It was a secretive sort of town. It always had been. Ever since the wealthy industrialists first built vacation homes here over a hundred years ago, people had a habit of keeping to themselves. Though secrets here were not salacious--affairs, trust funds run dry, and other transgressions that wouldn’t turn a head in the big city. Locals always talked amongst themselves, of course. But, gossip was never shared beyond the confines of the town. News was more likely to be carried out to sea than it was to be shared with an outsider.
To most, Nancy wasn’t considered an outsider. She wasn’t born here, but she’d been here just long enough to belong. No one knew exactly the circumstances that brought her to town. It was something about Paris and a broken heart. She didn’t talk about it much and people didn’t ask. They just knew that Nancy carried herself like Old Money, and this made her feel like everyone’s long lost friend.
It’s worth noting that carrying oneself like Old Money wasn’t what it used to be. Nancy worked in retail and was a housesitter on the weekends. Yet, she had an air of quality to her that spoke to a previous life of privilege. She was easy to talk to in a breezy sort of way. She was not young but not middle-aged, and she was smart but not academic. Everyone knows that Old Money does not appreciate anyone who is too smart. Instead she was witty, a perfectly fine substitute.
Nancy traveled in many circles. While socializing around town, she was a part of many conversations. Always perfectly discrete, Nancy liked to say she heard much and repeated little. It was this distinction that originally brought her to the attention of Genevieve Case, wife of Fredrick P. Case.
The Cases had hired Nancy once before, when she first arrived in town. All went as planned and, when the opportunity arose, they asked Nancy to watch their house again. This time Nancy knew what to expect: Sleep at the house, keep an eye on things, and walk the dog. Freddy and Genevieve had someone else to cook and clean. They would not expect that of Nancy. She had once lived in France! She was not the kind of person you ask to clean your bathrooms.
Nancy had been employed in a similar capacity for many families around town. She had a booming business keeping an eye on things for people, a fact proven by the notes she took in her little black book. Her friends had never read the pages of her book, but she was often seen making notes about upcoming jobs.
The Case house was one of Nancy’s favorites. It was on a private drive, something that made her feel like a valued confidant. The Case family had made their money in manufacturing in the early 20’s. And, while some other old families in town had run down their wealth over time, Freddy had done his dad proud by keeping the bank accounts in tact.
The house was not ostentatious, though it was large. It was considered refined, befitting the character of this seaside town. Genevieve Case was a private person, a trait not uncommon among the wealthy. Not many had seen the inside of her home. Genevieve was known for her sense of personal style. She could be described as elegant but approachable, a look many women pursued but few achieved. It was assumed her house would be decorated in a similar fashion.
Nancy’s co-workers at the dress shop were particularly curious about Genevieve Case, being women of style themselves. They often angled for an invitation to whatever fancy house she was watching on the weekend. Fortunately, Nancy was true to her reputation and did not invite anyone inside the homes she was charged with watching.
Anyone, that is, except Jill.
Jill was her favorite person at the store. She was older but interesting, a woman who wore her hair in the short gray bob that only certain people can carry off. Her clothes were eclectic, much like her personality. Jill had been married to her husband for over 30 years. Keith wore the boat clothes many men in town were fond of, though Keith wore his better. You would most often find him smiling, wearing khakis and loafers with no socks.
Nancy felt Keith and Jill were real people. They were smart but did not put on airs. Keith was an attorney who some say represented “mob interests,” which was apparently still a thing. The legal sort of mob interests, that is. He drove a Cadillac and Jill drove a Volvo station wagon, both perfectly respectable cars in town.
Nancy found Jill to be an earnest and friendly compatriot. They often had lunch together and sometimes met for coffee on their days off. Keith sometimes met them if he was having a slow day at work.
There was only one thing that gave Nancy pause about this friendship. Even being new to town, Nancy could tell that neither Keith nor Nancy had been as lucky as she had. Though they’d lived in town for more than twenty years, they were still considered outsiders.
It was the small things, really. They didn’t belong to a club (they didn’t see the value in it.) Jill had once been spotted buying a sweater at the Target a few towns over. A Target sweater was not a sin in and of itself; surely other women in town owned Target sweaters. Her crime was in getting caught making the purchase. It was unseemly. And, though Keith was clearly well-educated, his law firm was not of the downtown sort. Old Money they were not.
Still, Nancy knew neither of them would utter a word if they were allowed a look around the Case house. It just wasn’t their way. All involved knew it would not do well for Nancy’s house sitting career for the Cases to discover she’d let anyone inside their private space.
