Cambridge art expert Fred Taylor, consultant to a rich and omnivorous Beacon Hill collector, is disturbed by discovering that the harmless old gent who'd been haunting Fred's strongminded lover, librarian Molly Riley, lies dead on the banks of the Charles. Soon Fred's distracted by a second find, a fragment of a painting. It lies in antique dealer Oona Imry's shop. Fred feels in his gut that the piece of canvas, handsomely portraying a squirrel at a man's feet, might be by John Singleton Copley.
His boss, Clayton Reed, charms Oona into selling him the squirrel, then sends legman Fred out to look for the rest of the painting. A new fragment shortly arrives from the hands of Oona 's nephew, gratis, after Oona dies under a train. Are the canvases tied to her murder and that of Molly's stalker? Is Fred on some kind of killer treasure hunt?
Art dealer and painter Kilmer delights in mirroring comtemporary crimes with well-researched and compelling use of history. Erudite and witty, he keeps the reader's unflagging interest through a combination of clever puzzle construction and deft narrative understatement.
About the Author
Nicholas Kilmer, born in Virginia, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Normandy, France. A teacher for many years, and finally Dean of the Swain School of Design in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he now makes his living as a painter and art dealer. In 1964 he married Julia Norris, and with her has four children.
Read an Excerpt
Man with a Squirrel
By Nicholas Kilmer
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1996 Nicholas Kilmer
All rights reserved.
"There's a man coming into my library who scares me," Molly said.
They were watching wasps gutting a pear one of the kids had dropped in the dust under Molly's big maple in the backyard, during a hot evening with the shadows lying horizontal and cicadas somewhere in the wilderness of Arlington, Massachusetts, grinding their warning: there won't be much more of this, folks.
Fred shifted carefully in his aluminum folding chair. He'd broken one already this fall. ("They're too flimsy," Fred said. "You're too large," Molly said.)
"Scares you how?" Fred asked her. He was paying attention to the wasps. If they were ants, you'd say it was industry; but the wasps were having fun doing what they were doing. They treated the pear as if it were an elephant they had killed.
"It's the books he wants to read," Molly said. "And even without that, he's the kind of person that if he's in the elevator when the doors open, you take the stairs; if you're in it when he gets on, you suddenly want to get off."
Molly was drinking cheap red wine, and the wasps were interested in that too, so she had to keep an eye on her glass and shoo them away. She was pink and pretty, with short brown curls that caught the glancing evening light. Molly Riley did not look like the mother of two children: a twelve-year-old boy, Sam, and his younger sister, Terry. Molly was still wearing her work clothes, a blue linen dress today.
"He really scares you," Fred said.
Molly stood up, threw her face into a goonish, vacant stare, and gulped, almost slavered, while she moved her feet up and down in place, as if uncomfortable on the earth.
"God, Molly," Fred said.
"It's what he does," Molly said.
"What does this guy want in the Cambridge Public Library?"
"He only reads there," Molly said. "I can't find out who he is. If he took books out, I'd have his library card and he'd be on the computer, his name and address and the rest of it."
Molly worked at the reference desk. She knew everything, usually; or she could find out.
"Ask him his name," Fred said. "Unless — is he one of the homeless that gather around there? A lot of them are vets. Maybe I ..."
Molly sat down again, shooed wasps out of her wineglass, and took a sip. They had finished supper late, and Molly had sent the kids to start their homework at the kitchen table.
"He scares me, and I'd rather not talk to him," Molly said. "Though I have to answer questions. I don't want him to think I'm eager to converse, you know?"
"What does he ask about?"
"Serial killers," Molly said. "Mass murderers, ax murderers, poisoners, Bluebeards, and such."
Fred put his cup on the sparse gravel next to his chair, catching the flavor of her alarm.
"He wants to talk about these things with you?"
"He wants me to find him material," Molly said. She batted a wasp and sipped at her wine. "It's all he reads about, and it feels like an obsession; it seems — he seems — unbalanced."
