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"The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.
The second best time is now."
~ Chinese proverb ~
New York, USA
Troubled and distracted, Charlie didn’t realize that she had been staring at the painting at the Guggenheim Museum until its image began moving. Deliberately keeping her eyes focused on the floor, she cautiously backed away until her hand found the rear handrail, then waited for the wave of nausea and dizziness to subside. It wasn’t the first time that she had identified a counterfeit work of art at a world renowned museum. Nor was it the first time she had kept the information to herself.
No curator willingly admits to having been duped, particularly when the results of the deception are costly – to his reputation and the victimized museum. While private individuals might initiate legal action against the sellers, experts who had authenticated the artwork, or encouraged the acquisition feel justifiably threatened and indignantly deny having been deceived. While Charlie could only cite an unimpressive BA in art history, outraged experts cite their graduate degrees from prestigious universities and their years of experience with distinguished institutions. They lash out at the presumptuous whistle-blower. In a field dominated by men, the education she had gathered in museums from her late art-loving father, plus the long hours of independent study, held no weight. Trying to explain a bizarre talent for identifying forgeries made her sound like a crackpot or a con artist. While it would be noble to help right the wrongs of the art world, as well as personally satisfying, Charlie accepted reality. Her role in guarding the integrity of noted artists was limited to a small, but growing, list of clients who sought her opinion.
Since she had chosen the Guggenheim as a place to think calmly and rationally, not to replace anxiety with nausea, as soon as she knew she could walk without appearing inebriated, she retrieved her overnight case and jacket from the coatroom and exited the building. Lacking a real destination, she crossed the street, found a vacant park bench and concentrated on blending into the urban setting.
When she was reasonably certain her face didn’t reflect distress, Charlie looked around to see if she had attracted unwanted attention and was relieved to find her fellow Manhattanites scurrying past, lost in their own thoughts and giving her no more than an impersonal glance that a five foot eleven, former model, had learned to ignore.
The problem with acting impulsively and allowing emotion to take hold, she chided herself, was the complete absence of planning. She had no idea of how to proceed or where to go. It was just after five on a Friday afternoon and uncomfortably warm. She had her checkbook, credit cards and a small amount of cash in her wallet. She could stay with a friend, who would ask questions that she didn’t wish to answer. Or she could check into a hotel, where she might bump into any number of people she knew, who would ask those same questions. Having left with a plausible invented story – not preceded by ultimatums, shouting or tears – she could even return home with a simple explanation. Her client had abruptly changed his mind, or needed to postpone seeing her due to a family emergency. This would lead to the unescapable question: How and when would her client contact her prior to her flight to Boston? Based on the time she had left the apartment, her cab would be at or near the airport. If, after arriving at La Guardia, she checked with her answering service and discovered that her client had called with an unforeseen crisis and was forced to reschedule their appointment, that would explain her returning home. But that meant waiting a few hours – time allowed for trips to and from the airport, plus another hour or so – before returning home. Not that she wanted to return. Having finally gathered the courage required to take the first step, she detested the notion of backsliding and being forced to repeat painful scenarios.
Other women left their husbands for far less cause. Depending on their temperaments and the circumstances, some wept and plotted revenge. From tales she had heard, most began by calling friends, and female family members, for sympathy and advice. Later, she could choose from a variety of responses.
“Are you waiting for someone? The other benches are taken,” a young woman said, interrupting Charlie’s thoughts, in an accent that blended the melodic cadence of Ireland with working-class New York. Charlie hadn’t seen her standing not two feet away, carrying a carton. Early twenties, pretty, petite and curvy, in impractical high heels, she was clearly tired and upset. She was wearing a pencil skirt, a tad too tight, a white blouse which showed some cleavage and a jacket, probably necessary this morning when she left to go to work, too heavy to wear now. Fair-skinned, cheeks that had no need for rouge, dark curly hair, cobalt blue eyes that looked like she had been crying.
“Please, sit down. I’m not expecting anyone. That looks heavy.”
