Framed and Burning (Dreamslippers Book 2) (8 page)

Chapter Six

Mick wasn’t sure anymore what to do with his hands.
 

His life up until the fire had followed a certain rhythm. It was an unpredictable one, with hours that weren’t set, as his art-making couldn’t be relegated to set times of the day. Sometimes he’d work through the night on a painting, afraid he’d lose the vision if he didn’t get it down in one flood. Other times, he’d take several days off, drive down to the Keys to remind himself of the way nature itself paints with color and water and reflection. It was a place that never ceased to give him something new to see.

But now he heard no call from the Keys, and every time he looked at a blank canvas, he saw was what was left of his friend, that charred tree stump of a man, that piece of gnarled bacon. Donnie.
 

If he were athletic, maybe he’d go shoot hoops, or pump iron. Music usually gave him some solace. He and Donnie used to play one of the thousands of tapes or records Mick housed in that old studio, but they’d been melted by the fire. All he had was the stuff he kept at the beach house, old 45s he’d been given by his own grandfather. They were scratchy, though, and the songs were mostly too patriotic for his current feeling, a lot of John Philip Souza with a smattering of political speeches thrown in.

There was always the business of art to attend to, even though Mick paid for a contract agent/publicist. He was given a reprieve from the appearances for a while because of the fire, but he did need to talk over his business with Beverly, who was a smart, jovial publicist often distracted by her other, more important clients.

But that wouldn’t take much time. Mick was supposed to be making art. His livelihood depended on his work. And not only was he not painting now, but the entire collection of art he’d stored in the back of his studio no longer existed. This, Beverly informed him, had reduced his potential net worth by several million dollars.
 

If only he’d updated his insurance, as Beverly had kept reminding him. It had been on his list, but he kept getting sidetracked. So his settlement would not include his last ten years’ production as an artist.
 

But Mick tried to put distance between that loss and himself. Even if he had updated his insurance, it wouldn’t have compensated him for what his art might have earned on the open market. Not that the market itself wasn’t fickle and arbitrary. There were so many collectors these days speculating in the art trade, buying and selling paintings as if they were stocks. Some influential blog critic could declare his style dead. He was already seeing interest in his work wane. Besides, his paintings often sold for wildly different prices, depending on who sold it, where, and to whom. Mick understood from years of beating his head against its multicolored, glittering walls that the art world is essentially a Wild West of capitalism, and entirely unregulated.

He and Beverly were sitting in her home studio, which had a view of her tightly manicured garden, a white dolphin fountain flanked by bougainvillea, its pale yellow pistils hovering between vivid purple petals. He’d seen an army of Mexican laborers attack her garden on a regular basis with leaf blowers, rakes, and electric trimmers. Mick as always became distracted by the patterns the shadow of the trellis made, perfect diamonds on the wide St. Augustine grass.
 

“But there’s a bright side,” said Beverly with a wry twinkle in her eyes. “What paintings are left will probably double in value. I mean, once word gets out that the supply has diminished.”

“That’s a morbid thought,” Mick scolded her.

“Sorry, Mick,” she said, squeezing his shoulder. He knew she was holding back on saying “I told you so,” as she’d been after him for years to update his insurance and find a proper art-storage facility rather than keep the canvases in his studio. But he used them as reference pieces, often needing to go back to study an old painting to see how he’d previously handled one aspect or another or to remember the landscape of his mind at the time of whatever painting he had created.

The “I told you so” hung in the air, without Beverly having to say it. She sat down at her computer. “Still,” she said, “It’s a good thing you’re as tuned into the business side of things as you are, Mick. A lot of other artists would be worse off. Most don’t even have insurance.”

