Art of Murder Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Yep, his hand was on the blonde’s bottom.

Helen Hawthorne looked again. She wasn’t imagining it: The lad in the lederhosen was definitely lecherous. His hand disappeared behind her skirt, and the cute blonde in the dirndl was smiling.

This painting of rowdy rustics was near Frederic Clay Bartlett’s studio at the Bonnet House Museum. Bartlett was a respected artist who’d studied art in Munich and Paris, a man whose rapturous stained glass intimidated even Louis Comfort Tiffany. But he also painted playful hanky-panky.

“You saw it, too, huh?” Margery said, and grinned. “I told you this was no ordinary museum.”

Bonnet House is on Fort Lauderdale Beach, a lighthearted oasis tucked next to trashy tourist shops and grim, gray hotels that Helen thought looked like pharaohs’ tombs: expensive and dead. 

The cheerful pale yellow Bonnet House was Frederic’s idea of a Caribbean plantation house. Squirrel monkeys played in the trees, white swans preened in a pond, and exotic orchids burst into bloom everywhere.  

“I had no idea a historic house could be fun,” Helen said. “I hate museum house tours. All those dark, gloomy rooms packed with dead people’s things.”

“Nothing dead about this place,” Margery said. Helen’s seventy-six-year-old landlady reigned over the L-shaped art moderne Coronado Tropic Apartments. Bonnet House was built around a courtyard alive with green plants and a splashing fountain. “Frederic and his wife, Evelyn, weren’t your usual superrich – they both had brains and talent.

“Evelyn Bartlett is my role model,” Margery said. “She appreciated good art, good booze, good living and good men. Made it to age a hundred and nine. After a scandalous divorce back in the twenties, she outlived her critics in style.”

Margery had her own style and juicy scandals. She’d once been arrested for murder and wore a prison jumpsuit.

Today, her gauzy purple top looked cool in the heavy June heat. Margery wore her gray hair in a swingy chin-length bob. Time had marked her tanned face, but Margery made no effort to remove the lines and wrinkles that proved she’d lived and laughed.

Her silver bracelets jingled slightly, and Helen checked to see if her landlady’s hands were twitching. Margery couldn’t smoke her Marlboros on this tour.

“I could actually live here,” Helen said, surveying Bonnet House as if she were going to buy it, “and I don’t feel that way about most mansions.”

Liz, their tour guide, gently herded them into Frederic’s towering, two-story art studio. Well-bred, well-spoken and gray-haired, Liz could have been one of Evelyn’s guests.

“Mr. Bartlett had an art studio at every one of his residences,” Liz said, resuming her spiel as if turning on a recording. “He painted in this studio from 1921 until the early fifties. It has the clear north light artists love.”

The studio’s faintly musty smell was mixed with the scents of oil paint and a sharp hint of turpentine. A fanciful white fireplace was flanked by tall white-framed paintings of a stylish woman and an elegant man in a pinstripe suit.

 “That’s Evelyn on the left and Mr. Bartlett on the right,” Liz said. The walls were covered with vivid paintings of the French Riviera. “All this was painted by Mr. Bartlett. He collected the pottery and sculpture, too.”

A striking painting of richly dressed dark-eyed men wearing jeweled crowns and turbans hung above all the art. “That big painting is Persian,” Liz said. “Early nineteenth century. Those are courtiers and members of a royal family.”

“All men,” Margery said. “You know who counted in that bunch.” 

The studio’s mix of paintings and sculpture was striking, sophisticated and energetic.  Helen could almost see the boldly handsome Bartlett painting, a romantic figure with slicked-back hair and a mustache, holding his palette like a shield and wielding a brush. He looked like the sort of man who could get away with a poet shirt.

Liz led them through the butler’s pantry, painted in Ragdale blue, a once-fashionable bluish turquoise. “This is where Evelyn staged her exquisite meals,” Liz said. Next they peeked into the kitchen. “The Bartletts ate only the freshest food. They brought in meat and dairy products from their Massachusetts farm. Their cook, Marie Little, said Evelyn never went into the kitchen. She just talked to the cook about the day’s meals through the window.”

“My kind of woman,” Helen said.

Margery checked out the china and Helen admired the German beer steins in the dining room.

“Mr. Bartlett collected those during his student days in Germany,” Liz said.

“Did he empty them first?” Helen asked.

Liz laughed, but didn’t answer. Helen wondered if the tour guide had a crush on the long-gone Frederic Bartlett.