Her heavy brows were drawn together.
"It's like having a pornographer around, except the prurience fixes on death, not sex."
"I'll follow him," Fred said. "I'll talk to him or see where he goes. At least I can find out who he is."
Molly stood, poured the remains of her wine onto the grass next to the bristling pear, and turned toward the stairs to the kitchen.
"I'm making conversation, Fred. Don't feel you have to move into the active mode just because the little woman voices a concern. Drink your coffee, why don't you?"
It had been like that for a couple of weeks, ever since construction started on the new bathroom upstairs, off Molly's bedroom. Fred would say something and Molly would go after him.
As Fred put it to himself, a family is an act of nature that consists of a female and her young. The adult male is an odd thing looming into it. This was especially true in Molly's house, because in this case the children were not Fred's.
It was as if this new bathroom he was giving her — gorgeous and generous, and which he had meant to be a testament and promise to her, an extension of the turf carved out by their mutual intimacy — as if that were an assault.
He'd had a windfall, and had dropped it immediately into Molly's house — with her eager cooperation. Now the mess and havoc of this promise, which for the time being condemned Molly's bedroom and forced them to camp downstairs on her foldout sofa, was making Fred feel like the Mongol hordes arriving in Isfahan.
"You can't own anything, can you?" Molly had spluttered at him one night while the two of them were not sleeping on her sofa.
That was true. Fred's bargain with the world included an unspoken vow of poverty. It was the only way he knew to keep wanting to live.
"I work for a man who wants things," Fred said. "Let Clayton Reed collect art, as if art is in the things we find and buy. I want their life; their beauty and their history and their wild spirit. I won't keep a fucking zoo." He sat up, trembling. He did not own pajamas. Here, in Molly's living room, where the kids might stumble through, he slept in his shorts and T-shirt. "What am I supposed to buy? A butterfly? And nail it to the wall?"
Molly, almost asleep in one of his white shirts, mumbled, "I'm glad to have the bathroom. You know that. Thank you. But maybe you need a new car, Fred. For yourself. One that isn't brown?"
She slipped into sleep in the blue dusk of her frilly living room, leaving Fred wide awake, confused, and mortified — a talent she had.
He looked now around her garden, with the darkness of late summer closing over it, and unnecessary clatter coming from the kitchen, and picked up his cup. The coffee left in it held no interest for the wasps.
* * *
Fred dropped the subject Molly had raised and then warned him off: the man who scared her. He and Clayton Reed were concentrating on a project that would take Fred to Paris. Clay was looking at a couple of fifteenth-century miniatures coming up for auction there, and Fred had to work to understand the paintings' history and their proper value. This let him root contentedly in libraries and museums, persuading live information from inanimate objects.
Then, in October, Fred was out of the country on the business of the miniatures. When he returned, the bathroom was finished, in purple tile of Molly's choosing, and they moved back into her bedroom, now a "master bedroom," Molly said.
The first snow fell — unusually early — late in November, and Fred went out the morning after to stretch his legs. He stopped dead at the foot of the short walk from Molly's house to the sidewalk, where two footprints splayed out side by side into large obsessive man-tracks that faced the front door. It was six-thirty. There was not much light; barely enough to see the tracks. They were blurred, as if they had been made over some time.
The tracks brought back immediately to Fred's mind Molly doing that shuffle of discomfort, acting the part of the man who made her nervous. Fred went inside and woke Molly.
Molly sat up when he touched her shoulder. He'd gotten covered with cold air and she was warm in bed. "You remember the man you told me about?" Fred asked. "The one you said comes into your library, and scared you? What happened to him?"
"I haven't seen him again," Molly said. She wasn't wearing clothes and she was slightly creased from the sheets. She shivered, got up, and put a red terrycloth robe on. "He stopped coming. Just stopped. I never did find out who he was. Did you make coffee?"
