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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi

Chapter 2

Because the parking lot beside Levinthia’s Art and Frame Shop was narrow, Knox went ahead and backed right up into the small front yard of the cabin and eased the broad rear-end of his two-ton truck close enough to the front porch so his ramp could bridge from the back of his trailer to the porch. Three years ago, Levinthia had come back to their hometown, Hibriten, and with her share of their divorce settlement, had bought a cedar log cabin. Then she’d turned it into a pretty lucrative business. Her success had surprised Knox down through the tightest tucks of his brain.

Oh, she knew her art. During the seven years they were married, she had taught him everything he knew about pictures. Not the most important part, though: how to rent them to office managers and commercial interior decorators. Levinthia had taught him how to appreciate art, but his own gifts as a salesman had transformed passive appreciation into a money-making persuasiveness. His was the power to make the most unimaginative businessman view art as part of his office’s décor.

Despite his own insight into human needs, he’d never have guessed that Levinthia could run a business. Where’d she get the organization? Where’d she get the salesmanship? All Knox could figure was that she must have learned a few lessons from him while they were married. Being a painter and so self-centered, Levinthia probably didn’t suspect that she owed her prosperity to him.

But she did have a face for business. And she had hair for business, that long, thick blond hair that looked like she’d been unraveling ropes on her head when she stepped out of the shower. Even when she was painting and pulled her hair back in a loose hank that draped halfway down her back in hempish ripples, Knox always suspected more was going on inside her brain than she would ever admit to him. In all the long hours she had spent at her easel, she had to have been making plans.

Once Knox made sure he’d set the parking brake, he swung his door open and slid out of his truck. From the nearest furniture factory about half a mile away drifted the sweet and penetrating odor of shellac. Almost the smell of maple syrup but with an adhesive tang attached to it that could just about turn your tongue upside down. The aroma always chilled Knox’s skin. Anybody who let himself get trapped in one of the Hibriten furniture factories eventually started smelling like that shellac. Even if people didn’t come in direct contact with the pungent coating, they eventually absorbed the odor just by living in and around it.

Knox’s mama and daddy had both worked in the factories. When he was about six or seven, Knox had first noticed that his parents smelled like the new but slightly more than they could afford dining room table they’d brought home. As he grew up, he discovered that all of his friends’ parents smelled like furniture and sweat. Except for those parents who worked in the textile mills, like Cheryl Moretz’s parents, who smelled like wet cardboard. Of course, when a girl had flaming red hair like Cheryl, even wet cardboard carried a sweet memory.

By the time Knox turned eighteen and had worked two summers in the furniture factory, the smell of shellac had come to represent to him everything he needed to escape: manual labor, production work, his parents’ expectations, and Hibriten itself. For several years after their house burned that spring just before he graduated from high school, Knox struggled with the guilt of suspecting that the fire had helped him escape from Hibriten. A big chunk of the insurance settlement had paid for his college.

After Knox clanked the ramp noisily from the rear of the truck and made sure it was settled securely on the porch of Levinthia’s store, he allowed himself a closer inspection of the cabin, hoping that Levinthia would see him waiting outside. Unexpectedly, he felt his ribs clamp around his lungs. He leaned against one of the porch posts and tilted his head as if inspecting the rafters. The logs were real, not the vinyl logoid siding that Knox expected when Levinthia told him to look for a log cabin. He ran his hand down the timber support. Dressed, sanded, and stained. Good lumber. Of course, Levinthia had walked away from their marriage with plenty enough money to afford three or four cabins the size of her art and frame shop.

When Levinthia had called him a week ago and asked if he might be interested in buying all of her reproduction inventory, Knox had let himself imagine her little shop crumbling into ruin, weeds punching up through the floors, windows broken, boards dangling at despairing angles. Surely, only the most abject failure of funds could have forced Levinthia to call him and ask for financial help. There, for a moment, tilting the mouthpiece of the phone toward his forehead so she couldn’t hear his unsteady respiration, Knox thought maybe the time had come to forgive Levithia for all of her treachery.

As far back as he cared to remember, his college days at Chapel Hill, he’d always heard that art was conspiracy. People like Levinthia painted so they could pretend they didn’t have an agenda. Fool people into accepting them as sincere, reliable, pleasant people. While he drove his route, peddling high quality furniture in the major cities of south Georgia and north Florida, sweating his butt off in his car then in the offices of what seemed to be an endless line of furniture stores, his wife had sat at home in front of her easel, growing dissatisfied with all the comforts Knox had showered upon her.

Apparently, she’d seen the end coming long before Knox did. The end of his furniture selling career and the end of their marriage. A year before his business losses started cutting into their personal finances, Levinthia had cut him loose. From behind her easel, she had seen the furniture market start going dry. Of course, each week when he got back from servicing his territory, he’d told her how sales were flattening out. Not wanting to alarm her, Knox had tried to explain the cyclical nature of high volume large item sales: “You got to ride the wave.”

From the way her green eyes dilated around this observation, Knox realized he should have anticipated that she was beginning to listen to him with a sinister attention. Up until furniture sales started going bad for him, Levinthia’s gaze tended to waver, as if she had trouble keeping his reality in focus. For the first five and a half years of their married life, Levinthia had led him to believe that she never quite comprehended him.

At first, her inability to absorb what he was and what he was doing had been deeply attractive to Knox. He saw them growing old together as he clarified for her all the complex strokes and hues that were his career and his life. Already under the influence of her art history conversations, Knox looked forward to translating his work and his ambitions into painting terms, terms his wife would finally appreciate.

