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Authors: Gayle Roper

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BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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As I jotted my notes, I thought how incredible it was that I should do something as bizarre as find a body one night and something as routine as interview some local artist the next morning. Variety like this was one of the reasons I loved newspaper work.

Curtis Carlyle. Artist. Watercolors. One-man art show scheduled for Friday night and Saturday in the Brennan Room at City Hall in Amhearst. Chester County scenes his specialties, notably winter scenes with old stone barns and houses, wonderful skies. Former gym teacher. Still coached high school soccer and tennis.

Usually interviews intrigued me, and I looked forward to them. Finding out what made people tick was like opening locked doors. Always a new room appeared, and sometimes unexpected treasure. Today’s was an exception. How could an artist—even one with a name like his—compare with a murder? I found myself wishing I could skip him and get back to my murder investigation.

The last of the ice was melted by ten in the morning when I pulled up in front of Curtis Carlyle’s house, odd puddles the only reminders of the bad weather.

I studied the brick-faced ranch, looking for clues about its occupant. It looked much like the other houses in the neighborhood, not the retreat of an artist of some stature.

Thin sunlight patterned the roof through the barren branches of the beech and poplar that formed a semicircle around the lawn. Brown, frosty, winter-killed grass tufted the deep front yard. On the half acres to the right and left were other ranches very similar in appearance. Across the street a pair of three-year-olds made fat and unbendable by their snowsuits stared at me from the porch of yet another ranch.

I looked again at Carlyle’s house and shrugged. It told me nothing.

I rang the bell and waited. No response. I rang again as I checked my watch. Ten o’clock. That was the time we had agreed on. Could he have forgotten? Sure, he was probably busy with last-minute arrangements for his show, but I was as important to him as he was to me. If I could tear myself away from a murder investigation to make time for him, certainly he could return the compliment. After all, he needed the exposure as much as I needed the article.

I rang a third time. Maybe he was hard of hearing. It seemed to me that anyone who retired from teaching must have lost something through the years of dealing with kids. I would have thought it would be sanity, but hearing was a distinct possibility.

Suddenly the door imploded and a huge bear of a man filled the opening. A great smile lit his face, crinkling his eyes to slits behind their dark-framed glasses.

“Merrileigh Kramer from
The News,
right?” he asked as he threw the storm door open for me. “Hi. I’m Curt Carlyle.”

I nodded as I stepped by him, quickly revising my erroneous preconceptions. “Former gym teacher” obviously didn’t mean what I had thought. Curt Carlyle was no retiree; he was a man in his early thirties who exuded energy, whose mass of curly dark hair was a far cry from the sparse gray I had anticipated.

“Do you mind if we talk downstairs?” he asked. “I’m finishing up some things for tomorrow.”

He led the way downstairs and as we descended, he began to whistle “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” I grimaced.

Unexpectedly, a huge, bright room greeted me. The rear wall of the walkout basement was exposed by the downward slope of the lawn and had been lined with glass. The lemon light of winter was aided by great lights hanging over Carlyle’s worktable. Shelves lining the front wall of the room were filled with art supplies from paper and paints to huge rolls of popcorn plastic used for packaging. It was a roll of the wrap that he was working with now, swathing a framed picture four feet by three for safe transport.

I pulled out my new camera and began snapping him as he worked. He was happy to pose at his worktable and stood easily beside a wonderfully detailed watercolor of a stone barn backed by a brooding, stormy sky, dark clouds streaked dramatically with the brilliant oranges and yellows of an angry setting sun.

“This is the original of the picture I’m offering prints of this year.” He wiped an imaginary speck off the glass before he began wrapping it in plastic. “I select one picture a year to reproduce, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how successful the prints have been.”

“How many prints do you make?”

“Five hundred. Each numbered and signed.”

“I know you’re a former gym teacher,” I said. “How did you end up being a watercolorist?”

“I’ve always loved painting, but it didn’t seem like a very practical way to make a living. So I went with my other love, sports, and taught. In my late twenties I became very dissatisfied. I had visions of me rolling out the ball for the rest of my life while others played.”

I imagined him stalking the sidelines like a tethered grizzly, frustrated and unhappy.

