Read Bellingham Mysteries 3: Black Cat Ink Online

Authors: Nicole Kimberling

Tags: #LGBT Suspense

Bellingham Mysteries 3: Black Cat Ink (5 page)

BOOK: Bellingham Mysteries 3: Black Cat Ink
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“I feel no closure whatsoever.”

“I mean to the article.” Peter munched at his sandwich, eyeing Nick, noting that he wasn’t putting his elbows on the table as he usually did. Best manners at breakfast indicated that Nick had gone far within. He was probably dining with the ghost of Walter, who, being from an older generation, had had higher standards at table. Peter’s desire to interrupt that inner conversation could not be denied. “So, can I come?”

“What?” Nick popped up for air, looking around as though he’d forgotten Peter was there. “Come where?”

“To the university with you.”

“Sure, but you won’t enjoy it.” Nick pushed his plate away, caught hold of his coffee cup, and finally leaned forward on his elbows.

“So long as I’m being paid, I fear no boredom,” Peter said airily.

“Oh, it won’t be boring. I’m going to meet with Stephano. He’s handling the whole thing.” Nick had a certain meaningful tone—a tone that assumed Peter knew and already disliked this Stephano person as much as Nick apparently did.

Peter tried to picture this individual and pulled a blank. “I don’t think I’ve ever met him.”

Nick smirked and said, “Then get your mental notebook ready. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think.”

An hour later, Peter entered a small office in the basement of the Fine Arts building and was introduced to a man who he could not, in any way, believe had been named Stephano by one or more of his parents.

Doughy and pale, with thinning brown ponytail, Stephano—just Stephano, no last name—had the face of a man who had reared entirely on cream cheese and white bread. Even his clothes were the standard white-man uniform of khaki shorts plus polo shirt. His socked and Birkenstocked feet gave a hint that he might have been a campus rebel back in the time of the Doobie Brothers but had since firmly joined the administration. On his desk sat a stack of
Artforum
magazines, along with a dish of candy corn and a small, thin aluminum can containing some sort of arcane energy drink.

But was only when he shook Stephano’s warm, soft hand that Peter began, internally, to compose text about him.

In terms of generic characters that one is likely to find teaching at the average four-year collegiate institution, Failed Professional is definitely one of the most common and commonly derided. This is not entirely fair. Most university professors choose to teach—excel at teaching—consider it their calling above all else. But there are always others who are simply looking for a hot meal and regular access to impressionable eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds—particularly in the creative arts fields.

For this reporter, placing Stephano on the continuum of competence was a cinch.

“You’ve probably seen my work around town.” Stephano spoke mainly to Peter.

“The sculptures on Cornwall Street,” Nick supplied helpfully.

“Oh, those,” Peter did a little mental scramble while he searched for anything positive to say about them. Finally he managed, “Very colorful.”

Even if he hadn’t had his aesthetic horizons expanded by an artist boyfriend, he would have been able to see that Stefano’s sculptures had very little artistic merit. They were all powder-coated steel things approximately eight feet tall and two feet in diameter. They looked, to Peter, like folded and crumpled ductwork, like the sort of product that might occur if one told a high school freshman to go to the Occupational Studies center and weld a piece of modern art. Lacking both grace and meaningful substance, the eight Stephano sculptures dotted the sidewalk on Cornwall Street at random intervals and went largely unappreciated by the general populace, who mainly used them for ashtrays.

Peter recalled that upon first seeing that the sculptures had been installed on Cornwall Street, Nick had nearly crashed his car in baffled horror at the city art commission’s decision. He had wondered aloud to Peter if the artist was sleeping with someone influential. Peter had thoughtlessly quipped that artists were always sleeping with someone influential, which had struck too close to the bone and therefore had ended the conversation.

Observing Stephano now, Peter had to wonder who that person might be, because Stephano was not much to look at.

Aloud, Peter said, “The city must have your work insured for a lot, being out near the bars like they are.”

“Oh the city doesn’t own them. I just loaned them to the planning commission,” Stephano said.

“But aren’t you worried they’ll be damaged?” Peter asked.

“Powder-coated steel can take a lot of wear and tear.” Stephano smiled at him. It was a somewhat condescending smile.

