Bellies and Strips
There was no glance more cutting or cruel. The narrowing of unsympathetic eyes a shade of cool, blue slate, like Dylan’s on the cover of Highway 61 Revisited. The imperceptible flare of nostrils, followed by a slow yoga exhalation in Savasana, the corpse.
It wasn’t going well.
Leila Goodfriend was laying down the bones of a painting. She took a step back from her easel. A no-name clam shack clung fearlessly as a barnacle to the edge of the old East End pier. A forlorn wooden structure, barely bigger than a Punch & Judy puppet stage, had withstood the fierce winds whipping off the water in the dead of winter. The pier was deserted. Anyone could paint a sunny day.
After outlining the shack in ghostly charcoal strokes, she stood, hand on hip, poised with a palette loaded with ultramarine and cobalt blues for the sky, sap green for foliage, a transparent manganese blue hue for waves in the water, Van Dyck brown for the pier’s planks and Naples Yellow Hue for sunlight. Flake white blobs dabbed in the foreground could be gulls, or children, or discarded clam containers. She hadn’t decided which.
Leila loved that shack, the rough pier, and the view of dotted Race Point Lighthouse off the distance. Painting was all about execution, feeling a connection to the subject, the composition, the angles of light. Though local artists mostly painted popular summer scenes of boats and beaches.
That’s what the summer birds, vacationers who nested in the Cape Cod dunes from June until the end of August, bought.
Her husband Joe dubbed them the dorks of summer. Leila didn’t care what unflattering name Joe had for them, or whether the summer birds cared as much about this place she called home as she did. She wanted to sell them a painting capturing what she loved about this place.
If she was lucky, and painting was largely a matter of luck, random strokes on the canvas would become a painting, At the Clam Bar: Succulent Bellies and Strips. If one of the summer birds bought her painting, she’d be happy. Even the most dedicated of artists needs affirmation sometimes.
A loud whacking thump overhead jarred Leila rudely from her thoughts; the thud traveled like a jolt of electricity down her spine
Immediately, Leila knew the disturbance, of course, was Iris. Iris again. Always Iris.
Of the seven artists who called the Red Barn home, Iris’s studio was, unfortunately, upstairs.
And inevitably, as Iris worked, the creaking old floorboards quaked under her bulk. Try as Iris might to conceal her burgeoning Rubensesque form under a flowing muumuu, wrists and ankles thick as hoagies gave her away.
Leila complained about Iris to Joe more than once, actually almost every day. It was impossible for someone who barely grazed five feet could make so much noise. Iris could be quiet if she tried, she’d say. She was inconsiderate. She was pompous. “Art,” Iris would say, “has a life of its own and an artist owes his life to his art.” Quoting Iris was always good for a laugh.
If Iris bothered her so much, Joe would say, why keep talking about it? Why not rent a different studio? That would make sense, except Leila loved her space, had been there for nearly five years, and was lucky to have found it in this touristy town. Besides, she hated giving in to her own annoyance; she’d learn to ignore Iris if it killed her. Maybe, someday, Iris would just float away like a child's birthday balloon.
No such luck; gravity worked overtime with every tread Iris inflicted in her flapping Birkenstock sandals.
Leila fought her first instinct, which was to grab the long, telescoping pole by the casement window, stand on a stool and bang her weapon of choice sharply on the lofty ceiling, twice. It wouldn’t work. It never did. Iris would ignore her.
Instead, Leila turned up NPR on the radio. She could drown out Iris with the sound of undemanding human voices on the radio. NPR was excellent company and, when necessary, excellent white noise. The hourly news, a lengthy interview, a personal piece affected in that breathless NPR accent was the perfect antidote for distraction. And the distraction was usually Iris.
Iris McNeil Thornton was a fellow member of the Red Barn Art Cooperative at Castle Road, which was housed in the happily dilapidated Red Barn Studio. It was high on a hill, overlooking Pamet Marsh, close enough to spy the flights of blue herons and egrets wheeling through the Aliziran Crimson sky, the sun an orb of Cadmium Yellow falling into the salt marshes from her window.
