by Dick Little
The day after the discovery at the museum, Archibald McNair needed some processing time. After dinner and helping with the dishes as usual, he repaired to his tasteful, book-lined study. He gave perfunctory jabs at the fire with a wrought-iron poker, replaced it in its rack, then settled into his leather easy chair. He reached to the end table for the Venetian cut crystal decanter of his favored twelve-year-old Scotch and poured himself a healthy glassful. He didn’t suspect that his wife Emma regularly refilled the bottle with the cheapest swill she could find at BevMo.
Whatever the mystery that he no longer knew one brand from another, “Archie,” Professor McNair (Ph.D., History, Southwest New Mexico A&M, ret.), did enjoy his Scotch. He took a few sips, then tapped a plug of imported Mac Baren tobacco into his beloved meerschaum pipe, the soft amber of its bowl bespeaking its age, and lit up. He was not fooled about pipe tobacco, particularly the “Scottish” brand. He just chose to ignore the fact that it consisted of Virginia tobacco, accentuated by a smidgen of Scotch whiskey.
Ah, memories of a well-lived life of eighty-four years. He loved his Emma (fifty-five years and counting). They lived in a fine home, in a small, cozy town, and, while not affluent, were well-off. Their three adult children and their spouses each lived just the right distance away but came home for enjoyable holiday visits with grandchildren.
That said, at his age, Archie’d read every book he imagined reading, published enough books and articles to sate his ego, and deliberately partook of zero interest in current affairs. His only nod to academia and his career these days was to help guide the fortunes, or lack thereof, of the local Walker Museum. Even there, his interest had been waning; too much teeth-gnashing about money, not enough about esoterica. But yesterday had come as a surprise, even to his jaundiced self.
As he slowly puffed on his pipe, he contemplated recent developments—specifically, the ramifications of a Seward shame totem he’d waxed so brilliantly about. In his reverie this evening in front of the flickering fire, he nodded off. His pipe, now safely extinguished, slipped from his palm to his lap. Wife Emma tiptoed in, placed the pipe on the mahogany end table, and kissed her husband goodnight on the forehead. She went quietly upstairs to her bedroom.
Archie blinked his eyes open. When he was sure Emma’d left, he got out of his chair. He listened carefully (she rarely came back down after her evening toilette), then slipped into his forest-green, fleece-lined, monogramed Patagonia parka from REI and let himself out the back door. On the landing, he reached into the jacket pocket and took out a plastic baggie filled with a certain “vegetable material” he’d gotten from his fellow museum board member, Ted Davis. (“Scored,” he remembered was the term.) The quid pro quo had been a promise to support young Ted in his next political venture, whatever that might be, about which Archie neither knew nor cared.
He shook the ashes out of the pipe and replaced them with a nub of sticky “B.C.” cannabis, lit up, took a long drag and held it. Another hit followed before he set off across the back lawn, a bit woozy already but under control, to the road that led to the Walker Museum. It was 11:30 on a moonless, completely silent night. His fuzzier and fuzzier head felt appropriate to the occasion, and with the help of his cane, he knew the way like the trek to the bathroom at night.
“God, you’re finally here,” said the voice, which made Archie jump a foot.
“Christ, of course I’m here. What is this, a timed event?” His mind-altered state didn’t mean he wasn’t cantankerous.
“A, it’s freakin’ cold. B, it’s late. And C…oh, whatever.”
“So do we stand here jabbering, or get on with it.”
“What on earth have you been smoking?”
“Under the circumstances, that’s no concern of yours, certainly.”
His companion, same height and hooded against the cold, produced a key and unlocked the back door of the museum. They went in, passed director Lindsay DeMan’s office, took a right down a darkened hallway, then down unlit stairs, eschewing the elevator, and stopped. In front of them was a makeshift, boarded-up doorway of uncertain provenance. It had rusty hinges, but the padlock securing it looked new. Archie held the flashlight while tumblers spun. The lock clicked open. They gave the door a shove and walked in. His companion secured the door behind them.
When Archie didn’t come down for breakfast the next morning, Emma went up and checked his room. The bed hadn’t been slept in, the bedclothes were undisturbed. He wasn’t in his bathroom. She went downstairs and, after looking in the den, the dining room, the entry hallway and out front, in the kitchen she found the door to the backyard was unlocked. Outside, she yelled “Archie” into the quiet morning. No reply. Back inside, she called the police.
