Authors: Nicole Kimberling
Tags: #LGBT Suspense
He said, “Well, she seems to like you.”
“Yeah, she’s wise. She knows I mean her no harm,” Shawn said.
“That or she has Stockholm syndrome,” Nick muttered.
Peter went on before Shawn could comment or ask him what Stockholm syndrome was. “If this is true, then you know who owns the property where you originally picked up the sculpture. Even if we don’t report it to the cops, I think Nick has some things to say to her. She owes him an apology if nothing else.”
“I guess that’s fair. It was at Anne Gerholt’s place.”
“Professor Gerholt?” Peter couldn’t imagine the prim, tidy math instructor pumping her own gas, let alone masterminding the theft of a massive chunk of granite. “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. Her creep boyfriend, Stephano, was there hitting on anything with tits and telling everybody that he was going to have a piece in the Western sculpture garden soon,” Shawn said.
At this Peter glanced to Nick, whose expression darkened. “Then as far as you know, the sculpture is still where you left it?”
“Unless they took it someplace.” Shawn shrugged. “I didn’t really think about it, since I was stealing a goat right then.”
“Okay, Shawn. I’m sorry, but you really have to tell us where this Satanist lives,” Peter said.
Shawn said, “If I tell you where to find the statue, will you keep the cops out of it?”
“Why would we want to keep the cops out of it?” Nick asked.
“Because they’ll know I was the one who tipped the cops off about it, and they’ll kill me and consecrate my soul to Satan against my will,” Shawn said.
“Could that really happen? I mean, I know they can kill you, but I’m pretty sure the light will protect your immortal soul.” Peter’s mind chased after his own words as he spoke. They almost made sense in an Evangeline-logic kind of way. He went with it. “The most they could do is send you into the light faster.”
“And if they do that, who is going to take care of Melinda? Technically they own her.” Shawn looked miserable.
“Even if we went there by ourselves to get it, they’re still going to know you told us where to find it,” Peter reasoned. “Maybe the cops can protect you if—”
“What if I just gave you a couple grand and twenty-four hours to get out of town?” Nick interrupted.
Shawn stared at Nick, an almost vulnerable expression in his eyes. “You would do that for me?”
“Just promise me your love for Melinda is purely platonic, and I’ll go to that cash machine right there and get you your money.”
“What does platonic mean?”
“It means you’re not a goat fucker,” Peter explained.
a goat fucker,” Shawn said emphatically. “I can’t believe you would think something like that about me. That’s why I stole Melinda in the first place. I couldn’t take the idea that they might—”
“Enough said.” Nick held up a silencing hand. “I’ll get the cash. You give Peter directions.”
Shawn described the location of the property where
had last been spotted, and Peter took careful notes. When Nick returned with the money, Shawn took it reverently. “I will use this to do good in the world. Maybe in Northern Cali.”
“Just use it to save your neck,” Nick replied.
They said their good-byes, Shawn even going so far as to embrace them each in his gratitude before collecting Melinda and firing up his van.
Peter and Nick watched him drive into the cool afternoon. Finally, Peter said, “I guess you probably want to get home and help Evangeline decorate.”
Nick surprised him by saying. “Since I’m already in town, I think I’d like to have a word with Professor Gerholt first.”
Dr. Gerholt’s home near Whatcom Falls Park was typical of the area. One level of unimaginative brick bungalow was surrounded by a nondescript fenced yard. Looking at the facade, Peter could easily imagine how Stephano could be appealing to the person who inhabited it. He’d never seen such severe corners on a lawn outside of a golf course.
Peter knocked, and after listening to the sound of many deadbolts and chains being undone, Dr. Gerholt answered. She looked just as Peter remembered her from his undergrad days. Slim, attractive, and neat in a way that always reminded Peter of a figurine that been freshly popped out of a blister pack in mint condition. She had dark, glossy hair done in a bob cut and the same heavy, square-framed glasses that nerds who wanted to convey some sense of style always seemed to wear.
“Dr. Gerholt? I don’t know if you remember me.”
“Fontaine, Peter,” she said.
He smiled. “That’s me. This is Nick Olson, my boyfriend.”