Among the Red Barn’s many charms were the old building’s quirky twists and turns, the sizeable studio spaces with high ceilings from its former life as the Southwind Bros. Button and Snap factory. Leila loved the patina on the old, uneven oak floorboards, the room secreted under the stairwell, doors that jammed and staircases that creaked.
But it was the heady mix of gesso, turp, linseed, pigments, primer, developers and emulsions, the fat smell of oil layered with acrylic resin and a faint dash of watercolor, an acrid, chemical concoction heady in the nasal passages, smells as familiar as the scent of a baby, that made it home.
Not that the Red Barn was without its problems. The daily irritations of artistry and intimacy meant the Red Barn artists were often less than happy. And when the Red Barn artists were less than happy, which occurred as frequently as the tides, they would reach for anything on handbrooms, clogs, slammed doors, sighs in the hallways, post-it notes on the bulletin board, giggles behind a back, and any combination thereof to convey their displeasure. Under other circumstances such communications might be considered rude, but the Red Barn operated by its own set of rules.
It wasn’t that the Red Barn, a collective space of otherwise solitary individuals, didn’t have its share of fellowship and communal spirit. Sometimes it was nice to see a friendly face.
But, recently, their friendships had been called into question by a series of items gone missing, small stuff, seemingly at random, from their studios, Daklon paintbrush, a can of gesso, and unused tube of paint and a half-used tube of paint. A box of plastic gloves was now empty; which Leila was sure had been half-full.
No one said theft, not at first. It was more like, did I leave this in your studio? did you find this in the bathroom? I must be a little crazy because I was sure I had it, but as the missing items mounted, minor though they were, so did whispering, suspicion, and an uneasy sense someone, maybe one of them, was a thief.
It made Leila uneasy; maybe someone was invading her studio, without her knowing. She debated whether, like Iris, she should lock her door at the end of the day. But she shook it off as unnecessary paranoia and decided to ignore it.
Leila took a deep breath, brushed back her unruly, graying curls, squinting at her canvas. When she painted, the circling steps of the heavy woman upstairs receded from consciousness, and time was suspended.
The wood planks of the pier were muddied. The perspective wasn’t quite right. The colors weren’t right. Leila waggled the end of her paintbrush like a cigar between her lips. It was a messy habit. She looked down at the black-and-white photo of the shack, not that she had any intention of painting the snapshot, any more than a musician only plays the notes.
Leila picked up her palette knife. Shaped like a small trowel for digging in the dirt, its usefulness came from its versatility in blending colors, creating textural effects, or scraping across the surface of a painting to obliterate an offense. Artists can be rough on their work; Leila was her own toughest critic.
The pier had to go. Leila wielded the knife, scraping hard until she hit the tooth of the canvas. She preferred working on a good, tightly woven cotton duck. It wasn’t an inert surface, so it recovered quickly after Leila’s brief attack. She dabbed a rag soaked in turpentine on the wound. The reconstruction of the pier could wait until tomorrow.
What time was it? Leila lost track of time as she worked. She never wore a watch in the studio.
But if she left too late, Joe would be annoyed his port wine reduction for the seared tuna had broken. It wasn’t the sauce—he could revive with a quick whisk of butter on a low heat—it was her spending more and more time at the studio and coming home later. The sky over Cape Cod Bay was a wistful grey heading into night.
Leila put down her palette knife, turned down her radio, and listened. There was quiet, finally quiet, blissful silence.
Now, at the end of the day, Leila always had to steel herself for the most infuriating moment of the day: Iris leaving. The torrential thumps of Iris’ flapping Birkenstocks as she gathered up her belongings, slammed the window, searched for her purse, and slammed her door. The old oak boards seemed to buckle under Iris’ weight as she stomped overhead.
The stomp was always followed by the slam. Iris was incapable of doing anything quietly. There was some relief in the slam—it meant Iris was no longer overhead.
The Red Barn artists never said good night, pretending not to notice each other’s comings and goings. So Leila didn’t expect Iris to poke her head in, or wave when she passed by. However, the daily drama of the swirling clamor that was Iris, like a performer doing a star turn on the stage, made it impossible not to notice her entrances and exits.
