The Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida

0 days ago

The oversized painting on the wall by the staircase was of a sweating wiener dog eating a hot dog. Title: A "Hot" Dog. A hooded boy of middle school age, with a Janus face at once edged with viridity and filled with aplomb, stood before it. He studied it with half his attention, half of the other half given to his single earbud's orchestral hum. The last half was captivated by the remaining torn red tape that had relentlessly stuck to the frame.

A man came by and asked him to complete a survey on the museum, if he would.

A few minimal pen scratchings later, Marion Jay Alderbright signed his name, and handed the paper back to the man.

Sebastian Middle School, St. Augustine, Florida

1 day ago

There were whispers in the school halls. Again and again they whispered. They wouldn't give up. It seemed a tragically orphaned boy would never get dull for them.

Jay Alderbright stepped aside from the talebearers and headed to the victim. The boy's name was Tank Gibbon. He hadn't very much of his nice wispy black hair and was slighter in frame than Jay. Jay presumed he would bald as a young man, and knew with a dead certainty that he could beat him in a fight. That may not be necessary, he thought. We'll see.

Jay's strikingly slender fingers tapped the boy's shoulder. The heavy blue eyes, bottoms of murky ponds, traveled upwards to Jay's plain black eyes. "Marion."

"That's right. It's me. And what did I tell you to do?" Jay's tone cornered him.

"Lie low. But the mistress of the orphanage said she didn't want us getting distracted from our grades."

"Things are going to get harder for you now. You leave me no choice. I'm going to have to tell the curator you were the last one in the museum, and that it was your sister's painting that now stands in the place of the elegant la—"

Tank reflexively put his hand over Jay's mouth. "Don't—!" He removed it at Jay's icy glance. "Please."

"The cogency of gossip in this town is undefeated till this day. You expect me to be its subduer?" Jay arched an eyebrow.

"Marion, I know that I—"

"You look like the culprit."

Tank's watery eyes looked about to spill some of their contents."What—What do you mean?"

"I mean, I've seen the culprit. He looks strangely like you."

Sebastian Middle School

2 days ago

On the sidewalk before the school, Tank approached Jay for the first time in their two years at school together.

"You sent me this letter?" Tank displayed the scrap of paper.

"Yes, I did."

"Is it a threat?"

"Does it need to be?" Sometimes this boy's voice managed to be as thin and sharp as the blade of a knife.

"No. No," Tank said, pressing painfully on each negative. "I know to you, to this whole school, I may not look like the most trustworthy person because of my situation. But I would never steal."

"You're sure? Not to return yourself to the eminence your family had before your parents' deaths? The fortunes and summer houses that mysteriously disappeared from your inheritance?"

"What sort of interest do you take in my family?" Tank said, surprised.

"I didn't find out these things out of interest. They talk, everyone does. Especially your sister, to me."

 Tank flinched at the mention of the word 'sister'. "She's only my half sister, and I don't want that much of her," he said distastefully. "Why's she talking to you?"

A shade of bitterness and confusion passed over Jay's inscrutable, self-possessed countenance. He formed an instant barrier in front of it. Lightly he said, "She might regard me as ungentlemanly should I say. It's more important to say, our acquaintance has forced an interest in me, as well as informed me of something crucial to the whereabouts of the stolen picture."

"What is that?" Tank asked warily.

"There's a painting that replaced the stolen picture, the thief's ridicule of the museum's security. It's a painting of an overheated dachshund consuming a frank. A punny piece, not at all. Its shuddery. Its humor is lost on everyone but its artist. The style, and insipid comicality, is alarmingly indistinguishable from your sister's."


"It's easy to come to unfortunate conclusions based on what I've said in the letter and to you now, isn't it? Much easier for this gossipy school in this gossipy town, than for me who has certain restraints against believing anything I hear. Or see." Jay paused, looking hard into Tank's eyes. "I'm giving you a chance to explain yourself."

"But I didn't do it! And my sister... I can't say for sure, but—"

"Oh, I don't suspect your sister at all," Jay interrupted. "Who could possibly suspect her? She's not cut out for using her brain."

"I may be poor, but I'm well taken care of at the orphanage. There's no motive! I promise you, I was the last paying guest to the Lightner, but not the last person to see that picture before it disappeared."

Jay bared a slender smile. "All I have's your word. But, trust me" —he seized Tank's eyes again— "I don't scoff at a boy's word. Despite the number of liars in the world, I think we should still give people the benefit of the doubt. Now." He took a breath, and straightened, loosening the grip his plain black eyes had. "Do me a favor and volunteer at the retirement facility for a few days. If you and your sister are not here to provoke everyone's nagging tongues, or accidentally reveal some unfavorable item, and instead are off doing good, I think I can take the blame from your heads. And make sure she doesn't paint anything." The depth of his smile increased at his comment; with it he urged Tank to believe they shared an opinion.

Lightner Museum

3 days ago

It was almost lights out. Curled up under the staircase, Jay watched the museum visitors, taking notes of their appearance and their reactions to the nearby collection. On the wall next to him was the textured picture of an elegant lady. Viewing it in awe was a boy Jay but recognized as Sani McGibbons' brother.

It wasn't the kind of art Jay liked at all. He was into American and Japanese comic books.

The boy left. After lights out, someone came who had a strong resemblance to the boy. Before Jay could pop from his hiding place and confront this new person, he was gone.

Then, so was the picture the boy had been admiring.

He alerted the guards and the red tape struck out across the puerile work of art, the commoner who had dethroned the noble, his second clue. It's a start, Jay sighed to himself. But I don't like where this is leading.

From the desk of Marion Alderbright:

They say it only takes three days for the town to know all.

Telling my father what I knew was only a matter of time. I don't keep things from him. And his being the curator of the museum, it was imperative I divulge my witness.

But I waited... precious moments ticking away until several people's reputations would be called into question.

I had a strong feeling about Tank Gibbon. I really did trust him.

There was the fact that he'd been there right beside the picture. He admitted it. And I saw someone like him come into the room afterwards.

But there are other answers to the question than the one right in front of me.

After I'd settled my thoughts, I told my father to remove the red tape and advised him not to keep the museum closed.

"Father, I know for a fact that acting as if anything is wrong at this time could cause undue blame."

My father had looked up tauntingly from his desk work. "A fact? Do you? Would you mind putting this fact in my hand?"

I almost reddened. My father's unbeatably collected personality had a prickly way of getting under my skin and making me a mess. I am trying every day to be more like him.

Gathering my melting self together, I spoke a little too assuredly. I'm sure my father always wonders what century, or at least what country, I am from."Listen to me. Go out with the pretense that we have a new piece we are showing off, from a local child. Don't give names, for God's sake. It's enough that it's a child. This will buy us time to find out the truth."

My father may mock me, but he listens as well. The red tape was removed, all but that one persistently sticky piece.

(The next four chapters of this story are in the four consecutive Armchair Detectives' prompts)

October 25, 2019 20:32

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