“My sister, Joan, was the one who encouraged me to take the leap.” He nodded toward the portrait of an attractive woman I had assumed to be a wife or girlfriend. “So what if I had a couple of lean years, she said. I had only myself to feed. Our parents had left us this house, and since Joan was married, she urged me to live here and go for it.” He shrugged and grinned happily. “I did, and though I’ve been hungry a few times, I don’t regret it. Life’s exciting again.”

“Your sister must be very proud,” I said.

His smile disappeared. “I’m sure she would be, but she died two years ago, just before things really started to move for me.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t feel bad, Merrileigh. It’s okay. She was a strong Christian, and that thought comforts me.” He smiled and began to whistle again.

I listened to him for a minute, then said sharply, “Do you know what you’re doing?”

He looked at me in surprise.

“You’re whistling,” I said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Everyone does it, and it drives me crazy.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “Though most people usually sing.”

“What in the world are you talking about?” Curt asked.

“What were you whistling?” I demanded.

He thought a moment. “‘Merrily We Roll Along.’”

“Right. And what were you whistling when we came down the steps?”

“I don’t know,” he said patiently. “What?”

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat’!”

Curt looked at me as though I were unstable.

“It drives me wild,” I said. “Sometimes I’d like to strangle my mother.”

Suddenly Curt’s face cleared and he began to laugh. “Merrily/Merrileigh, right?”

I nodded. “Most people do it subconsciously, though some people actually do it on purpose just to bother me.”

Jack had been one of those people, and I’d never understood why he intentionally did something I disliked so much.

“It doesn’t matter whether you think I’m overreacting or not, Jack,” I said to him once. “Just please believe me when I say I hate it!”

And he’d smiled his knee-weakening smile and sung back to me to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”: “Calm, calm, calm yourself. Don’t get so upset. Merrileigh, Merrileigh, Merrileigh, I don’t like to see you fret.”

I looked stormily at Curt Carlyle, who smiled unrepentantly back.

“I’ll try to resist,” he said. “If I do slip, tell me, and I’ll shape up right away. Do people call you something besides Merrileigh to help then deny the word association?”

I was suddenly embarrassed about my outburst and how childish I sounded. It must have been last night’s shock.

“People usually call me Merry,” I said, and sighed. “I’m sorry, but if you’d lived with those songs every day of your life since the teacher first called your name aloud in kindergarten, you’d have developed a complex, too.”

“I’m sure I would have,” Curt agreed amiably.

He seemed to be studying me. My hand went to my spikey hair, but it stuck out above my head as it should. I glanced down at my gray slacks, jade sweater and navy blazer. They weren’t covered with Whiskers’s hair, so they looked all right to me. I sucked discreetly at the gap between my teeth. I hadn’t eaten anything since I’d brushed, but I always worried since the spinach-in-the-teeth fiasco eight years ago. I cleared my throat self-consciously.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Curt asked.

I lifted an eyebrow and looked at him in surprise. “Isn’t that line a bit old?”

“I’m not giving you a line,” Curt said earnestly. “I honestly think I know you from somewhere.”

“Oh. Well. I don’t think so,” I said. “I’ve only lived in Amhearst since the beginning of September.”

He shook his head and squinted at me.

I flipped my notebook open and asked, “Don’t you find painting and coaching a strange combination?”

He took the hint and got right to the issue at hand.

“Painting and coaching are good foils for each other if you think about it. Painting is creative and energizing and sedentary and solitary. Coaching is restorative and repetitious and active and social.”

By the time the interview drew to a close thirty minutes later, I knew Curt laughed a lot, talked with his hands and had a lot of work still to do for tomorrow night’s opening.

“This article will be in Friday’s paper,” he told me, as if it was his choice. “Right?”

“Probably Saturday’s edition,” I said.

“I’d like it to be in tomorrow’s.”

“I don’t think you get to choose. It’s the editor’s call.” I smiled so I wouldn’t sound defensive, but I hate it when people try to tell me what to do with the articles about them, especially since I have no control over when anything is printed, only when it’s written. “If it comes out Saturday, I can cover the opening tomorrow night and people can read about it in time to stop in Saturday if they wish.”