Leila walked to the window. The light of an Indian summer day was fading. Sailboats moored in the bay listed drunkenly. Had the final thump earlier signaled Iris’ departure?
Leila walked back to her canvas. She recognized this as the same solitary circling as that of her neighbor overhead. It was ironic, but that didn’t stop Iris from being an annoyance.
She put her tools on her workbench. She should rinse them in turpentine and water in the bathroom at the end of the hall—the brushes would be tackier and difficult to clean after drying overnight. Oh well, she’d deal with that in the morning.
Grabbing her backpack, she turned out the lights and closed her door. The hallway was silent. The other studio doors on her floor were closed. No Philomena, no Dové.
But something in the quality of the jarring loud noise earlier somehow made the quiet louder.
The stairs were poorly lit, even after Leila switched on the bare bulb dangling overhead. The whole damn place was a fire hazard. She climbed to the second floor. No Liz, no Gretchen. Later, she couldn’t quite explain why hadn’t she gone home.
The crap fixture in the upstairs hall, that never worked right, was out, as usual. The damn, dusty moose head Iris had mounted above her door stared down dolefully through its blind, button eyes. Its antlers wore a fine coat of dust.
Iris’ door was open a crack, which surprised Leila. Iris always worked behind closed, locked doors, all day, every day. The other Red Barn artists left their doors open at least a smidgen, not exactly an invitation, but not a deliberately antisocial act. Iris had no such compunctions.
Leila knocked. Silence. She hesitated. Should she leave Iris alone? She took a few steps back toward the stairs, but turned around. What harm was it peeking inside?
“Iris, its only me, Leila. ” No answer. “Iris, are you there?”
Leila stared through the crack in the door. At first, she thought the room was empty, but as her eyes adjusted, Leila made out a shape, or maybe a shadow, in the center of the studio.
The value of the only available light source, through the far window, made it difficult to see. Iris refused to use artificial light. She insisted on painting ‘as the Old Masters had’, that is, only by natural light. For a time, she had painted by candlelight, until the Red Barn got wind of it, banning burning candles before Iris burned the place down.
Leila stared at the shape. It didn’t move. Iris never left her door unlocked. Maybe she’d left something behind and would come back for it. Leila pushed the door open further, venturing into the silent studio, under the disapproving gaze of the mildewed moose, inching towards the shadow.
Iris, who incurred the Red Barn artists’ collective ire by deprecating the work of her fellow artists, neglecting to lock the front door, leaving puddles around communal hall sink, and far worse, as the prime suspect in the ongoing war of toilet squatting accusations, that same annoying Iris, was splayed on the floor, eyes wide open, inert as a tube of sepia.
It was a body. Iris’s body.
Later, Leila recalled the body like a dead deer, abandoned on the side of the road after an accident. She remembered noting the color of Iris’ skin, like the underpainting of flesh in a neutral shade—what artists called grisaille, or dead coloring.
Ironically, under the circumstances, the scene is not unlike Iris’ own brooding assemblages: the carnage of death, overripe fruit in silver bowls, bird carcasses on platters, and game animals, fresh and bloodied, trophies of the hunt hung in the background, rendered in the style of the Old Masters.
And later, Leila was vaguely ashamed of her observations, her detachment. But, she thought defensively, isn’t observation was a habit developed over a lifetime?
Tentatively, Leila inched forward, reaching out her hand to touch the body. She yanked it back as if it was submerged in a shark tank. Iris was surprisingly warm, alive warm.
As her eyes adjusted to the low light, Leila saw Iris’s blood was a seeping stain from her flowing blue dress onto the floorboards. The red was the red every paint manufacturer had tried, but failed, to capture in a tube. Brilliant, blood red.
But the eyes were dead, even if the heart was beating.
Leila’s heart dropped a beat. Fear crept up her throat.
Leila had to look away; she couldn’t look at those eyes.
Should she call out? Is anyone here?
But it was better she was alone, even if it was with a dead body.