Keith was surprised when Jill told him they’d been invited to visit Nancy this weekend. Keith told himself didn’t care much about seeing inside of some rich person’s house. He grew up with money and knew what that felt like, though most of that money was gone. These days, he and Jill had two kids in college and, lawyering for the mob wasn’t what it used to be. A lot of his clients were getting old and dying, and their kids just weren’t interested in the family business (who could blame them). He and Jill weren’t awash in funds, but they would get by, especially with Jill now working at the store.
Keith knew Jill was impressed by money, though she’d never admit it. She grew up working class and had never quite gotten used to beautiful things. This was something Jill wouldn’t miss. That’s how Keith found himself pulling his car up to the gatehouse of West Pines Drive.
Nancy greeted them at the door. “Come in, come in,” she half-whispered, as though they were going to get caught snooping around. “Leave your boots at the door,” she continued. “We wouldn’t want them to find any footprints.”
Keith and Jill followed Nancy into the foyer, saying a few quick hellos. “This place is great!” Jill whispered back excitedly, already looking around into the rooms adjoining the front entryway. They walked past a small parlor and another small room to find the large dining room.
“The kitchen is just through here,” Nancy shared. “It’s fantastic.” They continued to an over-large kitchen. It had a fireplace and a twelve-seat rustic farm table. “This is where I’d spend all of my time,” Jill opined before Nancy ushered them onto the next room like a professional tour guide, pointing out all of the nooks and crannies. After exploring a few more spaces, they arrived in the formal living room, which Keith got the sense went largely unused. Rich people and their unused rooms, he mused.
“It’s a Van Gogh. They both are,” Nancy said casually, catching both Keith and Jill off guard. “They’re real,” she continued, in a tone that was almost bored. She was clearly not impressed by the Dutch Masters.
The small paintings hung on either side of another large fireplace.
“Wow. Really? You’re kidding me,” Jill said astonished. She moved from one painting to the other. Neither Keith nor Jill were used to being in the company of million dollar artwork.
“I’m serious. Genevieve told me the first time I was here.” Nancy said, walking closer to one of the paintings, dusting a spec from the corner of the frame. “And they’re just sitting here. Can you believe that? We could just walk off with them.”
Keith shook his head, always the practical one. “That’s crazy. That just seems stupid. What are they thinking?”
“I guess they figure their security system and the guy at the gatehouse are enough,” Nancy laughed. They stood chatting for another couple of minutes, appreciating the paintings before Nancy suggested they look upstairs.
As they headed toward the stairs, Keith decided to bow out of the tour. “I’m tired. I think I’ll wait for you ladies here,” he said politely. In truth, he was annoyed.
So these people had a couple of Van Gogh’s? Big deal, he thought. If Keith had made a few different choices, he could have owned this whole house twice over. God knew there were times he’d been tempted, given his line of work, to take advantage of certain “situations.” Even now, with money getting tight, he wondered why he’d always passed on those opportunities.
Soon, the women returned and Keith followed them outside. “This was great, Nance, really.” Jill said as she hugged Nancy goodbye. “Thanks for having us.” Keith gave Nancy a quick hug as well and they headed back to their car.
“Thanks for coming. And please, mum’s the word,” Nancy reminded them.
When the police arrived at his house a few weeks later, Keith was not immediately alarmed. The town’s police department was best described as sleepy. It was the type of department that would ring your doorbell to let you know you left your car window open at night. So it was only when Officer Tom asked about his acquaintance with the Case family that Keith started to worry.
Jill came down from upstairs, having heard the doorbell ring. Both of their kids were still at college. It was just the two of them at home. Keith didn’t see the sense in lying to anyone about the basic facts of their visit to the Case home. While the homeowners certainly did not want any visitors in their home, it wasn’t illegal to be there. They had been invited by Nancy.
Officer Tom, who appeared to be on the younger side of 30, took a few notes as Keith recalled to him the details of their visit. Jill concurred with Keith’s description and Officer Tom seemed appeased. He left soon after and Jill wondered allowed to Keith, “What was that all about?”
Nancy was in hot water with Genevieve and Freddy Case--that much was clear. News soon spread as to the cause of their dismay. The Van Gogh's were gone.
Keith got into the mob lawyer business the honest way. He inherited it. His dad had served the families for a generation before Keith went to law school. His dad’s business was an honest one, representing their legal enterprises and occasional criminal cases. When Keith graduated from the city university, it was really no question that he’d join the family business.
And so it was, when the FBI next showed up at his door the next month that he realized he was in trouble. Keith knew from experience what it meant when the Feds paid you a visit.