He nodded, not overly happy but wisely recognizing that he had no say in the issue. “Why don’t you come and see the chaos tonight or tomorrow morning? Then by contrast, the professionalism of tomorrow night will really impress you—I hope.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll have to see. I know I can’t come tonight, but maybe tomorrow. It depends on what else I’m assigned to do.”

“Tell Don I said to let you come,” said Curt.

“You know Don?” I asked.

Curt’s smile dimmed. “Yes. I know Don.”

FOUR

I
returned to
The News
to find the office in an uproar. Don was waving his hands as he talked to Mac Carnuccio. Mac was listening intently, looking like the proverbial thundercloud. Larry Schimmer, the sports guy, and Edie Whatley, the family and entertainment editor, were deep in conversation at Edie’s desk. Edie was wiping at tears that continued to flow despite her mopping efforts.

I stopped at Jolene’s desk. She was staring at her computer screen, the earplug for her transcriber in place, but she wasn’t working.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Jolene transferred her blank stare to me. She had gorgeous skin, great brown eyes that she dramatized expertly, and enough hair to make Dolly Parton jealous, though Jolene’s was a rich chestnut. “Oh, Merry, isn’t it terrible?”

“What? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Trudy McGilpin. She’s dead.”

“Trudy? Trudy the
mayor?
But all she had was the flu! At least that’s what they told us yesterday evening at her office when she didn’t show up for the meeting.”

Jolene nodded. “But she died sometime last night. We got a call about it just a few minutes ago. She didn’t keep her morning appointments, and her secretary couldn’t reach her by phone. She got worried and went to Trudy’s, and—” Jolene paused, then continued with great drama. “And there she was.”

I sympathized with the unknown secretary. I knew that finding bodies could take the starch out of the crispest individual.

Jolene, whose husband had just left her, took a long and shaky breath. “That just shows what happens when you live alone.”

I blinked. “I doubt that living alone did her in, but she must have been a lot sicker than anyone realized.”

“A lot,” agreed Jolene as she coughed delicately and leaned toward me. “I don’t feel like I have a fever, do I?”

I looked at her carefully made-up face and her clear eyes.

“You look fine to me, Jolene.”

She leaned forward some more, one hand raising her bangs off her forehead. “I don’t know. Check for me.”

I placed a couple of fingers on her cool forehead and looked thoughtful.

“I knew it,” she said, distressed. “I’m getting sick.”

“You’re fine,” I said.

“But you frowned.”

“I was thinking about Trudy,” I said.

“Well, think about me. Do I have a fever?”

I shook my head. “You do not.”

She didn’t believe me. “But I know I’m getting sick.”

“Merry!” Don’s voice boomed across the room. “Come here. And, Mac, I need you, too.”

Thank you, Don!
I eagerly left the sick bay.

The News
office space was cramped, old and reeked of smoke in spite of the fact that no one had been allowed to smoke in the room for at least five years. The desks were battered and scarred, the linoleum pattern had worn off decades ago and the file cabinets were dented and scratched. Only the lighting and the computer system were modern, and they were both state-of-the-art.

The other highly unique aspect of the newsroom was the greenery. Plants sat on every available surface and on some they shouldn’t. And every plant was lush and full and in better health than I was. I could only imagine what Don paid a service to tend these beauties, though why he wanted them in the first place, I didn’t know.

I dodged Larry’s and Edie’s desks, the fiche machine and the soda and coffee machines. The latter two were placed near Don so he could keep an eye on loiterers. A Wandering Jew draped over the soda machine in such rampant health that I always thought of
Little Shop of Horrors
and the plant that ate people. I gave the machine and its decoration wide berth.

“You heard?” Don asked as I approached.

“About Trudy?” I nodded. “Jolene just told me.”

I stared in surprise at my boss’s large, cluttered desk. Cluttered? Don? Usually he sat in organized splendor in front of the huge window that looked down from the second-floor editorial offices onto the business district of Amhearst. If it weren’t for the incontrovertible proof of the daily issues of
The News,
I’d think Don never worked, because his desk never showed it. Except now.

BOOK: Caught in the Middle
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