immediately that Jethro was being lionized, and she was too much of a conformist to be impervious to her surroundings. As it happened, Jethro shone in a way that Melissa could never have predicted.
The passions at the academy had always run high. There were even some hatreds between faculty members, based, in theory, on purely aesthetic disagreements. While these divisions between colleagues usually gave rise only to evil looks and poisonous gossip, the result was occasionally, as now, a right to the stomach.
The stomach, a rather generous one, belonged to Carl Bledsoe, an abstract painter who affected the dress of an Amish farmer. When the blow, sharply delivered by his colleague, reduced the effective volume of Bledsoe's stomach, the air that rushed out of his mouth gave him the appearance of a large-mouthed bass gasping in reverse. Nevertheless, Bledsoe's flat broad-brimmed straw hat remained at its customary angle, at exactly ninety degrees to a perpendicular dropped (internally) from the top of his head to the ground. As this angle, so essential to Bledsoe's personality, remained undisturbed, he prepared to retaliate.
Bledsoe's opponent was Jethro and Melissa's English friend, Reginald Templeton. Melissa was reminded of Templeton's axiom that he could get away with anything in America. The idea of starting a fight in the crowded lobby, in front of at least a hundred witnesses spanning the whole social spectrum, must have been attractive for its own sake. And then, there was the pressing need to let a little air out of a man who had far too much.
When Bledsoe drew back his large fist in an unorthodox way, as if to squash an overgrown insect with a downward blow, Templeton hit him again, in the same way with the same result. Before Bledsoe could reconsider his position and his tactics, Jethro thrust himself between the combatants with outstretched arms. Templeton accepted this intervention with a pleased look.
The inept, but now furious, Bledsoe attempted, in his frustration, to bite the hand that held him back. Jethro moved his hand and gathered in a big handful of the farmer overalls in back. When Bledsoe made a rush at Templeton, who was now greeting a fashionable lady who had come up to watch with her wine glass almost full, Jethro pulled hard. Not to have pulled would have meant allowing a reasonable facsimile of a charging buffalo to overrun the lady, behind whom Templeton had stepped in a charming urbane way. Moreover, the director of the academy was rushing up at that moment. From the director's look, it appeared that the lady might be a major patroness of the arts.
In the circumstances, Jethro used his number one pull, developed over many years of lifting weights, and didn't neglect to brace his feet effectively. The Amish overalls tore almost entirely off Bledsoe, and he momentarily stood flailing in blue and white striped drawers that might possibly have been ordered from Sears and Roebuck. Then, tripping, he pitched forward on to his hands and knees.
The director of the academy had recently calmed a female student who had gone after a male one with a palette knife. He had also personally shepherded on to a train a visiting Canadian sculptor who had lost the last vestiges of his sanity in Cincinnati. He was fully capable of dealing with this situation, even before Mr. Simpson arrived at his side. As they helped Bledsoe back together, the director both thanked Jethro for his timely intervention and complimented the lady, suggesting jokingly that they had arranged the whole affair for her amusement.
The lady turned out to be a friend of Mrs. Medway, who next arrived with Melissa. The director also knew Mrs. Medway, and, to Melissa's delight, he introduced both ladies to Jethro. In doing so, he included a brief, and very flattering, description of Jethro's work. It seemed to Melissa, as her mother simpered, that no introduction could ever have taken place in more felicitous circumstances.
On a sudden inspiration, Melissa made an excuse as they began to tour the gallery, leaving her mother with Jethro. Each was good with the opposite sex, and her mother, in Melissa's absence, wouldn't have to display any disapproval for the man she knew to be a criminal.
Melissa had hardly arrived back at the punch bowl with her now-emptied cup when a smiling gentleman offered to re- fill it. Melissa was used to having men try to pick her up, but this was different. The man, forty or so, was so obviously civilized that Melissa couldn't imagine his having ulterior motives. When, in the course of the conversation that soon developed, she disclosed herself as a psychologist, he replied,
"I minored in psych at Ohio State. I've been in business all these years, but I've always wondered if I made the right choice."
"You've probably made more money this way."
The man laughed pleasantly and replied,
"I've never found it very difficult to make money, but the process, for the most part, hasn't been very exciting."
It was nice to meet a businessman who thought that there might be something in the world besides money, and Melissa found herself becoming more animated. Still, she said after a while,
"I guess I should go find my mother."
"That wasn't the lady I saw you with before, was it?"
"It probably was. She has auburn hair and a blue dress."
"She's very attractive. And she looks much too young to be the mother of a practicing psychologist. But perhaps you were a child prodigy."
Melissa didn't always want to hear her mother complimented, but she found herself pleased on this occasion. Moreover, thinking that this nice gentleman might be interested in filling the void in her mother's life, she replied,
"Mother married very young, and I was born when she was nineteen."
"Is she married at present?"
"No. My father died some years ago."