“Oh, yes. I recognize you from gallery walk,” she said pleasantly. She made no effort to move away from the door or to let them in. Her reticence aroused his suspicion but also seemed natural for a person who clearly had more than one deadbolt in a town as sleepy as Bellingham. “Did you come about the kitten?”
Peter opened his mouth to say no. Then his brain caught up to the conversation. “A little black one?”
All at once her demeanor brightened. “You found her? Is she all right?”
“Peter found her in Whatcom Falls Park.” Nick had apparently come up to speed with the sudden left turn their conversation had taken. “Is she yours?”
“Not exactly, but I was still worried about her. That’s why I put up the posters,” she said. Then seeming to remember her manners all at once, she invited them in. Inside her home was as sterile as the outside. Lots of cream-colored carpeting that Peter couldn’t see jibing with ownership of a black feline.
Dr. Gerholt started for her refrigerator. “Can I get you something to drink? I’m having some milk.”
“I’m all right,” Peter said. “I was just wondering if you knew how she got the injury.”
“Oh, no. I don’t know what happened to her back.”
“How did you know it was on her back?” Nick asked.
Dr. Gerholt stopped midpour, face aghast. “I saw it, of course.”
Peter moved in for the kill. “Why didn’t you take her to a vet?”
“I couldn’t catch her.” She finished pouring her milk. “Kittens move fast.”
“Especially after you’ve cut a chunk of their skin off,” Peter said.
“I beg your pardon!” Dr. Gerholt’s face went white. “That is the most insulting—”
“Then you didn’t do it?” Peter stepped slightly closer to Nick. Although he had turned out to be in no danger from Shawn, he had the sinking suspicion that Anne Gerholt might chuck a glass of milk at him.
“I most certainly did not!”
“Good, then I’ll send the police around here to take a statement about it. They’re looking for leads in the case. They’re worried that there’s another cat skinner at work in town.” Peter started toward the door. “Cruelty to animals is one of the hallmarks of a budding serial killer, you know. I think they’ll probably want to canvass this neighborhood.”
“Wait!” Dr. Gerholt rushed ahead of them, losing her grip on the milk. The plastic carton bounced to the floor, splashing milk all over the kitchen. She placed herself between them and the exit. “You don’t need to send the police. I cut the kitten, but it isn’t what you think.”
“I truly don’t know what to think,” Nick commented, drawing an acid stare from Dr. Gerholt.
Peter fell back slightly, kicking himself for not locating a second exit before starting his accusatory speech. “So tell us what happened.”
“I was trying to snip off a piece of her fur, and I got the skin. That’s all.” The professor’s eyes brimmed with tears. “There’s no need to inform the police.”
“Why were you cutting her fur?” Peter resisted the urge to flip out his notebook.
“I was—” Dr. Gerholt broke off, stared at the milk on the floor, took off her glasses, and rubbed her eyes. “I was trying to cast a love spell on my boyfriend.”
Of all the explanations Peter had expected to hear, this was the least plausible. And yet somehow, seeing this sterile environment he could almost believe it in a sick, stupid kind of way.
He said, “Go on.”
“The only scissors I could find were those little curved ones you use for nails, and I guess I just didn’t realize how close I was to its skin.”
“So what you’re saying is that while you were using nail scissors to get some fur off this kitten in order to complete a potion to put a spell on your boyfriend, you accidentally cut its skin off?” Peter could hardly believe was he was recounting. How stupid. How pointless.
“That’s right. And then the kitten got away, and I couldn’t find it again to take it to the vet.”
“Who does the kitten belong to?” Nick asked.
“I’m pretty sure it originally belonged to the kids across the alley, but when they moved out, I think they left it,” Dr. Gerholt replied. “It seemed so lonely. I was thinking of adopting it.”
“She’s already got a place to live.” Nick’s words had a ring of finality that warmed the cockles of Peter’s heart.
If Peter had not been so upset by the idea that Gigi had been harmed to complete something as stupid and pointless and completely imaginary as a
, he might have sent Nick a sideways glance at this statement. As it was, he focused on getting more of the facts.
“So, did the spell work?”
“What?” Professor Gerholt seemed confused.
“The spell you were trying to put on Stephano. He’s your boyfriend, right? Did it work?” Peter asked.