But, Iris wasn’t alone.
A small figure stood—as if on guard—over the body. Leila bent down to look at it: it was a wooden artist’s mannequin, no bigger than a child’s toy, standing guard over Iris. She recognized him immediately.
Jesus, it was Fred, fucking Fred— Leila, in a fanciful mood, had painted the figure to be anatomically correct, as well as well-endowed—who had gone missing from her studio months ago.
But poor Fred, as an eyewitness to a crime, could have nothing to say. There was no doubt he was Fred, and that he belonged to her. Bending down to pick up her missing mannequin, Leila gazed into his dead eyes. What to do?
In truth, she was both embarrassed by her handiwork, and concerned his presence could be construed as evidence at the scene of the crime; she pocketed Fred and in a sleight of hand he disappeared.
Leila didn’t need Fred to paint the picture. Iris prone. The blood. The burnished wood handle of a knife stuck in an ample left breast. Iris had been murdered.
Leila didn’t scream. Leila wasn’t a screamer.
Trompe l’oeil and Spoilage
Leila’s hands shook as she tried to turn on her cell phone. The damn thing cycled through on and off and on again. She dialed 911.
“Police. Is this an emergency?” asked a disembodied voice.
“Yes, I think so.” Leila wasn’t quite sure a dead person constituted an emergency. “There’s a dead woman. I think someone killed her.”
“Why do you think someone killed her?” The emergency operator parroted back Leila’s words.
“Because there’s a palette knife sticking out of her left breast.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, did you say there’s a knife sticking out of her palette?”
The woman’s confusion was understandable. “No, I said there’s a type of knife, called a palette knife, sticking out of her left breast.”
“And you believe she’s dead.”
“Can you tell me your location?”
The operator was so calm she could have been jotting down a recipe. It was disconcerting; someone should be overreacting.
Leila gave the woman directions: Route 100, right at a white wooden gate falling off its hinges, no sign, up a winding gravel drive, the front door was unlocked, second floor, second door on the left.
The police were on the way. Would it have been a rational choice to leave? Was it a rational choice to stay? It couldn’t be right to leave Iris alone.
The evening was swallowing up the light. Iris was lying no more than three feet from Leila. Iris was dead.
Iris, who had the world’s worst sinuses and snorted like a horse at full gallop, was silenced. It was the eyes, the eyes convinced Leila.
The Old Masters often painted a mirror image in a person’s eyes. It was the kind of idiosyncratic trick Iris loved. And Iris was all about idiosyncrasy.
But there were no reflections in the milky white orbs through which Iris had seen the world. Just empty pools. Leila shuddered.
Get a grip; the police would be here any moment. A stiff drink would be great, fantastic, right about now.
It was dark in the studio, but it was darker in the hallway. Better to stay put. Every time Leila looked away and looked back, there was Iris again. There was the knife. Someone had stabbed Iris. Was that someone still in the studio?
Leila whirled around, the room flashing by in a series of frames like a tracking shot. Snap. Snap. Snap.
“Hello,” Leila called out tentatively. “Is anyone here?” Silence. Someone had been here. Someone had stabbed Iris. Who? It couldn’t have been one of them; that was unthinkable. Leila’s breathing was shallow. She had a sharp pain in her right side.
Iris’ cavernous, ugly green breakfront, its doors carved with a crazy monkey motif, loomed on the left wall. A door was ajar. Don’t get crazy. It was easy to freak out; it was harder to stay calm. But it wouldn’t be the first crazy thing to happen this night. Iris was dead.
As Leila crept towards the cabinet, the edge of her clog caught on something. Her heart jumped to her throat. It was the uneven edge of an old floorboard.
Leila told herself, breathe, pulling open a lower door. Just the usual painting supplies and stacks of canvases stared back.
She whipped around. God, every time she turned around, there was Iris.
Leila tried to ease the growing knot in her right side. She stared at Iris. She had to stay calm. After all, death was nothing new. She had studied human anatomy. She’d seen dead bodies in art books, anatomy photos had mesmerized and disturbed her, in the way only death can. The human form stripped, layer on layer, to its essentials—fascia, muscle, ligament, nerves and bones— to understand the inner workings of the body, to appreciate its beauty.