Catherine Walker stopped into Subdued Brews, her fav morning haunt, for a day-girding latte. Last night with Mom had left her exhausted. She needed to vent, but Sunburst Fawn-Flower was backed up with other customers. Catherine looked around the brewery-slash-café, then grinned. At her customary table in the corner, thankfully, sat the town’s resident sage, Ruth Bader. Doctor Ruth Bader, counselor, author, former legislator, and wicked bridge player—all in all, formidable, as the French would say. Catherine walked over and pulled out a chair. Ruth held up a cautionary hand from behind her open laptop before continuing to tap away. “No doubt some brilliant article for the paper,” thought Catherine who was in no hurry at all, now that she’d found a friend.
Ruth Bader, looking more fiftyish than her seventy-something years—black turtleneck, pearl necklace, white jabot collar—stopped typing and closed the lid. “You look like I did the morning Hillary lost,” she said. “Except for the smile. I didn’t smile.”
“I guess that’s a compliment, Ruth.”
Catherine reached a hand across the table. Ruth took it, caressed it a moment, then said, “Spill it. Mom again, I suppose.”
“Actually, no. Well, yes and no.”
“More museum difficulties?”
“Well…and maybe I’m not supposed to talk about this…but…”
“Darlin’, I’ve heard more secrets than a priest at confession.”
Catherine took a breath, then a sip of latte foam. “We’ve discovered a scary Native totem. In the basement. In a room we didn’t even know existed.”
“That’s a good thing, right? Brings in visitors.”
“Except the carving’s not like the ones you usually see.”
When Catherine got to the part about the blood red nose and ears and the mutton chop whiskers, she had Ruth’s full attention.
“And Professor McNair was with you?”
“What do you know about him?”
“Well, considering he’s been our board president for three years, I guess not much.”
“I did a piece once on a book he wrote. I even researched where he taught. In Deming, New Mexico. Ever been there?”
Catherine shook her head.
“I suppose it has its attractions, and heck, fully-tenured is fully-tenured. But I was just curious why a historian in the desolate southwest was interested in historical preservation of Native American artifacts,” she paused, “in the Pacific Northwest.” She grinned. “And at an ‘agriculture’ college in a desert.”
Catherine didn’t answer. Her mind was reprising what the Professor had told her in that brick-lined basement room. And her family motto, especially the retournerai part.
Ruth reopened her laptop and started typing. Twenty minutes later, the two of them left Subdued Brews, each in a different direction.
To say Jeff Hansen’s lust-filled evening with the luscious Carmen after the museum board meeting hadn’t gone well was like saying Sarah Palin wasn’t McCain’s best idea.
Carmen, in her camisole that left nothing to the imagination, turned from the window and said, “Jeff, I’ve met someone.”
Jeff spat out his whiskey. “Someone!” he choked. He jumped up from the bed. “What the f…!”
“Jeff, I’m sorry. You and I…well, we’ve been…like, like this for, what, over a year.” She started to sob.
“You’re telling me this, all tarted up like that! Like we’re gonna be bed-wrestling any moment.” He threw his glass at the wall. “Or are you and ‘someone’ having the sex these days, and I’m a stand-in?”
Carmen didn’t answer.
“What’s the champagne for? Are we celebrating?” He cackled like it was all a joke, a bad joke. “Oh, I get it. The condemned man ate a hearty last—”
“Stop!” Carmen turned and faced him. “Jeff, you’re married. I’m not. Am I ever going to be?”
“Now that bothers you. Dare I ask who’s the guy? Is it a guy!”
“You don’t need to know who. He’s new to town anyway. You only need to know I’m tired of the pretense, the sneakiness, the…well, all of it.” She began to cry again, her blatant sex outfit only exaggerating Jeff’s anger.
Jeff paced around the apartment, his ample stomach in a knot. Now this, after promising himself he might finally try to start losing a little weight; like walking the six blocks to work rather than driving. But bankers were supposed to drive nice cars, weren’t they?
Angry voice shaking, he said, “Okay, this’ll stop alright. Starting with your—make that my—bank card.”
With a reserve of restraint, at least he didn’t hit her. He did reach past her and sweep the champagne and flutes to the floor. He turned, grabbed his jacket, and stormed out slamming the door. He forgot his tie.
For the next day, he didn’t speak to his wife other than morning grumbles. He would have kicked the dog, but they didn’t have one. He growled at the restaurant server where he went for breakfast. Yelled at a teller. Twice.
She could keep the freakin’ tie.
Carmen’s ringtone woke her the next morning. The caller ID number was unfamiliar, but at least it wasn’t Jeff’s.
“Hi, Carmen. It’s Andrew.”