Apparently impatient, Nick broke in. “You said you had some papers for me to sign?”

“I thought I did,” Stephano said. “But it turns out that there’s a snag.”

“What snag?”

“It’s ironic that I should have just been talking about loans, since it turns out that
Untitled Five
didn’t belong to the university at all. It was on loan as well. I guess there was a handshake agreement that De Kamp was going to bequeath it to the sculpture garden upon his death, but he never got around to sending us the actual paperwork.” Stephano’s brows drew into an irritated furrow.

“And you want to know if I have it?” Nick leaned back in his chair and took that deep, slow breath that he always took when he was annoyed.

“Do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Do you think that you could—I know this is asking a lot, but do you think as executor, you could say that it was ours?” Stephano asked. “It really was what De Kamp intended.”

“Even if Walter had meant for the university to have the statue, which I do believe is probably the case, how would that make any difference?”

“The sculpture garden is insured as a whole. If we could come up with some sort of dated letter or—”

“You want him to forge a letter?” Automatically, Peter reached for his notepad and mechanical pencil, whose abrupt appearance Stephano regarded with an expression of shock and dread.

“What are you writing?”

“Notes about what you’re saying,” Peter said.

“He’s a reporter. He works for the
Hamster
,” Nick explained.

“You said he was your significant other.” Stephano cast an affronted and accusatory eye on Nick.

“It’s not as though they can’t be simultaneously true.” Peter clicked the lead in his pencil up. “So you were just asking Nick to fabricate a letter to say that
Untitled Five
had in fact been given to the university when it had not so that the university could claim monies it has no legal right to? I think that might very well be considered fraud.”

To Peter’s surprise, Nick chuckled and laid a staying hand on his arm. “Down, newshound. I’m sure the man has a good reason.”

Flushed and sputtering, Stephano continued, “I wasn’t asking Mr. Olson to commit fraud.”

“It sure sounded like that to me.” Peter raised a skeptical brow.

“Look, you don’t understand. The university has cut funding for the arts department dramatically. We need that money for the art department to remain competitive on the national scale. I am convinced that if De Kamp could understand our position, he would gladly have made good on his promise to sign over the piece.” Sweat beaded Stephano’s brow, but conviction rang through his voice.

“You know, I do believe that Walter intended for the university to have that piece.” Nick’s tone remained reasonable. “But you have to understand that transferring a highly valuable piece of art is not as simple as my backdating a letter.”

“Which would undeniably be fraud.” Peter had to point it out. “As well as forgery, since he would have to sign De Kamp’s name.”

“If the sculpture could be located, then I would certainly be able to donate it myself, and I would be happy to, but since it’s gone missing, my hands are really tied,” Nick said.

“That wouldn’t solve the art department’s funding crisis, though, since someone would have to steal it again in order for the insurance to be paid out.” Peter glanced up from his notebook. The gears in his mind had begun to turn. What he had previously assumed to be a drunken prank suddenly had become a way for someone to make some relatively quick cash.

“What we all want more than anything is for that sculpture to be returned,” Stephano solemnly assured him.

“Let’s hope whoever stole it grows a conscience, then.” Peter snapped his notebook shut.

Nick rose to leave, and Peter followed suit. Stephano caught them at the door.

“There’s no reason for this conversation to leave this room, is there?” He searched Nick’s eyes. “You understand I never meant to imply that you should do anything illegal. I was just trying to think of a way for some good to come out of this.”

Nick waved Stephano’s sweaty concern aside. “I understand how desperate you must feel. No one needs to know what we talked about today.”

Chapter Six

 

“Are you serious?” Peter scowled as he sank into the bucket seat of Nick’s car. “You know Stephano might very well be the guy who stole it in the first place.”

“He did seem to know a lot about the insurance arrangements, didn’t he?” Nick agreed.

“It seems like a phone call to our friendly city police department might be in order.”

Nick shook his head. “If he did steal that ugly thing, I suspect it will be cemented back onto its podium within the week so that I can donate it. If it’s stolen again, we’ll know for sure he did it.”


Untitled Five
is not ugly,” Peter protested. “I happen to like it very much.”

