Denise Sawyer is a new writer enrolled in the Creative Writing and English program at Southern New Hampshire University. Denise's published works include a poem called “Wild Feathered Foes” published in the 2016 Manatee Literary Journal and a humorous essay, “Making Manicotti” published on http://www.deadhousekeeping.com/, also in 2016. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as her teenage niece’s legal guardian. Denise lives in New Hampshire with her musician husband, Jeff and their cat, Dizzy, named after the great jazz musician, Dizzy Gillespie.
Logan Airport was a madhouse and I was running late. The security check-in parade of shoeless, beltless people was so long, I pulled out my iPhone and searched for later flights to San Diego. There weren’t any. When I was able to wiggle back into my Kate Spade sandals, I hustled down to the gate just as the flight attendant was closing up shop. Whoa, close call.
I took my aisle seat and noticed that all the TVs were tuned to The Hunt with John Walsh. Walsh was all revved up, wanting us to look closely at a Bingo card of fugitives. Some of the mug shots had the word CAPTURED plastered in red letters across the faces. I wanted to oblige Walsh, but I had to quit stalling and text my cousin.
Hey Paula flying out to California for writer’s conference stopping in to see your parents afterward
My phone rang immediately. “I’m glad you’re going to check in on them, Renee. I’m a little worried about their next door neighbor. He always seems to be hanging around the house when I call.”
“Oh really? Well anybody would with your mother's cooking,” I teased.
Paula was all business. “I think he's a freeloader."
A flight attendant with her smart, navy blue dress and red scarf glared at me to turn off my phone. Everyone else had complied. I lifted my index finger and signaled one more second. Like my being on the phone would bring down the plane. She stood over me and waited.
“Gotta go, Paula. I'll get to the bottom of it.”
I dropped the phone in my lap and held up my hands in surrender. “Don’t shoot.” The flight attendant gave me a dirty look and strode deliberately up the aisle. I turned the phone back on and scrolled through my e-mails.
It had been a while since Paula and I spoke. Yeah, it was her St. Patrick’s Day party. I guess I had too many martinis and flirted with her manager’s husband. How was I supposed to know he was married? He stood there with his smile, letting me ramble on about my ex-boyfriends becoming the deceased in my murder mysteries. He held his green beer in his drinking hand and his “I’m married” hand jammed down the pocket of his khakis. I was relieved that Paula was speaking to me again. I missed my cousin. I would take care of this neighbor business.
By late afternoon, I pulled my rental, a sporty red Miata convertible, up my aunt and uncle’s driveway in Canyon Lake. Immediately, curtains in the front window parted and a coiffured, blonde head peeked out. I smiled. Even at 80, my aunt still colored her hair. She met me in the driveway with a big smile, wiping her hands on her faded apron.
“There you are,” she said, giving me a big hug. “Uncle Paul is a little confused today but he’ll probably recognize you.”
Guilt gripped my gut. I should have visited sooner. Paula said that his Alzheimer’s was getting much worse. He went for a walk a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t find his way home. Instead, he walked into a barbershop a mile away and told the barber to get the hell out of his shop. Uncle Paul sold his South Boston shop thirty years ago. They retired out here in California to be near Paula.
But right now, Paula was back in Boston, finishing her internal medicine residency at Brigham and Women’s.
I followed Aunt Claire into the kitchen where I was greeted by the familiar heady aroma of roasted garlic and tomatoes. Uncle Paul looked up from the kitchen table. “Renee, what are-you-a doing here!” he said in his heavy Italian accent.
“Hey there, Uncle Paul. Remember we spoke on the phone last night?” As soon as I said it, I felt like a jerk.
Uncle Paul chuckled and smoothed down the gray wool vest he always wore over a white shirt, buttoned all the way up to his neck. “My mind, it’s a-shot.”
“Well, well, who’s the lovely young lass?” an unfamiliar male voice bellowed.
I tensed up. Who the hell is calling me a young lass?
A very tall figure appeared at the kitchen door, but I couldn’t see his face. The late afternoon shadows obscured his features.
“Joe, I’m so glad you’re here. This is my niece, Renee,” my aunt said.
In a confident stride, Joe was upon me and lifted my hand as if to kiss it. His hair was all white as well as his neatly trimmed mustache and beard. The smell of his cologne obliterated the aroma of Aunt Claire’s cooking, unnerving me.
I yanked my hand away which amused him. He smiled, baring dingy, capped teeth squared off like piano keys. “How old are you?”
I couldn’t believe this bombastic jerk. “Can you keep a secret?” I leaned in, baiting him.
“Sure can,” he said.
I gritted my teeth. “Well so can I.”
Instead of being embarrassed, he roared with laughter, slapping his hands on his thighs.
I turned to my aunt. “I need to hang up my clothes before they get wrinkled.”