As her companion made the appropriate noises, Melissa was aware that information was flowing out from her quite quickly. That was all right in the circumstances, but she wanted to know something in return. Making a joke of it, she said,
"If you're going to pursue mother, I should at least know what business you're in."
Despite herself, Melissa let out her characteristic little cry of distress. Her new acquaintance apologized,
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't make jokes like that. I have a printing plant down on Eastern Avenue. My name's Al Markowitz."
Melissa touched him on the arm as she replied,
"Psychologists aren't supposed to be gullible, but I always have been. I don't think I'll ever learn."
"Well, if we're being serious, I may not find it easy to meet your mother. She went out the door a while ago with Jethro Turner."
"Oh, do you know Jethro?"
"Half the city does. Besides, everyone here wants to be with him. He's chosen your mother over a great deal of competition."
"Let's go find them. I'll detach Jethro and see that you're introduced to mother."
There was no sign of Jethro or Mrs. Medway outside. Melissa and her new friend first walked around the corner to the grand marble entrance of the closed museum. The portico behind the pillars was entirely in the moon shadow, and Al ascended the steps briskly for a quick look. It occurred to Melissa that, if such a thing were in her neighborhood, the drunks would sleep and urinate there. However, since both her mother and Jethro had other places in which to perform those functions, she wasn't surprised when Al cheerfully announced that they would have to look elsewhere.
In the other direction, they walked down the curved drive to the adjacant park spreading out as far as they could see in the bright night. There were open areas, where the mowed grass looked contrived and unnatural, but they were surrounded by rows of great trees, positioned as if to shelter refugees from the light. Melissa saw no one anywhere.
Al touched her arm gently and guided her toward some nearby trees. At first alarmed and ready to resist, she saw by his face that he had no dastardly intention. When they were themselves in the shadow, he pointed to some figures emerging into the light some hundred yards away and whispered,
"They can't see us here."
The woman had her hand on the man's arm as they came toward the drive, and, long before she could see the face clearly, Melissa realized that it was her mother. She said quietly to Al,
"I should have thought twice before sending them off together. Jethro's thirteen years older than I and only six years younger than mother."
Al replied quietly,
"With Jethro there'd also be the matter of money."
That thought pierced Melissa quickly. Anyone would have known that her mother was a very expensive woman. It was also noticeable, even in the half light, how smoothly her narrow waist curved up to her modest but prominent bust. Al said,
"She has remarkably good posture and bearing."
Melissa thought Al really meant that her mother had pretty legs and a sexy suggestive figure. That, too, was true. Elaine Medway was walking in a way unfamiliar to her daughter, placing her delicately shaped feet and ankles directly in front of one another with a little swing to her skirt. It meant, probably, that she was happy.
Al placed his hand on Melissa's shoulder, with just a little pressure in his fingers, and whispered,
"We're already spying on them. Don't make a noise if they kiss."
Melissa still gave a tiny jump at the idea. But, of course, her mother surely wouldn't kiss Jethro.
Al had gotten them very well concealed, now quite close with a view between two trees. The couple in front of them glanced up at the hulk of the museum and came to a stop. Turning slowly, Mrs. Medway raised both arms above her head, lifting her skirt above her knees and showing the elaborate lace at the hem of her slip. When Jethro embraced her, she lifted one foot and squirmed as they locked together. Al now held his hand tightly on Melissa's shoulder and whispered,
"Steady now, it'll just make things worse if you burst out."
Melissa compressed her feelings with a considerable physical effort as Jethro and her mother separated. They then went bouncing up to the building, holding hands and swinging them back and forth. Melissa looked at Al. He said,
"I like women who kiss on one foot."
"You may like it, but I'm about to murder both of them."
"Keep it in perspective. They didn't make love."
"They may have, out in the park."
"No. This was the climax that we saw. They worked out some agreement, and then cemented it with a warm exchange of affection."
Melissa had to laugh. She said,
"You want to marry mother, and you're already trying to improve family relations. But it'll take more than that. I may still give that little whore a good kick in the rear."
"Right in front of everyone in the gallery?"
"We've already had a fistfight. We need something to complete the evening."
"You've got on a tight skirt. You won't be able to kick effectively."
"I'll lift it. I don't think you're enough of a gentleman to look the other way."
"No. Probably not. Not that much of a gentleman."
"You think I'm really going to do it, don't you?"
"I did wonder just now."
"Too much inhibition, I'm afraid. But I'll figure out something."
When they came in the door, Shannon came rushing up. Melissa had supposed that she must be around somewhere, and now saw that the girl was dressed up like a lady, perhaps for the first time in her life. She was also weeping angrily as she confronted Melissa and said,
"Jethro went off with that bitch."
Melissa, finally finding some humor in the situation, replied,
"He'll do that. Was he supposed to stay here with you."
"He done told me to meet him in that little room over there."
