Jun 23, 2018

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STALKING BULLS read a sample chapter

STALKING BULLS   excerpt:   

Walter Lappison said, “Here have a cigar.”

“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”

“I’m not asking you to smoke; I’m asking you to have a cigar.  Come on, be sociable.  This is what guys do.”

He struck a match and held the lit end out to me.  I put the cigar to the flame and puffed on it until I got it going.  He then waved the match with a flourish and sent it sailing out over the railing.  Meanwhile I was busy silently congratulating myself for not having had a coughing fit on the first inhale.

“Listen, Parker, can I call you Parker?”

“Sure.” I said with a constricted throat.

“You were asking about the painting and how much it was worth.  I’m going to let you in on a little secret: They say Art is for everyone.  And while that’s true, it is for everyone, it has never really been something for the masses.  Rather it is for the people who go to the effort and take the time to penetrate it and really understand it.  It is for those relative few.  And those few who do, they are the ones who can truly appreciate Art’s intrinsic value.”

“They are the ones who set the price?”

“No.  Nobody sets the price.  They may appraise it for a value but it’s the market that sets the price.”

“But their opinions help.”

“Of course, they help.  For example, Bernard Berenson –you’ve heard of him?”

“I think so.”

“He was a world-renowned art appraiser and expert who worked in Europe as an agent for Isabella Stewart Gardner. He was the one who actually acquired Europa for her in the first place.”

He swirled the pale-yellow champagne in his glass and took another slug.  The color of it suddenly made me remember why I had come here in the first place.

“Interesting.  I’d like to hear more, but right now I’ve really got to go.”

“Why, you just got here?”

“No, I mean ‘go’.  I was looking for the bathroom when I came in here.”

“Oh, right, the bathroom.”

“Where is it?”

“Depends.  Which one is it?”

“Which?  Oh, it’s, uh . . . I need to pee.”

He winced.

“Don’t say ‘pee’.  Girls say ‘pee’; guys say ‘piss’.   Say ‘piss’.   Don’t be prissy and say it like a girl.”

“All right, but where is it?”

“Where is it?  There.”

“Where?”

“Right there in front of us . . .”

“You mean the balcony?         You want me to pee, I mean piss, off the balcony?”

“Why not.  It won’t mind.  It’s just a balcony.”

“I was thinking of the lady of the house, the one who’s having this party.  She might object.”

“Ah, nobody’s down there.  Go ahead.”

“I don’t think so . . .”

“Sure, why not?   We’re at this end of the house, nobody’s down there.  Go ahead, let fly.”

He got up from his chair. “Here, come on, I’ll join you.  Step up and do it.”

“I really don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Ah, come on!  Dare to be bold!  Dare to do something bold in your life!  Do it and I’ll tell you who robbed the Museum.”

Soon, both of us were letting rip.  We could hear our streams splashing below on the myrtle and ivy.

“Liberating, isn’t it?”

“Sort of.”

“There is nothing like taking a good piss.  Don’t hold back.  Good, strong stream, like a bull!  Hemingway knew what he was talking about:  El Cosa del Mano.  The ‘Thing of Men’.”

I said, “I feel like I’m in a scene from Ulysses.”

“Which one, Homer or Joyce?”

“Joyce.”

“I know the one you mean, where they are in the backyard, looking up at the stars.”

He finished first.  I kept going.  I really had to go.  Meanwhile, he sat back down and refilled our glasses.  I looked at him, “I thought you said it was wise for me to go slow.”

“It will be, right after we finish this.  Come on, don’t make me drink alone.   Help me finish this off.”

He picked up his glass and handed me mine, clinking them together.

“So, what other questions do you have for me?”

“Well, really just one:  You said you’d tell me who did it?”

“In a minute, I will, but first, empty your glass?”

It took me three swallows to do it, but I did.  He then refilled mine and topped his off, finally killing the bottle.

“So, who did it?”

“I’ll tell you, but what other questions do you have, first?”

“All right, well, how’s ’bout this:  Since we know you’re a bona fide artist and I presume you’re among those ‘few’ that you mentioned, I’d like you to explain what it is about the Europa that makes it such a masterpiece?  I mean, I like it and all –don’t get me wrong– but why is it considered the best work of art in Boston?”