“Of course, honey. I put you in Paula’s old room.”
I followed her down the Hall of Paula: a gallery packed with photos of my cousin’s birthdays, grammar school portraits and her high school graduation. At the end of the hall beside Paula’s door hung Uncle Paul’s much-loved reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert.
“Aunt Claire, is this the painting Uncle Paul had in his shop?”
“Yes, it is. How’d you remember?”
How could I forget? When I was eight, I almost destroyed it. I sat in Uncle Paul’s barber shop chair, holding on to the arms while Paula spun me around. I got dizzy and told her to stop. When I climbed down, I staggered straight into the picture which hung above the magazine rack. The picture wiggled then bowed over like a wounded toy soldier, striking the rack.
Uncle Paul in his white barber tunic bent down and inspected the canvas. The black and white tiles on Vermeer’s concert room floor now had a quarter-inch gash. I teared up.
“It’s okay little one. No one will ever notice,” he said, giving me a playful yank on my ponytail.
The oven timer went off. “Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes. Joe’s joining us,” my aunt said.
I sighed. “Really? Can’t we just have a nice family dinner and you know, catch up?”
“Oh Renee, Joe’s part of the family now. He’s been such a big help with Uncle Paul. It’s hard with Paula back in Boston. I don’t know what I’d do without him,” she said, fishing a tissue out her apron pocket. The timer buzzed again. She turned to leave. “Be nice, Renee.”
I absently ran my fingers over the picture, feeling for the slice in the canvas. Hmm, it’s not there; he must’ve picked up another reproduction—and a very good one. I can feel brush strokes.
When I got to the dining room, Joe was seated at the head of the table like a patriarch. His large hands gripped each side of the table as if it was a podium. Aunt Claire and Uncle Paul sat on each side of him. My uncle had a faraway look on his face. This was worse than I thought.
I sat at the other end of the table directly facing Joe who smiled with those teeth again. “So Joe, tell me how you met my aunt and uncle.”
Joe grabbed the bottle of red wine from the table and poured himself a full glass, not offering any to us. He pointed with his fork over his shoulder. “I live right next door and Paul cuts my hair. Best damn barber I ever had.” Uncle Paul came to life hearing his name. “Your aunt tells me you haven’t been out here in a while. But you had a book signing down in San Diego last year; am I right?” He let that comment loiter in the air while he rigorously sawed through his veal parmesan.
I stood up, leaned over, and grabbed the wine bottle by its neck. “Aunt Claire, some wine? How ‘bout you, Uncle Paul?” They both nodded. I rationed the remaining wine into our glasses and sat back down. “It’s not that easy for me to get up to Canyon Lake,” I lied.
The real reason was my favorite slot machine mechanic in Las Vegas. I couldn’t get enough of his sex. Whenever I flew out to the West Coast, I’d dash over to see him. “So, Uncle Paul, I noticed you replaced the Vermeer painting in the hall.”
Uncle Paul scrunched his forehead trying to remember. He nodded at Joe. “Red said I could keep it.”
Joe’s head shot up and his fork clanked against the plate, but it was Aunt Claire who spoke. “Paul, this is Joe. Remember?”
“No, he’s Red!” Uncle Paul shouted.
Joe lowered his head and shoveled the remnants of the parmesan into his mouth. He threw his napkin on the table and pushed back the chair. “I better go, Claire. I don’t want to upset Paul. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” He headed for the kitchen door, ignoring me. Aunt Claire followed him out.
“It’s okay, Uncle Paul. Did you know Red back in Boston?”
“Yes, but it’s a secret.”
Things were getting interesting.
“Who’s ready for dessert?” my aunt said, walking in with fake cheer and a ricotta pie.
I needed time to process Uncle Paul’s bombshell. “Aunt Claire, how well do you know this Joe guy?”
“Oh, you sound like Paula.”
“I’m serious. He’s making himself at home here.”
My aunt seesawed the cake knife into the thick pie. “He’s just lonesome since his wife died. Frankly, Renee, he’s good company.”
“What line of work was he in?”
She slid the cake knife roughly under a slice of pie. “Oh, I don’t know, Renee.”
“Red’s an art dealer,” Uncle Paul said grinning.
We ate our pie in silence. Aunt Claire was pretending to forget, and poor Uncle Paul was trying to remember. I had some digging to do, but East Coast time was catching up to me.
That night, I dreamt that I slid through the slice in the Vermeer like it was a tent flap, and suddenly I was in the painting. I hid in the corner and listened to the concert.
I woke up to the buzzing of my phone. It was a text from Paula.
Not sure yet stay tuned
I heard footsteps in the Hall of Paula. Someone was up. I opened my door a crack to see Uncle Paul staring at the painting. He was stroking the canvas and mumbling in Italian.
“Uncle Paul, you really love that painting,” I whispered from the doorway.
