The Artist and The Academic (novel excerpt)

alistairdoorAlistair opened the vestibule door with great purpose. He glanced at Mrs. Carmichael who rose quickly from her desk and dogged him as he stormed into his office where he spotted Qiana Reece, Curator of the R.J. Cooper Collection rising from one of the handsome yet hard winged-back chairs. He turned quickly to glare at Mrs. Carmichael.

“God-damnit, Mrs. Carmichael!” he said loudly.

Mrs. Carmichael stopped, “She insisted, Dr. Deveraux.”

“Everyone insists, Mrs. Carmichael! That’s why you sit out there! To stop them, insistent or not!”

“It’s not in my character to be rude,” she said while turning, “Even if I do work for a boor,” she said while closing the door.

Alistair was careful to never receive personal correspondence at his office because Mrs. Carmichael, the entrenched secretary that came with his office and which was well-known to use information addressed to him to finagle her self-selected title:

Senior Executive Administration Administrator &
Secretary to Dr. Alistair Devereaux, Vice Chancellor and R.J. Cooper Chair

and who must never tear open any letter from R.J. Cooper. The information contained therein was of such a private nature that he didn’t even allow its delivery to his home because he knew Elloise much too well. He’d already rehearsed her behavior thousands of times in his mind: She, being the wife of an academic, and as nervous as a Jack Russell terrier would serendipitously greet the postman, who would hand her a single envelope that was hand-addressed on a buttery, engraved linen paper whose return address was the signature of the sender and beneath, in great simplicity, Coopertown, NY, NY 10001. Her interest piqued, she’d open the door, step out onto the Braen Stone driveway, shield her eyes, and confirm that Alistair’s figure couldn’t be seen through gaps in the thickets lining the private roadway. She’d hastily close the door and with an almost giddy demeanor, open the small drawer of the eighteenth century hall table, retrieve a letter-opener and deftly slice the top edge withdrawing a scrawled note of which she’d immediately read hastily, then begin to slow until she dropped both the envelope and letter-opener and collapsed, aware that the information would granulate everything.

As soon as Mrs. Carmichael left his office, Allistair walked to the door, closed it with a bang, then turned to Qiana.

“So, what is it, Qiana?” he asked.

Handing him the already opened envelope she said, “I think you’ll want to see this.”

Taking the envelope from her, he sat down on the hard mid-century modern sofa and felt the creamy, butter-like envelope. “Another painting,” he asked.

“Uh, no. Worse. Much, much worse.”

He studied the creamy cotton envelope, stamped, and postmarked New York, NY. On the back flap engraved meticulously read L.O. 18 Blount Street, Cooperstown, Hastings, New York 10165. Hastings, Hastings Alistair repeated quietly to himself, why does that town sound so familiar to him, as if he’d opened a dusty trunk in the attic, only to discover remnants of his long-forgotten past.

Alistair reached inside for the crisp paper, folded in thirds with a heavy crease. Upon unfolding the letter a piece of paper fluttered onto the Persian carpet Elloise insisted should be laid beneath the sofa. He bent down to pick up the paper and set it on the table, much more interested in the hand-written letter. The cotton paper was embossed at the top: Lila O’Riley, Assistant Curator, Cooperstown Gallery of Illustrative Arts, Cooperstown College of Liberal Arts, Cooperstown, Hastings, New York 10165. Lila O’Reilly, he kept repeating as though her name was a piece of hard candy.

“Jesus Christ!” Allistair said emphatically. “What the fuck!”

“I know, Dr. Deveraux. That’s why I thought you should see it right away. That’s why I insisted that Mrs. Carmichael. . .”

“Do you know what this means, Qiana?”

“I suspect,” she added quietly.

“Suspect? You suspect? You better damned well know. This means we’re all fucked! All of us! You, me, this fucking lousy college! All of us are fucked!” he says as he stands from the sofa and walks to the window over-looking the college’s common area.

Qiana walks to the table, picks up the loose piece of paper, and walks next to him.

“You didn’t see this,” she says.

Allistair looks down at her hand and sees a boarding pass for a first class seat on the 7:05 pm flight to New York.

“What’s that supposed to be?” he asks, “A god-damned ticket to his funeral?”

“Might be,” Qiana adds. “But I have a hunch it’s more than that.”

“Like what?” Allistair asks, devoid of concern.

“RJ never liked loose ends. You said that yourself. He was tidy. Complete. I think there’s something else waiting for you at the other end of that flight,” she says cooly.