"I put it on before I left the house." Fred's instincts were rippling with alarm. Those tracks proved this house, like any other, a trap.
"What's the matter?" Molly asked, catching Fred's concern.
"Nothing, maybe," Fred said. "Footprints outside in the snow reminded me of what you said that evening in the yard, with the wasps."
They went downstairs and sat in the kitchen. Molly hadn't seen the old man since September, before Fred had gone to Europe. Fred made her describe him. He was sixty-five or seventy, she said. Maybe older. He was thin. He bent when he stood. No, he looked vigorous; the only thing about him that was sick was the way he acted. He looked frayed, but he wasn't a derelict. It was more as if he had no one to care about him, to tell him he'd left a big patch of shaving soap on his face.
"Snow!" Terry yelled, coming into the kitchen in her Red Sox pajamas, top and bottoms worn backward, with her thin brown hair in a tangle. "No school, right?"
"Wrong, Monster," Molly told her. "Dream on."
"It could snow more," she protested, looking out the window at a sky rapidly clearing to a blue that would melt the snow within the hour.
Molly sent her to get dressed, and to bounce on her older brother Sam until he acknowledged the new day.
"Don't get me worried," Molly said. "OK?"
"The tracks looked as if a man was there for a while, watching the house," Fred said. "During the night or very early morning." He didn't add, And this is the first time I could know about it, on account of the snow.
They got the kids off to their buses, and Molly left for the library. Her shift had gone to a regular nine-to-five, weekdays, which was better for everyone. Molly was touched by Fred's concern, but not interested. She'd had a look at the marks in the snow, but really, Fred, there are plenty of marks in the snow.
Fred called Clayton Reed's place, on Mountjoy Street on Beacon Hill, and told him, "Don't expect me." They didn't have anything special stirring right now, and what there was could wait. The two of them, in fact, were getting on each other's nerves, because they hadn't a current project to work on, and idle hands, as Molly's mother frequently remarked, are the devil's toothpick.
Fred waited until midmorning, then drove into Cambridge and parked on Broadway, in a spot from which he could see the library's front entrance. He walked past the desk into the bright and almost vacant reading room and found Molly at her post at the reference desk.
"Is he here today?"
"Who? Oh, him. I told you, not for months," Molly said, touched and irritated with him. "And, Fred, don't circle the wagons around me, all right? I can't see the landscape. Or the enemy."
Fred went outside and sat in the car, waiting, watching the entrance. The snow ran away into the gutters. The sun shone.
In the evening, and until they went to bed, Fred looked out the front windows from time to time. After that it was harder, because Molly's bedroom was in the back of the house, overlooking the backyard, with its now-dormant wasps and lilacs hunkered down waiting for spring. The kids had their bedrooms in the front and he would disturb Terry or Sam by going in after they were supposed to be asleep.
Fred made himself wake up at three-thirty, roamed through the dark house, and looked out the windows of the living room. The street was dark and empty. He went out to the sidewalk and looked up and down the quiet, mildly prosperous street of single-family houses with small yards showing black grass and shaped bushes.CHAPTER 2
Fred didn't tell Molly, but he began looking out the front windows every morning at around three; and in a week or so it paid off: he saw the man watching from across the street, bent over, moving from one foot to the other, stepping down toe-first, as if both the earth and loss of contact with it gave equal torment. It was as if his feet had been skinned, or the earth burned, or both. The man wore a long dark coat, and a cloth cap with a brim. He was a dark shape under the pine tree that decorated the front of the house across the way, and he would have been hard to see in the shadow there except that he wouldn't keep still.
Fred had slipped on a pair of khakis when he got up, and he ran barefoot out the kitchen door, through the yard and the side gate.
The man made no attempt to run, or even to dodge, when he saw Fred coming. Fred, filled with anxiety for Molly, and with the wrath that accompanies sudden action, had to stop short before he ran the old man down. He stood there moving his feet in place.
