Circles of Confusionby April Henry
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With the exception of rejecting salacious requests for vanity license plates, Claire Montrose leads a monotonous life. Then she inherits a beautiful painting hidden for decades in an old suitcase. Claire takes it to New York, but an expert deems it a forgery. But is it really? Unable to trust anyone, Claire tries to stay alive long enough to find out.
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Portland, Oregon, October 3, 1997
". . . And as a lot of our listeners out there remember, next weekend will be the anniversary of Oregon's Columbus Day storm . . ."
Claire Montrose quickly snapped off the radio (brought from home, tolerated if played at a low level) that sat on top of her state-issued gray metal desk. Great. It was that time of year again. She was tired of hearing about the Columbus Day storm that had ravaged the West Coast nearly thirty-five years before, the day before she was born. Each year, Claire's mother could be counted on to remind her about how she'd suffered to bring Claire into the world, trapped at home with all roads blocked and no telephone, no lights, no heat and no assistance except for an elderly neighbor.
The great windstorm of 1962 had left dozens dead and hundreds more stranded for days on end. Huge fallen trees had blocked Portland streets, crushed cars and homes, and turned power lines into spitting snakes. The wind had peeled back roofs, pushed trucks off highways, and snatched up small animals and patio furniture. Of course, Claire didn't have any of her own memories of this, but she felt as though she did. Every October, the TV stations could be counted on to trot out the grainy file footage to pad a slow news day.
It served only to remind her that she was getting older, rusting into place, with most of her waking hours spent in a cubicle that resembled a cross between a cattle pen and a prison cell. Sometimes Claire thought her dramatic entrance into the world had been the last exciting event of her life.
The phone on her desk shrilled into life. Claire used a neon-orange Chee*to to mark her place in the department'sSpanish-English dictionary.
"Oregon Motor Vehicles Division, Custom Plate Department. How may I help you?"
Claire had been looking up "AMORT"the request of an accountantto see if it meant anything in translation that couldn't be put on a license plate. "Amort" hadn't been in the Spanish dictionary, but "Amor"lovehad. Claire had become sidetracked considering how limited both Spanish and English were when it came to words for love. There were dozens of kinds of loveplatonic love, love from afar, love for one's family, love for a pet, love for food or other inanimate objects, hopeless love, passionate love, unrequited love. Why wasn't there a separate word for each, the way the Eskimos were supposed to have seventeen different words for snow?
"Hi, Claire. It's me."
"Mom!" Claire pressed the phone closer to her face. There should definitely be a word for the mingled love and annoyance she felt for her mother. "I told you not to call me at work unless it was an emergency." She hoped Frank wasn't listening on the other side of their shared cubicle wall. Each time she received a personal call, she half suspected him of making a hatch mark on a clandestine list of her failings.
"But this is an emergency."
"What did you buy?" Please, not another thousand-dollar Kirby vacuum cleaner. Even though Oregon law allowed a three-day cooling-off period for major purchases, the last time it had been nearly impossible to extract her mother from the clutches of the contract's fine print.
"I didn't buy anything," her mother said, stung. "I'm calling about your great-aunt. I just got a call from her lawyer. Poor thing died last week."
"Great-aunt? What great-aunt?"
"Don't you remember Aunt Cady? My father's sister who lives in White City? I guess you probably haven't seen her since your grandmother's last group birthday party for you kids."
Claire was beginning to picture her now, a thin woman standing on the sidelines of family gatherings, her graying hair pulled back in a bun. "Wasn't Aunt Cady the one who was in the WAVEs or the WACs or something?"
"WACs, I think. She ended up in Germany after the war."
"How old was she? What did she die of?"
"About eighty. The lawyer guy said they think it was a heart attack. She lived alone, you know. Nobody's too certain exactly when she died." Claire suppressed a shiver. "Anyway, she's left everything to you."
"Me? Why me? I can barely remember her."
"Evidently she liked you the best of all us relatives. I don't think she was really close to anybody. The lawyer guy said that she'd been living like a hermit for years. Anyway, he wants you to go down there and go through her trailer. Sort it out. He says the park manager is anxious to rent out the space, so I promised him you'd come down this weekend."
"This weekend? You mean tomorrow?" Claire echoed incredulously, forgetting to keep her voice down.
Her mother's voice took on the wheedling tone that Claire knew all too well. "You know what they say about old people who live alone. Maybe she's held on to a fortune in pesos from the war."
"Marks, Mom." Claire effortlessly collected scraps of facts, and she pulled one out now. "I think the Germans use marks. But that's not the pointthe point is, I'm sure Evan won't want me to go on such short notice. You know how he likes to plan things in advance."
"Oh, Claire, it's not like you're married to him or anything."
Claire waited until twelve, and the beginning of her lunch hour, to call Evan from the pay phone in the break room. No sense giving Frank any ammunition by making a personal phone call on company time. She sketched out the problem for Evan, fully expecting him to be annoyed by this change in plans.
"My mom tried to tell me it would be like a treasure hunt. I guess the lawyer says the place is piled high with all kinds of stuff." Claire turned to pace, but was brought up short by the absurdly short metal phone cord. She suddenly felt trapped, tied by a rigid umbilical cord to the hospital-green wall. "What's that squeaking noise?"
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April Henry writes mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults. Her 14th and 15th books will be out in 2013.
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