Their questions came rapid fire. How did Jill happen to get invited to the Case house? How bad was their money situation? Has Keith ever seen the little black book that Nancy keeps in her purse? What is his association with his client, Mr. Mob Boss?
And, when the questions stopped, this was the story they wove.
Jill befriended Nancy, a newcomer, in the hopes of using her connections to wealthy people in town, connections Keith and Jill had never had success making on their own. They plied her with kindness, casually manipulating her for an invitation to the Case house that weekend. When the opportunity arose, Keith stole the home’s security code from Nancy’s notebook. Finally, when the family was next away from the home, he stole the paintings, most likely asking one of the criminal connections to sell the paintings on his behalf.
The FBI agents to think that Keith and Jill were just the sort of outsiders to do this sort of thing.
As the case progressed, it was the talk of the town for months, people both for and against Keith and Jill as master criminals. But, with scant little evidence to prove their theories, things eventually stalled.
Jill was devastated, as anyone would be. She quit the dress shop in shame, her effervescent spirit dimmed. The kids did not come home from college that summer, afraid to be exposed to the scrutiny. Keith worried as well. Though as a lawyer, he knew the Feds couldn’t have much in the way of evidence. They were innocent, he said!
During all of this, Nancy distanced herself from the town, and from Jill and Keith in particular. She continued her shifts at the store, but she did not house sit and she did not involve herself in any lunchtime conversations. Her primary currency, her discretion, was spent. It was a pity, everyone said.
Eventually, Nancy left town almost as quietly as she’d arrived, her destination nothing short of vague. Some said she was moving back to Paris. Others said she was moving to a cottage up state. She was quickly forgotten.
It was in the shadow of her departure that Jill and Keith got news about the case. Finally, there was something to report. A painting had been found in a warehouse. It was one of the Van Gogh’s, which was no surprise to anyone.
With this evidence in hand, Keith suspected the Feds might pin this on him, whether he was innocent or not. He’d been around enough criminal cases to know that sometimes the people take the easy way out. So, it was fortunate for him that, when all of the evidence was collected, a fingerprint was discovered--fingerprint that did not belong either him or Jill.
Of course, it was the fingerprint of their former friend and colleague, Nancy.
Keith waited patiently as the Feds looked for Nancy in Paris, Traverse City, and elsewhere. Yet they could find nothing. Nancy had disappeared into thin air, most likely with the other Van Gogh.
Though it was unsatisfying, the townspeople begrudgingly let Keith and Jill off the hook, admitting Nancy was the real outsider after all. How did they get it so wrong? How had she fooled them with her air of past privilege?
They had been fooled once or twice before, that is sure. Once by an investment banker from the city who made big promises and ended up in an alcoholic death spiral. The other time it was by the European husband of a local debutante. Disappointments both, but nothing like the way Nancy let them down.
The “Van Gogh Incident” as it came to be known was actually a good thing for Keith and Jill over time. It seemed to push them over the hump from outsiders to insiders. Being duped by Nancy created a sort of kinship amongst the townspeople. Jill for one enjoyed her new celebrity status. She even got her old job back, selling more dresses that fall than she had in any prior season.
As Keith pondered the situation, he chuckled. It had all been so easy! For a moment, before he remembered to remain calm, he had panicked. He’d expected the questions from the FBI. He knew they were coming yet they rattled him. Good for him that no one is a mob lawyer for twenty years without having some steel in their bones. He quickly righted the ship and continued with his plan.
Leaving the one Van Gogh as been bait had been his stroke of brilliance. It was risky to be sure. But, once he saw Nancy touch the picture frame he knew he could do this. His plan was only solidified when found the code in her little black book, which she’d left in the foyer that day. Her “Sleep Around Book,” as she called it, contained so much more than just dog’s names and access codes.
He learned from the book that Nancy wasn’t an insider. She wasn’t Old Money. She didn’t come from privilege. She was nobody. A spinster wannabe filled with envy and contempt for this grand, haughty town. It was all there in black and white—her hatred for the phoniness and excess. She was the perfect foil. When the cops read what she’d written in that book, he knew they’d have a hard time questioning her motives.
Keith felt a little bad about what happened to Nancy. She hadn’t really disappeared. But, he didn’t feel too bad! After passing on all of those “opportunities” for years, it seems it wasn’t so hard to take one of them after all. He suspected that Jill knew what he did, but she’d never let on. There was enough working class left in her that she wouldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth. What a pair, he thought.
Keith was glad for the town just now. The big city papers didn’t even pick up the story, with what no one in town interested in talking to a reporter. He knew they gossiped among themselves, of course. He could live with that.