Iris was an unbeautiful heap on the floor.
Leila was angry with herself. She should have gone downstairs, waited by the front door, outside. It was too late now. The hallway was dark. She was trapped with a dead body.
The breeze from the bay rustled a cloth draped on a table by the window. It swayed in slow motion. “Damn it,” Leila swore aloud. Swearing dispelled her fear, like screaming on a rollercoaster, long enough to get up the courage to approach the table and pull back a corner of the heavy, damask brocade. The only legs were the fierce, carved lion’s paws holding up the furniture. Iris’s taste ran to the Gothic.
Leila swung back around. The body hadn’t moved. She panned the studio’s perimeter. “Is anybody here?” Silence.
She peered into the hallway; the blinding darkness was like fingers pressing hard over her eyeballs. It had to be safer inside. Better to be trapped than risk the hallway or the stairs. The police had to come soon.
Leila threw the door’s dead bolt shut, leaning her back against its solid frame. Why a dead bolt? Iris was either paranoid or prescient. It hadn’t saved her tonight. Now no one was getting in or out. She was alone. Except for Iris. Iris was dead. Leila was locked in a room with a dead body.
She ran a hand along the door jam. A light switch lit up an ugly, overhead fixture. She had to look at anything other than Iris. The floor was splattered with paint as randomly as Rorschach blots. It was the same in every artist’s studio. Any two-year-old knows creativity and neatness don’t mix.
Iris had been very, very busy. Paintings were strewn around the studio, leaning on the walls, standing in storage bins, crammed into every corner. It was a last testament to Iris’ work ethic. She always said art was about production, and there was no excuse for not producing. She’d never produce again.
Leila’s gaze fell on an unrelentingly dark, brooding composition, a slab of marbled beef oozing droplets of blood on its black and blue surface alongside a runny round of moldy cheese and a blushing, ripened pear pierced with a knife, all laid out artfully on a glinting, silver platter. Ripples of cobalt on the crumpled linen tablecloth echoed the blue speckles on the surface of the meat.
In a stroke, Iris had mastered tromple l’oeil and spoilage.
Iris’ final work, mounted on her fancy French easel, would be unfinished like her life.
Police sirens broke the silence. Leila’s heartbeat thumped in her ears. It had been an eternity. She glanced at her cell phone. It had been eight minutes.
More sirens. She walked to the windows where the police cruisers’ electric blue and red rotating lights lit up the night sky as patriotically as fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Boots clamored up the wooden staircase. Leila threw back the dead bolt, stepping into the hallway.
Male voices drifted up the stairwell. A light pierced the darkness, illuminating the first man up the steep stairs. His heavy footsteps foreshadowed a big man.
His head was thrust forward as if to compensate for its weight.
Two uniformed cops and a youngish man in khaki pants who held what looked like an old-fashioned medical bag trooped behind at a deferential distance.
“We could use more light up here,” he said to a cop, who scrambled back down the stairs.
All his movements, slow and deliberate, seemed to Leila to be nearly effortless. He wore blue jeans, a T-shirt, a baseball jacket and cap with a Yankees insignia. Was he dressed for a ballgame or a murder?
He muttered a barely audible word as he approached. The word, Leila thought, was amateurs.
“Are you the woman who called 911?” He took off his cap and raised his head.
“Yes, yes I did.” She could barely breathe—wouldn’t she be a suspect?
“I’m Detective Grace.” He had to be the first African-American detective in a town of Irish and Italian cops she’d ever met. “Your name?”
“Is that Ms. or Mrs.?”
He was so polite she half expected he’d shake her hand. He didn’t.
He stood too close for comfort. “Ms. Goodfriend, you reported a possible homicide.”
She managed a nod.
“Where’s the victim?”
Was Iris a victim? It was out of character to consider Iris a victim. “She’s inside her studio.”
“Officers,” Grace said. The cops snapped to attention.
