Aaron Elkins: A Deceptive Clarity

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Aaron Elkins A Deceptive Clarity
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    A Deceptive Clarity
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Aaron Elkins

A Deceptive Clarity

Chapter 1

"It's eleven-fifteen," Tony Whitehead announced peremptorily to the assembled curatorial staff of the San Francisco County Museum of Art. "We've been at this for over two hours and we don't seem to be getting anywhere. I don't know about you, but I've had enough talk, and now I want some action. By next Wednesday morning I expect to see each department's preliminary budget on my desk with three scenarios: current-year allocation, five-percent reduction, and ten-percent reduction."

He waved away the rumble of protest. "We don't have any choice. I'll do my best with the board. That's all." He shuffled his papers together and glanced at me. "Chris, you stay, please."

While the rest of the staff glumly packed up their file folders and made for the door of the conference room, the director nodded them cheerfully out, remaining plumply ensconced in his customary Duncan Phyfe lyre-backed chair at the head of the oval, deeply polished Queene Anne table. The conference room, like most of the administrative offices in the building, was filled with handsome furnishings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Access to the storerooms for office decoration is one of the pleasantest, least-known perquisites of curatorial rank in an art museum.

"Chris," Tony said, folding sleek, square hands on the table and peering earnestly over them, "I'm worried about you. You didn't say a word in the meeting."

"Sorry," I said. "I don't think budget reallocation arouses me.

"I know, but I can always count on you for something constructive. Besides, you've been down in the dumps for weeks."

Months was more like it. I mumbled something and waited for him to continue. Anthony Whitehead was no casual socializer. Whenever he began a conversation in that vein-in any vein-there was a particular and well-defined end in mind. And that end was almost always to extricate himself from one of the political or administrative squeezes that pretty much constitute a museum director's life. Still, to give him credit, he was a good boss, not just a politician and a fund raiser, and eight out of ten times he had your interests in mind. Well, say six.

"I think you need a change, Chris," he said, as if he'd discovered something I wasn't aware of. Smiling, he leaned back in the chair and studied me. He picked up a pencil that had been left from the meeting and tapped it slowly on the table-first the eraser, then the point, then the eraser again.

"I've got an idea," he said with a sense of dawning wonder, as if he'd just thought of it. He laid the pencil carefully on the gleaming table. "How'd you like to spend a month or two in Europe? Salary and expenses?"

I hesitated, which may seem strange, but overseas travel is nothing extraordinary for a curator (another one of those little perks). Besides, there were some personal problems keeping me in San Francisco.

I shrugged gloomily. "I don't know, Tony. I'm not-"

The ringing of the telephone cut me off. Tony picked it up. "Yes, he is." He held it out to me and made a pious face. "Miss Culletson. For you."

Miss Culletson's telephone manner was as crisp, cool, and businesslike as her person. "I have a call for you, Dr. Norgren. Rita Dooling. I thought you might want to be interrupted.

"Oh, Lord," I muttered. I knew by now that no call from your lawyer ever turns out to be good news. Not when you're in the midst of long, messy divorce negotiations. Norgren's Law, I was thinking of calling it

"Did you want to take it in your office, or shall I have it transferred to the conference room?"

"No, I'll go to my office."

"I thought you might prefer that," Miss Culletson said in a neutral tone. "I'll ask her to hold."

"My lawyer," I said to Tony. "Can I get back to you later?"

"Make it before twelve. I'm tied up all afternoon."

I nodded, trotted to my office, picked up the telephone, and punched the appropriate button.

"Chris, we're almost there," Rita barked with her usual bluff optimism. "Bev's agreed to everything; our entire counteroffer."

I'd heard this before. "But," I said.

"Well, yes; but." She cleared her throat. "She's tossed in a new wrinkle. Nothing we can't live with when you think in terms of the whole picture."

Our counteroffer… nothing we can't live with… It was certainly nice to have a lawyer who suffered through these things with you.

"What she wants," Rita continued, "is nine-and-three-quarters percent of the royalties on your book."

"Nine and… of Jan van der Meer van Delft? " I was surprised and angry in about equal measure. What right did Bev feel she had to any part of the Vermeer book? I'd put together almost all of it in a twelve-week burst of desperate energy during the bleak, miserable period right after she'd left me fourteen months before. "No," I said, "absolutely not," and caved in immediately. "Maybe five percent."

"Well, now, Chris, I don't think we should-"

"Why exactly nine-and-three-quarters percent, for Christ's sake? Why not ten?"

"It's a little complicated," Rita said with a laugh, relieved that I wasn't rejecting the idea outright. "From what she told her attorney, you and your publisher got together on August twenty-sixth last year to lay out the idea of the book. Does that sound right?"

"I don't know. I suppose so." Bev, I had been learning, to my cost, was seldom wrong on dates or figures.

"And the manuscript was submitted on March twenty-seventh? Is that correct?"

I agreed that it probably was, although how Bev knew, I had no idea.

"All right," Rita said, "the thing is, exactly forty-two days after that first meeting with your publisher, you and Bev separated; October sixth."

That date I could vouch for. Black Saturday. Rita was being kind when she used the word separated. Bev had simply up and left me. I'd gotten back after a couple of hours at the museum-I'd wanted to look over a fine Mantegna Head of Saint Paul that we'd just gotten from Geneva-and she just wasn't there. No notes, no arguments, no civilized adult discussions, no nothing. At breakfast she'd been the same as usual; we'd laughed over coffee and even talked about going to dinner in Chinatown. It took two wretched days-contacting the police, the highway patrol, every hospital within fifty miles of San Francisco-before I found out where she was: in Marin County, living with a stockbroker I'd never heard of.

I hadn't suspected a thing, hadn't known anything was seriously wrong. We'd had nothing remotely resembling a fight for years. Afterward, one of my friends, a relentlessly well-meaning psychotherapist named Louis, tried to explain things.

"I'm not surprised, Chris," he'd said soberly. "You have a lot of trouble legitimizing authentic confrontation, you know, particularly in dyadic interrelationships." Well, Louis was right. Facing up to interpersonal problems wasn't my long suit. I wasn't sure I'd faced up to this one even yet.

"Anyway," Rita was saying, "August twenty-sixth to March twenty-seventh is two hundred fifteen days, and forty-two is nineteen-and-a-half percent of two-fifteen, and nine and three quarters is fifty percent of nineteen and a half. Community property. Capisce?"

"Sort of, but why is she making a point of it? It's not exactly going to be a best-seller; if it earns two-thousand dollars, it'll be a miracle. Does she really care that much about… what would it be, two hundred dollars? What happened to her big stockbroker boyfriend?" I bit my lip. Did divorces make everybody childish, or just me?

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