“You’re right; after all it’s just a representational painting of a fat broad reclining on a bull’s back as he carries her off across the water.  Furthermore, not only is it representational, it was painted as much for erotic purposes as fine art.  It’s pornographic.”

“It is?  Really?”

“Sure.  Titian painted it for a Spanish duke back in the Sixteenth Century.”

Lappison’s tongue was starting to thicken, too.  I wasn’t sure if he had said Spanish duke or Spanish dude.

 “That painting is loaded with sexualized messages.”

I said, “It’s kind of funny, Director Belacorte was telling me that Mrs. Jack’s dress in the Singer Sargent portrait was scandalous attire, but I didn’t see how.  Now you’re saying the Titian is pornographic?  I know it’s called The Rape of Europa and all, but she’s not actually being raped, she’s just being carried off.  She’s not even nude.  Most of her is wrapped up in a bed sheet.”

“Cogent points, well taken, but take another look at it sometime and study it more closely.  Examine her pose and then match it with the bull’s.  She’s on top but transpose it, put the bull on the top, and you’ll get the picture.  There is even a painterly suggestion of the Bull’s essential manliness, which is the Princess grasping his horn by one hand.  There are other erotic symbols too if you can spot them.  Treat it like in the ‘Hidden Objects Page’ in the Highlights Magazines — you know, those magazines you find in kids’ dentists’ offices?  The whole of Europa is riddled with sexual innuendo and you don’t need to be Freud to figure them out.”

“You’re making me want to go study it again.  So, you’re saying it’s a filthy work of art?”

“No, no!  Nothing like that.  ‘Filthy’ is as filthy thinks.  But do go look at it.  And when you do, admire its masterly technique; its color-combining is tremendous, the best I’ve ever seen!”

“Yeah, but ‘two hundred-and-fifty-million’ tremendous?”

“That’s because you haven’t looked at enough paintings.  Goethe put it best, he said, ‘It is precisely that which strikes uneducated people as ‘nature’ in a work of art; that is not nature –from without–, but man –from within!’  Again, that’s what I’m talking about: ‘El Cosa del Mano’.”

I tried to hold up my end of the conversation by contributing something I had gleaned from Loni Kim’s borrowed library book.

“I read that after Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired the Europa and hung it in her mansion, her Victorian lady-friends would drop by and she always enjoyed seeing how flustered and blushing they became while looking at it.”

Lappison slowly exhaled a column of smoke and then answered, “I don’t think too many would get flustered anymore.”

There was a knock at the door and Lappison responded the same way he had to me, calling out, “Come in!”

The door opened and a familiar face peeked inside, “Oh!  Excuse me!”

Lappison repeated, “Come in!  Come in!”

When Loni Kim saw that it was me she scowled, shook her head and closed the door, quietly.  I called out, “Hey, Loni? . . . Loni, wait!”

Lappison called too, “Hey, you’re welcome to join us!”

I didn’t jump up and go after her though, and the door did not reopen.

The artist looked at me, “Who was that exotic little number?”

“My girlfriend.  Ex-girlfriend probably.”

“I hope not, for your sake.”

“I better go.”

“Why?”

“She’s looking for me.”

“Well, she found you.”

“Yeah but, she’s mad at me.”

“So?”

“She’s waiting . . .”

“So, let her wait.  That’s what they all want.”

“To be kept waiting?”

“No!  To be dominated.  Whether they admit it or not, that’s what women want.  Always remember, Kid, you’re the man, you’re the boss.”

“I’m the man,” I muttered.

“Think Hemingway.  Think bull fights.  Bar fights.  Brawls.  Muscles.  Pounding energy.  Drive!  That’s what women want.”

“I’ll remember that, but I do have to get going pretty soon and you did promise you’d solve the case for me?”  To show that I would soon be leaving, I finished off the contents of my glass.

“Oh, right.  Well . . . I can’t tell you their names, of course, because I don’t know, but it’s easy enough to deduce, based on the loot that was taken.”

“Explain?”