Uncle Paul snapped out of his daze. “Renee, take the painting—hide it!”
“Is it part of the secret?”
“You know the secret?”
“Yes,” I blurted before the guilt could yank the lie from my lips. “What’s Red’s last name?”
“Uh, um…Mahoney, McKenzie. It’s Murphy!”
“Let me get dressed,” I stalled and quietly closed the bedroom door. I grabbed my phone and Googled Red Murphy. Oh, crap.
I pulled on a pair of skinny jeans and a tee-shirt and trotted down to the kitchen. The coffee maker gurgled coffee while Aunt Claire stood at the sink, daydreaming out the window.
“Aunt Claire, I need to talk to you.”
“Oh, you startled me! Want some coffee, honey?” she said, pouring me a cup before I could respond.
“This Joe guy isn’t who you think.”
“Don’t listen to Uncle Paul.”
“His real name is Red Murphy. He’s wanted for the biggest art heist in American history. Aunt Claire, he posed as a Boston police officer and stole thirteen works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum back in 1990.”
She stood there frozen, holding the coffee pot by the handle.
“Aunt Claire, we have to call the police.”
The coffee pot sagged in her hand. I grabbed for the handle with both hands as it slid from her grip, but I wasn’t quick enough— the scalding coffee streamed over my hand and I dropped the pot. She didn’t notice but instead turned and walked zombie-like to the cordless on the wall. I watched her tap a few numbers and then wander into the hall with the phone to her ear.
Within a few minutes, the kitchen door opened and Joe, Red, whoever he was, walked in.
I spun around to face him. “So you just walk in? What the hell do you want?” His full height looked down at me. I backed up, not taking my eyes off him. “Get out— leave my aunt and uncle alone, you thief. My aunt just called the police.”
“Really? What, after she called me to get right over?” His eyes followed my aunt as she walked back into the kitchen and sat at the table.
“Aunt Claire, why? I’ll call the police, geez,” I said, pulling the phone out of my jeans pocket.
“Well you can…” started Joe, taking a seat at the kitchen table next to Aunt Claire. “But do you want your aunt and uncle to wind up in jail?”
“Renee, sit down.” My aunt let out a long breath and cupped her coffee mug. “The police can’t come here.”
“I don’t understand. This Joe guy was tagged on The Hunt with John Walsh! You’re living next to an art thief.”
“And I’m living with an art thief,” she said.
“Who? Uncle Paul? That’s ridiculous; he’s a barber for chrissake.”
My aunt and Joe exchanged sad looks. Then it hit me. “Oh my God, the Vermeer?”
I ran down the hall and stood in front of the canvas. The morning sun lit up Vermeer’s signature glazing technique. I could smell the age. I was looking at the real deal.
I heard breathing behind my shoulder but I didn’t turn around. “Renee, it was stupid,” Joe said. “This big shot art dealer dared me and I took the bait. Then I bamboozled Paul into going along with the heist. We tied up the two museum guards down in the basement— but we didn’t hurt them. Paul got real scared. So did I. After all that, the son of a bitch dealer got cold feet. Said the art was too hot and wouldn’t take it.”
I was stunned. “So where’s the Vermeer and all the other artwork been hiding for the last twenty-six years?”
“Well, first in Paul’s barber shop storeroom back in Boston until 2008. When Claire and Paul moved to California, we built a special climate-controlled room behind the closet wall in Paula’s old bedroom. I never met her. Paula was only 12 when we did the job, and Paul didn’t want me near her. I don’t blame him. Paul pulled the Vermeer out and hung it in the hall. I didn’t have the heart to put it back.”
“Oh my God,” was all I could muster.
“The masterpieces won’t be in the secret room much longer; “I gotta buyer.”
“Black market, right?” I said.
“Well, yeah. Hey, do you want to see them?”
“What the hell… but wait. Are you holding my aunt and uncle hostage or something?”
“God, no, Jesus. I owe my life to Paul. After we did the job back in 90, I got all depressed. Felt terrible about getting him into it. Started doing drugs. Paul took out a second mortgage on the shop— got me into rehab, even gave me a job when I got out. He’s family. He needs me now. The money from the art deal is going towards his medical bills. They’re broke, you know. Paul insisted on paying cash for Paula’s college.”
Paula. What was I going to tell her?
The answer came to me a little while later. I was sitting cross-legged on Paula’s bed, watching Red crawl around on his knees, pulling out the entombed treasures behind her closet. He laid out three Rembrandts, a Flinck, an ancient Chinese vase, five works by Degas, a Napoleon artifact, and a Manet.
It was time. I picked up the phone and texted my cousin.
Hey cuz like I suspected he loves your mother's cooking
So he IS a freeloader!!!
Nah he's harmless he's like the handyman and drives them all around
Just for a few meals?