Shannon nodded toward the cloakroom, her face and hair an extraordinary mixture of pink and gold. Melissa remarked,
"At least he didn't tell you to meet him in the men's room."
She regretted it the moment that she had spoken. Shannon could be violent, and it looked as if she might be. But, instead, she fell on Melissa's shoulder, weeping anew. Melissa, several inches taller, stroked Shannon's hair with one hand and had the other around her, partially supporting her. Through the silk of the dress that Templeton had presumably bought her, Melissa could feel the convulsive movements of her back and ribs. She was also conscious of Shannon's breasts, just below her own. Shannon held on to Melissa's neck with both arms so tightly that it was a little scary, and Melissa whispered consolingly in her ear as they teetered back and forth on their high heels.
When Shannon loosened her hold, Melissa, still with her arm around the girl's waist, introduced her to Al. Al looked very pleased to meet Shannon, who had no make-up to be adversely affected by tears. After Shannon had barely acknowledged the introduction, Melissa said gently to the girl,
"I was supposed to be with Jethro tonight, and you were supposed to be with Templeton. Do you know where he is?"
"He's off with some other fuckin bitches."
Melissa had already noticed that Templeton was partial to society ladies, but she said to Shannon,
"You're beautiful, and a lot of those women aren't even very attractive. He'll be back."
"I don't give a fuck. I want Jethro. There he is! She's still got him. I'm gonna stomp up on her."
The girl broke away in the indicated direction. Melissa made no attempt to stop her. Indeed, she was about to suggest to Al that her mother might find the imminent encounter educational, and perhaps even character-building, when Al called out sharply,
The girl stopped abruptly, and Al, walking slowly toward her, said, rather casually,
"I've recently killed three people. I'll kill you if you touch that woman."
Despite a certain levity in his tone of voice, the effect on Shannon was immediate. She stopped crying and went directly toward what amounted to a neutral corner. Al smiled at Melissa and said,
"Your mother may have been a little too enthusiastic, but she doesn't deserve that."
"It's amazing the way you stopped her. But maybe not so amazing. When you joke about robbing and killing, it even scares me a little."
"Speaking of jokes, is Shannon joking when she speaks of Jethro as her lover?"
"I hope so. I do hope that Jethro knows better than to fool around with a half crazy teen-aged girl."
"She's extraordinary looking. The Buddhists speak of the perfect lotus growing on the sewage-strewn mud bank, and Shannon would seem to be a case in point."
"The only trouble is that I also live on the same sewage- strewn mud bank. In view of the fact that Jethro seems to be actually or potentially involved with both Shannon and my mother, I'm beginning to wonder if the sacrifice is worth it."
Just then, they came up with Jethro and Mrs. Medway, still together and facing the other way with glasses in their hands. While the sort of kick Mrs. Medway deserved would have knocked her clean into, and over, the punch bowl, Melissa composed a smile on her face. It was when the others turned to them that Jethro looked totally disconcerted.
Melissa introduced Al to her mother, and then found it easy to detach Jethro. The moment they were out of earshot, Jethro said,
"He's the bank robber I told you about! He must have followed me here."
"Don't be silly. Al likes to joke about being a bank robber. He owns a large printing company."
"Tell that to Sergeant Evans! He'd never normally come here. He must've been following one of us."
"He's very much the sort of person who comes here. I found him quite charming."
"He's not in the least charming and he's very dangerous. He's spying on me, and now on you too."
"I admit that his surveillance techniques are good. When we were trying to find you, he led me to a spot with an excellent view. I was quite surprised to see you making love to my mother."
It was a night with many surprises for Jethro. But he recovered quickly and said,
"Now, look, Lis, she just got a little enthusiastic."
"You also appeared to be enthusiastic."
"We'd just gotten reconciled. She knows I've done some things, but she says it's okay if I stop. I was happy, that's all."
"Well, that's good. It would be even better if you'd managed to make Shannon happy as well. She was quite disappointed when you didn't turn up in the cloakroom."
Jethro didn't recover as quickly this time, but did say,
"I wasn't going to do anything. At this time of year, there aren't any coats to hide behind."
"Ingenuity will always find a way, and you aren't short on ingenuity."
When Jethro said nothing, Melissa continued,
"I once knew a married woman whose husband had mistresses. Whenever he was bad to them, they came and complained to my friend about him. These ladies all belonged to a fairly elevated social class, but Shannon seems to have something in common with them."
Jethro still said nothing, and Melissa continued,
"Shannon also took it ill that you went off with Mother. She wanted to stomp up on her. Is that worse than simply stomping without the 'up'?"
"You are a snob, Lis. What stopped her?"
"I didn't. I was inclined to think it a good idea. Al stopped her. He told Shannon he'd kill her if she touched Mother."
"And you still think he was joking?"
Jethro shook his head and replied,
"I don't suppose he would actually have killed her right there, but he would've taken some sort of action. Unlike you, Shannon's street-smart. She knows that you don't fool around with certain people."