“My painting, we agree, was probably taken by a younger person –somebody who’s probably going to hold onto it even after the ransom gets paid.  My painting will probably be a private prize.  That’s all we can deduce from that.

“As for The Rape of Europa, that’s easy, too.  Obviously, it’s the painting’s monetary value, that’s the primary motivator –not it’s intrinsic value, mind you, but its ransom value– a lot of buckaroos there, a lotta scratch.

“As for the two Mrs. Jacks, one of which we know has already been destroyed.  Quite obviously, it’s because somebody hates the Museum’s guts.  If I was the police that’s where I’d be concentrating my investigating.  I’d try to find out who has a grudge against the Museum.  Find that out and you’ll find your criminals.”

I asked, “Could it be a rival art museum?”

“No . . .Well, wait, I’m not so sure, actually.  I know Mrs. Jack’s Will states that if the Museum is ever broken up, its collections will go to Harvard.  So maybe this was a Hasty Pudding Club caper?”

He knocked the long ash off his cigar, took another forceful inhale and blew the cloud out over the railing, “On the other hand, if our universe of potential thieves includes foreign agents who have come over here to pull off this heist, or snatch back the Titian, then all bets are off.  That’s the best I can tell you . . .”

I found myself disappointed by Walter Lappison’s supposedly insightful analysis of the crime.  Not because it was incorrect necessarily but because it covered the same ground I had already gone over, so it hadn’t really moved me any closer to solving the case.  All it had done was kill time while he had gotten me drunk.

How drunk I didn’t really register until I stood up to leave.  Or, rather, ‘weave’.  I was really feeling it now!

Out in the hallway, I found it necessary to keep one hand in contact with the wall to prevent my reeling as I walked.  I wandered back the way I had come, but didn’t take the staircase, rather I continued on until I came on an interior balcony, overlooking a crowded room that I immediately recognized as the ‘Puzzle Room’.  Its decorative motif was nothing but Jig Saw Puzzles.

Puzzles were everywhere.  Finished ones were framed and hung on the walls; un-finished ones were on card tables, a dozen or so at least, scattered about amongst the crowd.  And I could see that every puzzle was based on a famous painting.  Guests, obviously, were invited to choose any one they liked and work on completing the picture they were drawn to.

I scanned the crowd.  It was a little like ‘Where’s Waldo’ trying to pick out Loni Kim, but I finally did spot her.  She was with Lester working at one of the puzzles, the famous one of a burning slave ship on the ocean by J.M. Turner.  Loni Kim was studying the puzzle; Lester was studying her.  At the same time, he appeared to be talking her ear off about something.

I headed down to intercept her, choosing a longer route that would take me by more of the appetizer trays.  I was hoping a little extra cheese and crackers would help soak up the excess champagne that was working its way through my system.

I was able to get fairly close before either of them noticed me.  When Lester did he stopped in the middle of what he was saying and looked at me with undisguised contempt.

Slurring my words, I said, “’S’cuse me, Lester, pardon me, I just need to interrupt for a sec, thank you . . .  Loni, Lon, before you say anything . . .”

“Parker . . .”

“I just want to tell you one thing . . .”

“Parker, you’re drunk, aren’t you?”

“A tad . . . but with good reason, hear me out.”

Lester wasn’t having any of it, “Excuse me, Robinson, you’re butting in here.”

“I know, that’s why I said s’cuse me, wait, wait, wait, juss wait a second!  Loni, I just wanna say I was looking for you but then I ran into Walter Lappison.  Why din’ you join us?  You shoulda come in . . .”

Lester answered for her, “Ms. Makaleha has better things to do than to hang around with drunken frat boys.”

“I take exception to that.  I’m not a frat boy, I have never been a frat boy, nor a Museum Boy, either.”

Loni Kim finally stopped glaring at me, “Parker, I am not interested in hearing anything you have to say.  I am only interested in your answering one question?”

“What?”

“Was that you who took a piss off the balcony?”

“Don’t say ‘piss’, Lon.  Boys say ‘piss’; girls say ‘pee’.”

“So, it was you?”

“Not alone though.”

Lester wanted clarification, “What did he do?”

“He pissed off one of the upstairs balconies.”