As Liz guided the two women from room to room, they admired the house’s whimsical touches: the gilded Baroque columns swirled around the drawing room doors, the brightly painted wooden giraffes on a courtyard walkway, the menagerie of carved monkeys, and the lacy wrought iron from New Orleans. They saw Frederic’s murals and paintings. Evelyn’s colorful, sensual art had its own white-walled gallery in a former guest house.

Helen and Margery lingered at the Shell Museum, a thirties bandbox housing Evelyn’s shell collection, her Bamboo Bar, and blooming orchids. “At the age of a hundred and one, Evelyn started a new hobby, collecting miniature orchids,” Liz said.

“Wonder what I’ll be doing at a hundred and one,” Margery said.

“Whatever you want,” Helen said, tempted by the Bamboo Bar off the Shell Museum. “I like the idea that her husband gave Evelyn her own bar.”

“Most men won’t even fetch their wives a drink,” Margery said.

The bamboo-lined room had four padded barstools, a couch and cocktail table, and a well-stocked back bar.

 “The clock is permanently set five o’clock,” Liz said. “This is where Evelyn served her famous Rangpur Lime Cocktail. She grew the limes herself.”   Helen wrote down the recipe for Markos, the hunky young waiter who lived at the Coronado. “Maybe he can make it for our sunset salute by the pool,” she said.

By the time they were back at the Bonnet House courtyard, Helen felt slightly dazed and dazzled, as if she’d watched Evelyn and Frederic’s star-dusted lives on fast forward.
The courtyard, sheltered by feathery palms and bright with flowers, was cool even at noon. “I like the giant bird cage,” Helen said. The gazebo-sized hexagon cage was a gingerbread confection of pastel wood and screens.

 “Mr. Bartlett built the aviary for his wife’s pet birds and monkeys,” Liz said. “She had macaws, lovely demoiselle cranes, cockatoos, and more. The guests would feed the cranes bits of food at dinner.”

Helen saw a flock of artists working on the loggia across the courtyard, seated at folding tables. “Is that a painting class?”

“We have lots classes,” Liz said. “That’s our acrylic class. The teacher is Yulia Orel, a local artist who’s quite good. Come on over.”

Yulia looked artistic, even in jeans. Her exquisitely boned face was crowned by blond braids. Liz introduced Margery and Helen. Yulia nodded politely, and went back to telling a compact brunette, “You must use more color, Jenny.”

Helen found Yulia’s Slavic accent charming. She wondered how Jenny managed to wear white Armani jeans and a navy striped top without getting paint on her pricy designer outfit.

“No, it’s not working,” Jenny told the teacher. “I’m going to put this away and forget about it for a week or so.”

“I think it’s pretty,” a blonde with corkscrew curls said. She sat in front of Jenny. Her sturdy body was buried under hot pink, turquoise and yellow scarves, like a sale rack at a beach store.

“I don’t want to paint pretty pictures, Cissy,” Jenny said. “I want to paint art, like Annabel.”

Annabel’s nearly transparent skin turned pink as one of Cissy’s scarves, making her dark hair look black. She was about thirty-five, but so thin, she looked like she might snap. A lime green cane was propped against her table like an exotic plant.

Annabel shared a table with the only man in the class – reluctantly. She held herself rigid to avoid contact with him, but acted as if he didn’t exist. Helen wondered why. He looked like a beefy businessman on casual Friday, in khakis and a navy polo that hugged his rolls of fat.

Helen could see the artwork from this angle, the students’ and the teacher’s.  Annabel seemed better than them – maybe even better than Yulia. She was painting the aviary with bluish gray cranes stalking across the courtyard. At first glance, the painting seemed slapdash, but Helen could feel the movement.

  “I’m only a student,” Annabel said. “I’m still perfecting my technique.”

“Your technique is fine,” Jenny said. “You’ve developed your own voice.”

“To develop a voice, you need something to say,” the beefy businessman said. Helen noticed his large nose was veined in red. A drinker?

Annabel paled.

“Hugo,” Yulia said, gently, “in this class, we are free to discuss one another’s art, but we do not put down people.”

“I don’t put down anyone,” Hugo said. “I tell it like it is.”

The class seemed to close in on itself, fighting to ignore Hugo. Yulia examined Cissy’s painting of a red hibiscus. Despite the vivid color, the flower was dull and lifeless.