She tallied the damage. Fortunately, half his work had either been purchased outright, was in rotation in a gallery, or was in one of the lesser, smaller-city museums that had acquired it for their permanent collections. His recent opening in West Palm Beach had been well attended and critically lauded, despite the waning interest, so he’d had a slew of requests recently from galleries. Those paintings had been spared. But he’d lost the other half of his life’s work, which left him feeling curiously numb. Maybe even lighter, as the personal loss took away at least a splinter of the guilt he felt about Donnie’s death. He was glad he himself hadn’t come away unscathed.

Beverly opened up a database of his artwork that wasn’t complete, but that wasn’t her fault, as Mick didn’t pay her for documentation, and she wouldn’t do that anyway in the smidgen of her time that Mick could afford. So this was a list he was supposed to have catalogued, and he hadn’t kept up with it. She gave him a printout that was broken into two sections. The first listed the paintings lost in the fire. Some of these were accompanied by digital images, but most were listed only by name, date, and description. The other section listed his surviving paintings and where they might be, whether gallery or private collection. Most of these didn’t have images either. It was a forty-three-page document. Mick found himself doing curious math in his head, as Donnie had been forty-three, exactly twenty-five years Mick’s junior.
 

A page for every year of my friend’s life
, thought Mick.

Back home, Mick gave a copy on a thumb drive to Cat, who’d asked for it after Sergeant Alvarez had left.

His grand-niece was sitting cross-legged on the couch, poring over a bunch of files from the Miami PD, and he knew the autopsy report was in there. Part of him wanted to read it, and part of him didn’t. He felt undone by his conflicting feelings, so he said nothing and slumped into a chair.

“I just learned the fire decreased my net worth,” he announced, but he was staring at the reflection of the sun bouncing off the water in a birdbath outside. Nonetheless, he felt Cat look up at him.

“Harsh,” she said. “The paintings? In your studio?”

“Yup.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“Okay. I’m not.” There was a pause, and then she added: “I think most art is ridiculously overpriced anyway. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, Uncle Mick, but eighteen thousand for that big red splotchy thing you painted?”

Mick laughed. He should be offended, but on the contrary, he suddenly felt like he’d never loved his grand-niece more. He thought about that dream of hers he’d walked into the first night in Ernesto’s place, the one with her Ranger lover dude or whoever he was, and the pool of blood.

“The Big Red Splotchy Thing,” he said. “That’s what I should have titled it.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” he said again. “It
is
a big red splotchy thing.”

They both laughed, the laugh relieving the tension in Mick’s head a bit.

“I’ve got the autopsy report here,” she said, motioning to one of the files in front of her. “Do you want to see it?”

“I don’t know. Would you look at it if it were for that Ranger guy who got himself shot in front of you?”

“Yes. I did look at his autopsy report, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“But why? I mean, you were right there, Cat.”

She looked away. “I don’t know,” she finally answered. “I guess the whole thing seemed unreal, so I wanted to make it real. I wanted to see it in cold terms.”

“Did it help?”

“Yes. And no.”

“Give it here.”

She reached over toward him, offering the slim manila folder. He took it.

It was very clinical. He let the language wash over him, words and phrases like
carbon monoxide poisoning
and
rigor mortis
.

“So the smoke killed him before the fire got him,” Mick said, feeling himself choke up.

“Yeah. He probably died in his sleep.”

Mick felt his eyes water. “That’s good. Better than what I imagined.”

“Yeah.”

“Once I went to hear this monk speak,” Mick said. “He talked about immolating monks, the ones who set themselves on fire. It’s the most painful way to die.”

“I never knew that.”

“God, it’s unfair. And it won’t get any fairer or make any more sense no matter how much time passes.”

“I know how you feel.”
 

He looked up, about to lay into her because there was in fact no way this spit of a girl who’d only lived a fraction of his existence could know how he felt. But he bit his tongue. She was looking at him, as if she were really seeing who he was.

“I thought you might’ve killed Donnie. At first. That dream you had…”

“I wondered about that. But you haven’t turned me over to Alvarez.” He meant it as a joke, but neither of them laughed.