“He did what?  You did what?”

“Lester, this lady and I are trying to have a private conservation.  You’rrr butting in.”

“No, you’re butting in!”

“Fine.  Fine.  I don’t want to interrupt.  I’ll just stand here and be quiet.  You two go on with your puzzzz-u-le.”

“No, you don’t understand, we don’t want your company, Robinson.  Take your crude rudeness and go elsewhere!”

 I ignored him and turned back to Loni Kim, “Lon, will you listen, please?”

Lester planted a shove on my shoulder that swung me back around to him, “Hey!  Did you just hear what I said?”

“Yesss, and I’m going to go, I just wanna say one more thing to Loni . . .”

“Parker, I want you to just go.  Just leave!”

“You heard her, she said ‘leave’.”

“All right, we’ll go.”

Lester jabbed a finger in my face and shouted, “No, you go!  Just you!”

“Not so loud and my name’s not Hugo.”

Lester looked behind me, “Here comes the butler.  Here come the caterers too.  They’re going to throw you out of here in a second.”

I backed up a step and held my hands up in surrender, indicating I was going to cooperate.  But then, as if Walter Lappison, Ernest Hemingway, and the Spanish Duke were all sitting on my shoulders and whispering advice in my ears, I suddenly gave Lester a double-handed shove that sent him flying backwards.  I then turned around and swept Loni Kim up in my arms, `a la Rhett Butler, and headed for the nearest exit, warning the crowd ahead of me,

“Gangbusters!  Coming through!  Out of the way!  Coming through!”

Loni writhed in my arms, swatted my head with her open hands and shouted in my ear, ‘Put Me Down!’

Lester, having recovered, came charging after me, shouting, ‘Put her down!’

In the same way that a burst party balloon will snuff out all the candles on a birthday cake when it explodes too near, our sudden, loud commotion instantly extinguished all the party atmosphere in the room.  It was not only our shouts but the property damage, too.  My shoving Lester had caused him to stagger back and knock over something noisily –I didn’t stick around to see what it was– and then my sweeping Loni Kim up in my arms had caused her to do a Rockettes-style kick with her legs that sent one of her shoes flying through the air across the room where it landed with the sound of broken glass, taking out a tray of champagne glasses, breaking some and scattering others like bowling pins.

My bulldozing dash to the door was causing additional collateral damage.  Iplowed through the card tables like an ice breaker plows through pack ice, making them chatter out of my way on their spindly legs or else buckling them completely, causing puzzles to slide to the floor where they were quickly trampled underfoot.

The crowd kept backing up and Loni Kim kept swatting me.  Lester caught up and got hold of the back of my shirt collar, trying to rein me in.

Meanwhile, Roger the butler had arrived, and was walking along beside me, trying to calm things down.

“Mr. Robinson, I think you better put the young lady down.”

Although still being garroted, I managed to say, “I will when we get outside.  Tell Pester here to stop yanking my collar.”

As we were nearing an outer door anyway, Roger acceded to my wishes and actually held the door for me as the three of us passed through, followed by a contingent of curious onlookers keen to see what would happen next.

I carried her to the lawn, where I allowed ‘Princess Europa’ to have her feet.  My judo-chop to Lester’s arm forced him to release my collar, but then he gave me a backward shove that matched the one I had given him.  I staggered back but managed to recover my balance without falling.   Once again, I held up my arms in a surrender pose.  Still badly slurring my words, I said,

“Lon, you lost your shoe.  Lester, better go get it for her.”

“Don’t tell me what to do!”

“All right then, Roger, will you do it?  I don’t think I should go back in there.”

Loni Kim started to go for it herself but I stopped her with a loud command, –the kind that real men use to send chills up the spines of all domination-craving women, “No, Loni, stop where you are!   You’re not going anywhere!  You’re with me now!”

Lester said, “She’ll do whatever she wants.”

One of the caterers volunteered to go get it.  I could read Loni Kim’s face.  She was now in full, seething ‘Hawaiian Wolverine mode’.

I said, “Le’sss go.  Never mind th’ shoe.  We’re going.”  I took my car keys out.  She snatched them out of my hand.  “Hey!  Give me those back!”