“How should I know?” she said. “And it’s not like I believe in that stuff. I was just really really…”
“Drunk?” Peter supplied the word.
“Upset.” She gave him an angry glare. “I was upset that he had disrespected me.”
“Did his disrespect have anything to do with a stolen statue?” Nick took over the questioning.
Dr. Gerholt’s eyes popped open wide. Nick continued, “We know you had it on your property. But I don’t think you were the one who stole it, were you?”
She shook her head. “He stored it in my shed without even asking me. How was I supposed to move something that heavy?”
“Why did he store it here?” Peter asked.
“Because his condo doesn’t have a garage.” Professor Gerholt looked miserable. “He never respects anybody’s boundaries. I guess I know that, but I really thought he was making progress once we started couples counseling.”
“Wait a minute,” Peter said. “You two are in couples counseling? I didn’t realize that you were married.”
“We’re not, but we were thinking of it. I thought it would help his career if he got married. You know, everyone thinks that he’s gay.”
“Not me,” Nick remarked.
“Of course not you, but other people who aren’t so familiar with the GLBT community as you are. It’s because of his name,” she said.
Peter marveled at the fact that she could be so clueless as to describe Nick, an actual homosexual, as “familiar with the GLBT community,” but swallowed the emerging comment and went on. “How could being perceived to be gay possibly hurt Stephano’s art career in this day and age?”
It was Nick who answered. “You’d be surprised.”
Peter nodded, taking Nick’s word for it, though perplexed by why he wouldn’t have mentioned something like that before now. Hadn’t Nick and Walter lived together openly for years to the detriment of no one’s career?
Dr. Gerholt sighed and found a towel, which she threw down on the spilled milk. “He always says that that was why no one has ever bought his work—homophobia. He feels real sympathy for the gay community because of that. He was one of the organizers of the Join Hands Against Hate project.”
“But he’s not gay. He’s just bad. I don’t think not buying bad art from a bad artist qualifies as a hate crime, unless it’s been made a crime to hate bad art.” The words were out before Peter could remember that diplomacy existed or that bridges work better if they aren’t burned.
Dr. Gerholt turned bright red, and her lips pressed together so tightly that they became practically nonexistent. Nick, who had until this point been maintaining a grim posture of stolid Scandinavian disapproval, bent with unexpected laughter.
“Mr. Fontaine, I think it is really unprofessional for a reporter to make commentary like that about a person’s significant other. I’d like you to leave now,” she said.
“I’d argue that it’s equally unprofessional for a professor at a university to participate in the theft of a valuable sculpture from the university grounds,” Peter pointed out. “And unless you want to be charged for that, I think I get to choose when I leave.”
For one moment, Peter thought Dr. Gerholt would finally strike him. She had her hand slightly raised in that way that Gigi did when she was thinking of swatting something. The professor’s face went white, then red, then white again, then a kind of purplish blue.
Then she burst out in an ear-flattening wail.
“It’s not my fault!” she sobbed. “It’s not even here anymore. It was stolen again.”
“We know. I’ll be in touch about that.” With that, Nick tromped through the puddle of milk toward the door.
Peter took this as his cue to leave. Converses sodden with two percent, he quit the premises and threw himself down into the passenger seat of the Audi. “For fuck’s sake, is anyone in Bellingham not worshiping Satan these days?”
“I think technically Professor Gerholt was practicing witchcraft. ’Tis the season.” Nick shrugged as though it was not only academic but inevitable. The autumn sun had already begun to slip below the horizon. At this time tomorrow this street would be thick with trick-or-treaters.
“Not so fast, Olson. ’Tis not just the season for Internet spells and blood sacrifices. ’Tis also the season for bite-size candy bars. ’Tis the season for little kids dressed up as tigers holding plastic jack-o-lanterns. For—”
“For dressing up like a slutty nurse?”
Peter nodded sagely. “For dressing up like a slutty nurse, indeed.”
“We should be going home and getting into our costumes and greeting our guests.”
“No, I want to drive out to the county and find that damn sculpture.”
“Out of the question. We said we’d give Shawn a day to split town. Tonight there’s nothing for you to do but drink and dance.” Nick glanced at his watch. “Evangeline will be wondering why we haven’t come back.”