“Yes, sir,” said a young cop with a sheared crop of blonde hair, cobalt blue eyes and a voice as homey as Texas barbeque. He was probably younger than Leila’s son Michael.
The older cop, cursed with the fleshy jowls and the eyes of a leery, Vermeer Burgermeister, was scowling at no one in particular.
“This way,” Leila said.
They tramped into Iris’ studio, under the moose’s doleful gaze.
Iris was still in the center of the studio, with the same knife sticking out of her chest. Nothing had changed.
Texas averted his eyes. The Burgermeister’s jaw went slack. Leila expected cops to be more detached, more professional in the face of death. Maybe not the Truro cops.
Detective Grace gazed impassively. His calm told her he had seen this before. The young paramedic searched for a pulse.
“Are you okay, Ms. Goodfriend?” Grace asked quietly.
“I think so,” Leila blurted out. “This is my first murder.”
“Glad to hear it.”
The paramedic pronounced the obvious. “She deceased. Nothing more I can do here.”
Grace pulled the paramedic aside, leaving Leila with the cops.
“Can I leave now?” Leila said quietly to the two cops. She wanted out of there so badly. “I waited for the police to get here. There’s really nothing more I can do…”
“You’re a material witness at a potential crime scene,” Texas said. “Sorry, ma’am.”
Not as sorry as she was. “I didn’t actually see the crime. I only found the body. What else can I do? And I have to call my husband. I’m late for dinner.” She was babbling.
“Tell you what, I’ll ask Detective Grace if you can make your call.”
Texas walked over to Grace, who nodded. He did a lot of nodding. Not a lot of talking.
“Ma’am, you can go ahead and make your call, but sorry, you can’t leave. Not yet.”
As Leila huddled with her cell in a corner, she tried to explain the strange state of affairs to Joe.
“I said she’s dead.” Pause. “Yes, Iris.” Pause. “No, I found her. I called 911.” Pause. “Yes, I’m alright.” Pause. “I have to wait.” Pause. “No, I don’t know when I can go home.” Pause. “I’m not really sure why, something about being a material witness, but I really can’t talk now. It’s not a good time.”
Leila hit end. Joe didn’t get it. She’d go home if she could—she wasn’t trying to be difficult.
The paramedic packed up his bag and left.
“Call in a possible homicide,” Grace said to the officers. “Sweep the building and secure the perimeter.”
“Yes, sir,” the Burgermeister blustered, his face reddening to alizarin crimson. He seized his walkie-talkie from his utility belt as if it were a loaded weapon.
“Would you mind stepping out into the hallway, Ms. Goodfriend?” Grace asked.
Did she have a choice?
The police had strung up utility lamps along the hallway. The effect was oddly festive, like lamps at a luau. Two cops had taken up quasi-military stances outside Iris’ door, legs akimbo, and their fingers laced through low-slung black leather holsters, close to the trigger.
“Let’s go where we can talk,” Grace said. She followed him down the hallway. His voice unnerved her. He unnerved her.
“Ms. Goodfriend.” He took a spiral notebook and a pen from his back pocket. “Maybe you can tell me how you happened to find the body?”
Left-handed, she noted. Right-brained. Creative people often were left-handed. Hans Holbein, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, left-handed, though there was some evidence Leonardo’s right hand may have been paralyzed, so he was left-handed by default.
Irrelevant ideas raced through Leila’s brain. The Detective had liquid brown eyes, heavy lids. By habit, Leila studied people as if they were posing in a studio, never averting her gaze.
“I was working late.”
“What time was it?” Nice teeth. Bad skin. Pockmarks.
“I don’t know. I was working in my studio downstairs, on the first floor. It was getting late, but that wasn’t unusual. I always lose time when I’m working.”
Grace looked up. A scar ran across his chin. “Lose time?”
“Lose track of time.”
“What time was it?”
“I’m not sure. It was getting late. I thought I should be leaving.”
“How did you know it was late?” His tone was conversational, as if there wasn’t a dead body. Iris was dead.