Fred took hold of the sleeve of his coat. It was a herringbone, threadbare, through which he could perceive the thinness of the old man's arm.
"What do you want?" Fred asked.
The old man looked at him with a vacant, watery stare. He gulped as if there were speech somewhere in his past, which he hoped to find again. "Taxi waiting," he said.
Fred looked up and down the quiet suburban street, seeing nothing of the kind. "You were here last week. Why?"
"I don't sleep," the old man said. "Are you arresting me?"
Fred still held the man's arm. He let go of it, embarrassed. When the man turned and started walking toward the corner Fred stayed beside him. The sidewalk was cold on his feet.
"You are not Jeff," the old man said.
"My name is Fred," Fred said.
"I thought my daughter lived in that house," the man said. His voice was thin and discouraged. It had very little of the tremble or modulation of a living voice. It was a voice on its last legs.
They turned the corner. A Cambridge taxi idled under a naked maple tree, its meter on, its radio quietly feeding an all-night talk show to the dozing driver. The inside of the glass was fogged with his breath.
"The woman who lives here, her father passed away years ago," Fred said. The old man was deluded. He had seen Molly in the library, saw a resemblance to his daughter, got her address from the library — they shouldn't give it to anyone — and, driven by a senile hope, came out to find her.
"You are the person who reads so much about murders," Fred said. "Yes?"
The old man's face was narrow, rather horselike, with large bones in the nose and chin, and a notable upper lip. He had, coming from under the cap, weak strands of long gray hair. He ventured, "She talks about me?"
"She is not your daughter," Fred said gently. "She mentioned you had been in the library. What's your name?"
"And you live?"
"For now," the old man said. Then he hesitated and fumbled, realizing that Fred was wondering not if, but where, he lived.
"In Cambridge. Cambridge," the man said. "Cambridge is where I am living."
The taxi driver, wakened by the mumble of conversation, had rolled the window down and was listening. He was a man in his mid-forties, with a cherubic face, wearing a brown leather jacket and a Miami Heat cap. He nodded his large, square head and gave Fred an intelligent look, summing up the situation. "He's going back to Harvard Square," the driver said, the heavy lilt of his speech showing him to be not long out of Haiti. "He say wait, I take him back to Harvard Square there. You ready, Mister?"
"You made a mistake," Fred told the old man, putting him into the backseat. "She's not your daughter. Don't come back now, Mr. Martin."
"She's someone else."
"Right," Fred agreed.
Warm air rushed out of the backseat of the taxi. The sidewalk under Fred's feet was about forty degrees. "You'll be all right?" Fred asked the driver, who nodded once, accepting Fred's money. "Make sure he gets back into his house." Fred watched the taxi drive off. Depending on how long the taxi had been waiting, the old man had invested about fifty dollars on the fare from Cambridge.
Molly was in the kitchen, looking worried, standing by the table, her hands clasped. "What's going on, Fred?"
Both suspicion and accusation were in her voice, mixed with a mother's proprietary fear.
"It was your mass murderer," Fred said. "Out in the street, looking at the house. The one from the library. His name is Martin and he lives in Cambridge. He seems inoffensive."
"He came to my house?" Molly exclaimed. "To my house? What does he want? What is he?"
"Something deluded him into thinking you are his daughter. I told the cabbie to see he got back home, and gave him twenty bucks."
Molly said, "The poor old guy is senile. No mass murderer, then. It gives me the willies he was on my street."
It was almost four o'clock. They sat in the kitchen, debating whether to condemn sleep and make coffee. Fred said, "The normal mass murderer is pretty well groomed; has nice clothes and a new haircut and lovely manners. Mr. Martin presents himself more like the underneath of a yard-sale sofa. I don't think you have to be afraid of him."
Excerpted from Man with a Squirrel by Nicholas Kilmer. Copyright © 1996 Nicholas Kilmer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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