His comment drew a faint, lewd smirk from Nick. “You would.”

Western Washington University was situated on a hill that seemed to rise straight up from Bellingham Bay. Below and to the south lay Fairhaven, the historic district, and beyond that, Chuckanut Drive led outside the city limits to their home. Just a few blocks to the northwest lay the city’s downtown core, a collection of federal and county government buildings, college bars, and breakfast joints. And of course Peter’s office—really more of a desk—at the
Hamster
was there, as well as Nick’s studio in the Vitamilk Building…and the Cat Clinic. Peter glanced at the plastic pet carrier in the backseat. Nick hadn’t said a word when he’d loaded it in the car.

“Where to now?” Nick asked.

“I think we have to go pick up the kitten.”

Nick acquiesced with a single nod and headed downtown. The
Hamster’s
offices were on the way, on the second floor of the Railroad Feed & Seed Building. As they passed by, Peter caught a glimpse of Shawn, their missing delivery driver, getting into the cab of the
Hamster
truck.

He wondered if anyone knew Shawn was driving away in it. He took out his notepad and jotted down the time. Nick glanced over and must have seen him writing, but he didn’t ask what.

When they got to the Cat Clinic, Nick presented his own credit card before Peter could even fumble in his wallet for cash. The bill wasn’t expensive, but the kitten came with two kinds of ointment and a bottle of tiny pills.

The kitten appeared to remember Peter, or if she didn’t specifically know him, she remembered that she liked someone exactly like him and began to purr immediately.

As they settled back into the car, Nick said, “I need to get some things from my studio on the way back home.”

Peter said that was fine, and Nick continued explaining. “Sketchbooks. Black cat ink. Probably some watercolors.”

Again Peter nodded. When the car started moving, the kitten commenced to wailing. Pathetically at first, but eventually her tiny lungs demonstrated the stamina for a sustained and operatic protest.

Peter smiled nervously at Nick, whose face showed no emotion whatsoever, as if he had a distressed animal in the backseat every day. Peter had a sudden flash of insight into what Nick must have been like when he was in the army.

Before he opened up and started expressing his emotions.

Nick parked on the street in front of his studio. He left Peter and the kitten in the idling car with the heat and radio running. Exhausted by yowling continuously since they’d left the vet’s office, the kitten fell into a comalike sleep.

Freed of the anxiety-inducing noise, Peter’s mind worked on two separate problems. The first was the sudden surfacing of Stephano as a suspect in the art theft. Assuming that he was the culprit, had he known all of the particulars of the insurance conundrum at the outset? Or had he merely hoped to profit from the absence of one piece of statuary in the university sculpture garden by insinuating his own work?

And what about Shawn? Had he solved his monetary crisis and returned to ask for his job back? Or had Peter just quietly witnessed a case of grand theft auto?

He wished he’d been able to get the license plate number of the black truck, just in case Shawn was found floating face down in the Nooksack River.

Nick returned and settled his bag of gear in the backseat, next to the cat carrier. Peter blinked at it. Seeing the oversized sketchbooks, the partially crumpled tubes of paint, a peculiar sense of unrightness overcame him, as if he’d skipped a chapter in a film and missed some vital piece of information.

“Wait, you’re bringing this stuff home?”

“That’s what I said.” Nick fastened his seat belt.

“What for?”

“Because I’m going to forge a letter to the university saying that
Untitled Five
is theirs. I need the paint to age the paper. It has to be subtle, but I think I can do it.”

Peter’s eyes went wide with alarm. He blinked and spluttered, “Wha-what?”

Nick broke into a wide grin. “Gotcha.”

Peter sank sourly into the seat. “What are you really doing?”

“Just getting some stuff to do at home. I figure someone should stay with the kitten. Make sure she doesn’t destroy the place.” Nick eased the car onto the narrow street and pointed it toward the
Hamster.

Though feeling slightly guilty about shirking his duties and sticking Nick with an unwanted petsitting job, Peter was too keen to find out the story behind Shawn’s unscheduled day off to protest that he should be the one doing it.

BOOK: Bellingham Mysteries 3: Black Cat Ink
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