“It was getting dark.” Leila stuck her hands in her baggy jeans pockets splattered with paint. Her fingers touched a small wooden object in the depths of her right pocket. Jesus. She’d forgotten about Fred, standing guard over Iris, forgotten she’d picked Fred up and slipped him into her pocket. “I packed up and went upstairs.”
“Do you usually go upstairs before you leave?”
“No.” She tried to concentrate on Grace and his questions, but her fingers traced the shape of the small figure, its small hands and feet, its articulated joints; its round, featureless head, no bigger than a child’s toy. What was Fred doing there? “I heard something.”
“You heard something so you came upstairs?” He turned his head and coughed softly.
“Well, no. I heard something, a crash, actually more like a thump.”
“You heard a crash, but you decided not to go upstairs?”
“Yes.” Someone had abandoned Fred next to Iris. He’d been missing from Leila’s studio for months; missing like many other small, seemingly inconsequential items had gone missing at the Red Barn. Theories were floated; accusations implied by meaningful glances and sighs. Why had Fred come back? He was an innocent bystander to a murder. It was bizarre.
The questions kept coming. Grace kept writing. “So, when you heard the noise, what did you do?”
“I turned up the radio to drown Iris out and went back to work.”
She cradled Fred in her pocket. It had been so juvenile to etch a penis and pubic hair on a poor, sexless wooden toy. It also be considered whimsical or weird, or the work of a wack-job. Artists were all sort of nuts. But how would a well-endowed Fred look to a cop?
“Iris, is she the deceased?” It was the first time Leila had mentioned Iris. Iris was dead.
“Yes, Iris McNeil Thornton.” Her name was a mouthful, as wordy and pretentious as Iris.
“Could you please spell that for me?”
Leila spelled it.
“Is that with a hyphen?”
“No, two words, McNeil Thornton.”
“So, you decided to come upstairs later, when you were leaving.”
“I hadn’t heard Iris leave.”
“How do you know when Ms. McNeil Thornton leaves?” His questions were methodical. His eyes were weary.
“Oh, Iris makes it known when she leaves. She always makes a lot of noise before she leaves. She slams the door on her way out.” She was talking about Iris in the present tense. “It was too quiet.”
“What did you do next?” His questions put her on the defensive. He was watching her, as she was watching him. Had he noticed her fumbling? She had to take her hands out of her pockets. She wasn’t concealing a weapon, only Fred. But suspects were shot for less, though maybe not middle-aged women.
“I came upstairs. I almost didn’t go in.” She saw slanting scrawl was as impenetrable as military code. Fred, her silent accuser, was warm to the touch. She let go, and Fred tumbled back into the depths of her pocket.
Grace had a heavy five o’clock shadow. The clothes, the dark circles under his eyes. He hadn’t expected to come to work.
“Why did you?”
“Iris’ door was slightly open.” Extricating her hands from her pockets slowly, Leila casually crossed her arms.
“Was that unusual?” His mind moved quickly. Was he good at crosswords?
“Yes. Iris always kept her door closed. I knocked. Iris didn’t answer. I peeked in. I thought I saw something, something on the floor near her easel. There wasn’t much light. Iris only painted using available light sources.”
“Available light sources,” he asked. “What does that mean?”
“Natural light. Sunlight. Moonlight.” Leila was used to talking to other artists about art, not cops. He couldn’t be expected to understand art jargon any more than she could understand what made a semiautomatic semi-automatic, or something like that. “She refused to paint by artificial light. You know, light bulbs.”
Grace nodded. “Then?”
“I took a few steps inside. I saw something on the floor. I thought she might have left something. That’s when I saw Iris. Or Iris’ body.” She didn’t tell Grace the body reminded her of a dead deer. “She was dead.”
“Why did you think she was dead?”
“She wasn’t moving. Her skin was gray.” She didn’t tell him the color of Iris’ skin reminded her of grisaille. “There was blood on her dress. There was a knife sticking out of her left breast.”
“Her eyes were wide open, but there weren’t any reflections. I think that’s what happens when someone dies.”
He didn’t answer her implicit question. “What did you do next?”
“I called 911.”
“What did you do next?”