“What am I doing wrong?” Cissy asked, corkscrew curls bobbing, multicolored scarves shaking in frustration.

“You keep flattening your flower,” Yulia said. “It looks like a cutout. You’re too careful. Be bold! What do you have to lose?”

“Time,” Cissy said. “The class is over.”

“All the more reason to act now,” Yulia said. “I’ll stay.”

“Next time,” Cissy said. “Next time I’ll have more courage.”

The class began packing up their easels and art supplies. Cissy helped the frail Annabel pack and said, “You really should drink your tea.”

“Later,” Annabel said.

Now Yulia took time to welcome Margery and Helen. “You should join our class,” she said. “Paint is relaxing.”

Margery shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m not creative.”

“What about you, Helen?” Yulia asked.

“I wanted to be an artist when I was a kid,” Helen said, “until I discovered I didn’t have any talent.”

“When you’re a child, you have no idea if you have talent,” the teacher said. “You can paint for enjoyment. It could help your work. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a private eye,” Helen said.

“Take up painting and you’ll see the world differently.”

“And it’s so romantic here,” Cissy said, eyes shining. “Can’t you feel the atmosphere? Frederic Bartlett was amazingly handsome – you’ve seen his photographs. He had three wives and he loved them all. Each woman was an artist in her own way. His first wife was an artist and a social activist, his second a musician and a poet, and Evelyn was a painter and a gardener. It’s inspiring here.”

Cissy and the others were packed and ready to leave. Annabel took her green cane and her tea thermos.  “Don’t forget to drink your tea,” Cissy reminded her.

Liz said, “Helen, Margery, we have one more stop. The tour ends at the gift shop.”

“Sorry,” Margery said. “I’m dying for a cigarette.” Helen was surprised her landlady had lasted more than an hour without a Marlboro.

“We’ll walk them out, Liz,” Jenny said. “Where are you ladies parked? In the Bonnet House lot?”

“No, across the way,” Margery said, “on that vacant lot where those shops were razed. We’re parked illegally.”

“So are we,” Jenny said. “I hope we don’t get towed.”

The women walked out together, Cissy carrying both her supplies and Annabel’s. How she managed in that welter of scarves, Helen had no idea.

Once they passed through Bonnet House’s wrought iron gates, the other-worldly spell was broken. They were back in modern Florida, surrounded by condos, cars and construction. Jenny surveyed a half-built condo. “They should make the crane the state bird,” she said.

Helen was relieved that no tickets flapped on their windshields. The sandy soil was littered with sparkling glass shards and construction debris, and Helen hoped Margery didn’t get a flat tire.

“Who has that amazing red Tesla S?” Helen asked.

“Me,” Jenny said, nimbly navigating the uneven ground in four-inch heels. “I love it.”

“So do I,” Helen said. “You’re really sure-footed. I couldn’t walk this lot in heels.”

“You don’t need them,” Jenny said. “You’re how tall?”

“Six feet,” Helen said.

“I have to wear heels. I’m only five feet tall.”

Jenny and Yulia loaded their cars. Jenny drank the last of her bottled water, while Annabel gulped her tea. “Ick,” she said. “I didn’t put in enough honey. It’s bitter.”

Margery lit her cigarette with trembling hands and blew out a plume of smoke like a satisfied dragon.

“You should smoke e-cigarettes,” Cissy said, firing up her own e-cigarette. “You won’t be so addicted if you vape.”

“I like my addictions,” Margery said. “I’ve cultivated them carefully.”

That should have stopped Cissy, but she had the fearless fervor of a new convert. “You’ll save money,” Cissy said.

“I enjoy burning cash,” Margery said. Her look should have wilted Cissy’s springy blond hair.
Cissy packed the art supplies into her car while Annabel finished the tea in her thermos.

“I wish you’d join our class,” Jenny said to Helen.

“There’s room,” Yulia said.

“I’ll think about it,” Helen said. She was tempted.

“Are you working on a case right now?” Margery asked.

“No,” Helen said.

“Perfect,” Yulia said. She pulled out her cell phone and said, “Give me your name and address. We meet at ten every morning.”

Before she knew it, Helen was signed up for class. Everyone waved good-bye to Yulia.

“That was quick,” Margery said. “How do you feel?”

But it was Annabel who answered.

“Terrible,” she said. Annabel was white as milk and trembling. She dropped her cane, then collapsed in the sandy soil.

Published on  July 4th, 2016