“Well, I couldn’t. I mean, I keep blowing Lee’s head off in my own dreams.”

He remained quiet.

“Besides,” she continued. “You’re dreaming it all wrong. That can of gas in your dream? That wasn’t the accelerant. If you were guilty, I’d think you’d dream it the way it actually went down. So why can’t you give an alibi?”

“It’s complicated,” he said, looking away. And then, both to change the subject and because he really wanted to know, he said, “Tell me about your Ranger.”

Cat swallowed. “He believed in American freedom as something that needed to be protected. He came from a long line of military men, too, and he wanted to do them proud.”

Mick gazed at his niece. Pris had said the loss was really hard for Cat to bear, that she’d loved the man, but it was submerged beneath a blanket of control. The girl seemed to be whitewashing her grief, convincing herself she hadn’t loved that boy, and yet here she was, practically canonizing him.

“Really? I mean, what is he, like Captain America or something?”

Cat looked up at him, surprised. “Yeah, he kind of was.”

“Well, so were you going to marry him? I mean, superhero and all.”

Cat stood up and sat back down on the couch, where she’d been sitting when he came in. Her movement caused a stack of papers to fall to the floor, but she ignored them.

“Why do you ask me that?”

“Because you’re talking about him like he’s a character in a movie.”

Cat stared at Mick, her arms crossed over her chest.

“You’d never have married that guy.”

“I’ll never find out now, will I?” Cat said, her face getting red. “I don’t know!”

“There we go,” said Mick, pointing a trigger finger at her. “Bingo.”

“The possibility ended when he died. I don’t know what I would have done. But he had to be so goddamn
brave
, jumping out there in front of me to save my life—” Cat broke into tears. “Stupid bastard,” she whispered.

“You’re angry,” Mick said, stating the obvious, which he felt needed to be stated. “But you didn’t kill that guy.”

“It’s my fault he died!”

Mick was silent for a few beats, letting that one reverberate around the room.

“You no more killed Lee Stone than I killed Donnie Hines. You’re lucky that guy didn’t get mowed down in Iraq, sweetheart. Here’s the deal. There’s no guarantee. Life is kind of meaningful, in small moments, and then you can just up and die without warning. It’s cruel, but that’s how it goes.” He felt his words came from a place of wisdom inside himself that he rarely tapped into in a verbal way, usually reserving it for expression through color and shape.
 

“Yeah, well, I’m done with romance, Uncle Mick. That’s it for me. I can’t do it.”

Mick laughed. “None of us can do romance, Cat. But you can’t be done with it. It’s one of the few things we’ve got down here to make sense of a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

“Well, what about you? You’re alone.”

The word hit Mick like a punch in the chest. He
was
alone. That’s exactly why his alibi was shit. And Donnie’s death made him feel much lonelier. “Eh, I’m old, sweetheart. Romance is for you young’uns.”

“What a cop-out.”

Mick felt rightfully called to the carpet. “It’s tough, when you’re old and busted. Set in your ways. And a dreamslipper, to boot.”

“That’s what I’m talking about. This damn curse.”

Mick figured Cat was relishing the chance to speak of their dreamslipping in such baldly negative terms, what with his sister out of the picture. Pris would never allow anyone to call it a curse. He knew from experience. She was his big sister, after all.

“Once,” Mick began, “both Donnie and I fell asleep in my studio. We’d both been on a roll, the two of us painting like fiends. Maybe we fed off each other’s energy, who knows? But I slipped into one of his dreams. It had been so long since I’d slipped into anyone’s dreams of any consequence, Cat. A lot of the girls I, uh, date don’t dream about much. You’d be surprised by how mundane people’s dreams can sometimes be, if the people are pretty shallow. Anyway, Donnie’s dream was like walking into a painting. The man dreamed in fractal images: crystals forming, strange, perfectly symmetrical shapes that repeated themselves infinitely. It was glorious. I didn’t want to leave.”

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