“It is now. It wasn’t a few hours ago, just bulky.” Seated, the woman extracted a compact from her handbag and glared at the mirror. She used a tissue, moistened with her saliva, to remove smudged mascara. “I must look a mess.”
“Not at all. It’s five o’clock, hot and humid. We all look a bit frazzled.”
“Just lost my job. Today. Six years with the company. Started right out of high school. Came in early. Left late. Can’t tell you how many times I worked through my lunch hour. Truthfully, I never minded the extra work. I loved it. You have no idea how many celebrities I got to meet.”
“It’s not like it was my fault. My boss, Mr. Marks, got himself arrested by the FBI. One of the FBI men told us, ‘No point in anyone coming back,’ he said. ‘Your boss is going away for a long time.’ How’s that for shitty news?”
“Did they tell you why your boss was arrested?” Charlie asked, curious.
“Tax evasion. They cleaned out the file cabinets. Took every scrap of paper in the office. Bills, ledgers, everything. Jesus knows that I had nothing to do with anything illegal. I’m the bookkeeper, not Mr. Marks’ personal accountant. I kept track of every dime, nickel and penny coming in and going out of the business. Just so you know, what I’m telling you isn’t confidential. It’ll be in tomorrow’s Variety. Virtuoso is, was, a reputable talent agency.”
“Your job sounds as though it required a very capable person.”
“Graduated in the top ten percent of my class,” the young woman informed her, as she removed her jacket. “Got A’s in most everything, including four years of Spanish – everything except dictation. Loathed dictation.”
“The top ten percent of your class. Very impressive. I’m certain that you’ll have no trouble finding another job that doesn’t require dictation. Do you have someone that can give you a good reference?”
“My boss would give me a great reference, but I don’t think that will help much, with him being in jail,” she said, with a smirk.
Charlie noticed that the shoe the woman had removed, left a purple ridge on her foot. “Do you have a long trip home?”
“Don’t actually know. Other than Central Park, I’m not sure where I am. I can’t say now how long I’ve been walking, or which direction my legs decided to go, but I expect I’m no closer to my apartment than when I started out this morning.”
Charlie noticed that the sky had darkened and a threatening cloud approached. “It looks like we’re going to get the showers the weatherman promised. I could use a cup of coffee. There’s a shop a block away. What do you say? My treat.”
“Don’t go feeling sorry for me. I’m no charity case. I’ve had a run of bad luck, but I can still afford to buy my own coffee.” She clapped her hand over her mouth.
Charlie didn’t know how to respond.
“Jesus, that was awful of me. I can’t believe those words came out of my mouth. Normally, I swear to God, I have better manners.” She stuck out her right hand. “I’m Kathleen Shironsky – Kathleen O’Connor Shironsky. Everyone calls me ‘Kat’, and a cup of coffee would be simply grand.”
“Charlotte Francesco. Everyone calls me ‘Charlie.’”
The first raindrops fell moments before they reached the coffee shop.
“It’s almost six o’clock. You must be hungry. I’m starving,” Charlie said, after they were seated. “I’m having the roast turkey plate special. Please order something more than just coffee.”
“You’re carrying a suitcase. I hope I’m not keeping you from going someplace,” Kat said, after the cheery full-figured waitress took their order, and she had agreed to having a hamburger.
“At the moment, I have nowhere special to go.”
“You don’t look like a housewife, not any housewife I ever saw. I’m guessing that you have an important job.”
“I have my own business.”
“So what do you do – in your business, if I’m not being too nosy?” Kat inquired.
“I’m a consultant to people with art collections.”
“Wow! That sounds exciting. Did you have to go to college for that?”
“Sort of. I have a degree in art history.”
“You have any children?”
“None of my own. I have two nieces and a nephew. What about you?”
“I suppose this sounds terrible, but I don’t have kids and I don’t want any.”
Charlie finished chewing and swallowed. “I see.”