I lunged for them but she sidestepped me easily.  Then, quickly kicking off her other shoe, she began running away, barefoot, across the lawn.  I gave chase.

“Give me my keys!”

“No! You’re not driving!”

“Fine.  You drive.  Loni, come back here!  Come back.”

“No!”

She was outpacing me and I had to call louder and louder to be heard,

“Give me them back!”

“No, you’re not getting them!”

She continued running and I continued doggedly pursuing until, at last, I was able to corner her along the back fence line to the property.  I grabbed her around the waist and then grabbed her wrist and was about to pry her fingers apart to reach the keys, when she kneed me in the thigh and then twisted sharply away from me.  As soon as she was free, she heaved the keys high in the air where they sailed over the spiked fence and landed with a clink in the middle of the sidewalk on the other side.

Now it was all a question of who would get there first.   We would soon find out.  However, it would be a race I would not only not win; I would fail to complete.

I managed to eke out a lead until we reached the front gate when a sudden, overpowering wave of nausea rose up, causing me to veer abruptly to the shrubbery.  I dropped to my hands and knees, crawled under the bushes and became sick as a dog.

After the first two heaves, every appetizer and canapé I had consumed earlier had departed my stomach and was lying splattered on the leaf mulch.  However, my guts pretended there was more to come up, and I continued to heave until long after there was anything more to expel.

Although completely enveloped in misery, I was also able to dimly chart Loni Kim’s progress in our foot race: first her bare footsteps running by on the sidewalk, and then, several minutes later, those same angry footsteps returning and entering again by the front gate.

My stomach had finally ceased trying to climb outside my body, allowing me the freedom to collapse on my side in the dirt.  What I wanted now more than anything was a nap but each time I attempted to close my eyes, the spinning going on behind my eyelids –going around and round, faster and faster— forced me to jerk them open again or risk another round of dry heaves.  It was like being stuck on a merciless, nightmarish merry-go-round.

Next I recognized the throaty tailpipe of an approaching car.  It was the Bat Mobile.  It was coming from the mansion area and heading for the front gate.  I was hoping to hear her stop and get out.  But no such luck.  The rolling tires, crunching the small pebbles of the driveway, rolled on by and out the gate.  Then on into the street, where I heard a little squeal of rubber as the Bat Mobile jack-rabbited off, a sign of how much power was under the hood as well as how much anger was in the foot of the driver behind the wheel.

Still poisoned by the bubbly and feeling as if I were bound in chains, all I could do was lie there and listen.  I couldn’t have moved a muscle to chase after her even if I had wanted to.

More time passed.  Perhaps I slept a little.  Probably I did.  Then I was rudely awakened by my stomach wanting to make sure it had really and truly given up every last bit.   I struggled to my hands and knees and endured another round of dry hurling.

When these fresh spasms subsided, I became aware of a couple standing on the other side of the fence under the street lamp.  They had been walking their dog.  The dog was straining against its leash, trying to get a closer sniff at me, but they wouldn’t allow it.  I had no difficulty hearing what was being said.

Speaking in a low voice, the woman said to the man, “Such a pity.”

“Yes,” the man responded.

“And isn’t it ironic, Father Tom, here’s an example of just what you were saying in your sermon last week?”

“Which was what?”

“That the rich are no happier than the rest of us.”

“So, it would seem.”

The minister took a few steps closer.    “Young man?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, Father.  I’m all right.”

“Do you need help?”

“No, I’m all right.  I’ll be fine.  But thank you for checking.”

“All right, then.  Let this be a lesson, son.  Don’t go down that road.  Sober up and fly right,”

“Yes, Father, I plan to.  Believe me.”

The couple’s footsteps and the dog’s sniffing nose moved off.

 

Members on my mother’s side of the family had told me that when my mother was little she used to recite a short poem whenever it was her turn to say Grace at the table.  The poem went,

                                           ‘Lord bless us,

                                           And bind us,

                                           And hide us in the bushes,

                                           Where the devil cannot find us’.

Here I was hiding in the bushes, too, but the devil had clearly found me.  He had found me, but good.

 

 

 

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