“You can imagine what the parish priest would say about that, if he knew. But I’m the sixth of eight kids. Five brothers and two sisters. Not that I don’t adore each and every one of them, but you wouldn’t believe the noise in our house when we were growing up. Or the fighting. You can’t imagine the mountains of sheets and towels on laundry day. The pots and pans piled in the sink, as high as your eye? What about you? You have any sisters or brothers?”
Charlie hid her amusement. There was something about Kat that reminded her of her the father she dearly missed, in addition to her coloring and near-black hair. It was the Irish love of language, the musical cadence when they spoke and the surprising turn of phrase that they shared. “Just my sister Amelia, who is two years older than I am.”
“Only the pair of you? Bet your house was a damn sight quieter than mine. But my mother was raised to be a good Catholic. The pious candle-burning sort who believe everything the priests tell them about the grievous sins of fornication and birth control. Try as they might, the lot of them couldn’t convince me. I wanted a civil ceremony. The only reason I agreed to a church wedding was to stop the endless jabbering. Between the stubborn Irish on the one side, and the pig-headed Polish on the other, I succumbed. Defeated, I was, by the pressure. Not that any of it matters now.”
“I got married in a Catholic church too, mostly to please my husband’s family,” Charlie admitted.
“You happen to know where I can buy a flashlight? I’m not familiar with the area,” Kat said, delicately wiping the corners of her mouth with her napkin.
“The first thing I noticed when I woke up was that my clock said two fifteen. Two fifteen with the sun coming in the blinds. I tried the lamp. Nothing! Tried the light switch. Nothing! I’ll need a flashlight to help me find my bed without tripping and breaking a leg.”
“Maybe it was a fuse, or a problem in the building. It might be fixed by now.”
“Now that would be wonderful. Too bad it won’t happen.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“When I went to my front door and checked the hall, I could see light from under other apartments’ doors. They had electricity. I didn’t. It took me one split second to realize that the bastard who skipped out on me four weeks ago didn’t pay the bill. Bills – plural.”
“Your husband left you?”
“And good riddance to him. The only thing I’m going to miss about Joey is his paycheck. Tuesday, I received a letter from my landlord informing me that we’re three months behind on the rent. If I had been in charge of our finances, I would’ve known what was going on. But the lord of the manor insisted on handling our finances himself.”
“Let me loan you enough to tide you over,” Charlie offered, reaching for her handbag.
“Please, don’t take offense, but we don’t know each other that well. I can’t take money from you. I’ll be fine. Come Monday, I’ll cash my last paycheck, pay the electric company and give the landlord a few bucks to keep him happy for a while. The rest will just have to wait.”
As the waitress was directing Kat to a drugstore that probably carried flashlights and batteries, Charlie envied Kathleen O’Connor Shironsky, a young woman who could not be intimidated.
“Well, it was nice talking with you. Thank you for the coffee and the burger. It’s not often that I get to sit down and chat with a fine lady like yourself.”
“I’m so glad that you had something to eat before heading home. Imagine trying to prepare a meal in the dark with only the light from a flashlight.”
“Sweet Jesus, the refrigerator and freezer.” Kat sank back onto the booth’s bench. “The ice had all day to melt. My brand new linoleum floor is going to be up to my ankles in water. My place doesn’t have one of those fancy frost-free refrigerators. All that food gone to waste. Food that I can’t afford to replace. What else do you have in mind for me Jesus? Plague? Pestilence? Boils?”
For the first time since their meeting, the proud defiance had left Kat’s eyes. “You’re not going home tonight. You’re going to stay with me. There’ll be plenty of time to deal with your situation tomorrow morning, in daylight, when you can see what you’re doing. And don’t bother arguing with me. This is one argument that you’re going to lose.”
At that moment Charlie knew where she was going to spend the weekend. Not at a hotel or an inquisitive friend’s home. Clarice Hoxley, an old friend and client, had left Manhattan for the south of Spain, to visit her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. Clarice’s penthouse condo was unoccupied for the next six to eight weeks, and at her disposal.
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