While Knox had tried to control his joyous respiration and formulate some properly sympathetic response to Levinthia’s failure in business, his ex-wife had betrayed him once again. She was selling her art and frame shop in Hibriten because she was moving into the antique business in the trendy mountain village of Blowing Rock. It was a town whose sole purpose was to sell antiques which would be loaded into Cadillacs, Mercedes, and Lincolns and carried off to sprawling houses that looked out over the clouds and gorges that protected Blowing Rock from the rest of the world. And Levinthia was going to own a shop right in the middle of all that dignified money. A woman who had smelled like linseed oil when she got up in the morning and like turpentine when she went to bed at night. For the whole seven years Knox had been married to her. No doubt she had absorbed those odors long before she went to her small but intense art school in the mountains.

Knox had gone to Chapel Hill, as he often repeated to himself, even after all these years, got his degree in business, when what he had really wanted to do was major in music. But his daddy had pointed out that Knox couldn’t live off of the insurance money from the fire forever. As much as he loved the trumpet, Knox knew he couldn’t make a living with it. First of all, he’d never been that good on it, despite all of the practicing he did through elementary and high school. Part of his problem, he knew, was that he’d always wanted an audience. For a little while, his neighbor Cheryl had listened to him. But like his parents, Cheryl had started avoiding him when he walked into a room, carrying his trumpet.

Then there were the secret performances he’d shared with Lucy Loomis. Knox leaned harder against the porch post. He hadn’t thought about those days since his old home had burned down. Adjoining the back end of their property, back where they’d had a fairly thick stand of trees, where he and Cheryl had built their tree house, a small field marked the boundary between his parents’ property and the Loomis property. The scruffy field of broomstraw and stunted juniper trees slanted away from the Pritchards’ miniature forest up toward the Loomis house.

The first time Knox saw Lucy Loomis was just before Christmas when he was six years old. He’d gone caroling with his church choir. At the time, Knox had trouble separating the activity of his choir from trick or treating because they’d sing at the front door of someone’s house until a father or mother would bring out a tray of food and hot drinks. At the Loomis house, a large, square building with a green tile roof and four large columns holding up the two-story roof of the front porch, a man and a woman came to the door wearing matching quilted jackets and invited the choir in. They said they wanted their daughter, Lucy, to hear the singing.

Everyone in Hibriten knew that Lucy Loomis was an invalid. As an infant, she’d been struck by meningitis. The damage done to her nervous system had been so extensive and profound that a special iron lung had been built for her. Many years later, when medical science had provided alternatives for iron lungs, Lucy Loomis still lived inside the large glass and steel cylinder in which she’d grown up.

Thirty years ago, though, Lucy’s iron lung had mesmerized Knox. He’d seen pictures of the machines, but to stand next to the chamber as it hissed and groaned filled Knox with a reverence that he hadn’t come close to achieving in his Sunday school activities. From the way his choir director, Mrs. Hartley, had to be prodded by Lucy’s mother before she remembered to tap the palm of her hand with her conductor’s wand and warn the children not to rush through “Little Drummer Boy,” Knox could tell that he wasn’t the only person in the choir to fall under the spell of Lucy’s affliction. After they’d finished singing, nobody wanted to drink the hot chocolate offered by Mr. and Mrs. Loomis. Once they climbed back on the church bus, everyone claimed they needed to go home. And Mrs. Hartley didn’t argue with them.

However, just after the choir had finished singing for Lucy Loomis, while the other children discussed what sort of chemicals Mr. and Mrs. Loomis would try to force them to drink, something they feared transported in a lead truck from the meningitis asylum supply hospital up in Asheville, Knox found himself drawn to the iron lung. Unlike the iron lungs he had seen on television and in movies, this machine didn’t allow the patient’s head to stick out into the open air. No. Lucy lived completely inside her iron lung. The thick, pressure resistant glass gave Lucy’s twisted body a wavy shape. She was small for her age. Knox didn’t really know how old she might be. He’d always assumed she might be two or three years older than him.

Deeply relieved to see that Lucy was covered from her shoulders all the way to her feet with a quilt of dark orange silk, Knox allowed his eyes to rest on the girl’s face, what he could see of it through the undulating glass. What he noticed first was her long neck. He wondered if the disease could make body parts stretch. From what he’d heard about meningitis, it seemed more likely that it would make a person shrink. But before he could follow that question any further, he saw that her dark hair pooled all over her pillow. Instead of the monstrously distorted features that he expected, but couldn’t resist contemplating, what Knox saw when Lucy tilted her head to return his inspection was a narrow face dominated by two sharp cheekbones and skin so pale it made Knox think of the moon, her pale veins resembling delicate lunar shadows and ancient canals.

Because Knox was standing closest to Lucy, Mrs. Hartley told him to wish Lucy a Merry Christmas. Careful not to touch the iron lung, Knox stooped down to what he thought was ear level for Lucy and said, “Merry Christmas.”

At that moment, Mr. and Mrs. Loomis clattered from the kitchen, pushing a cart loaded down with the hot chocolate and doughnuts that nobody would eat. Having dealt with the embarrassing behavior of children for many years, Mrs. Hartley delivered a convincing explanation to Lucy’s parents about how the choir members had overindulged at the last five houses they’d sung for. During this distraction, Knox tried to lean even closer to the glass next to Lucy’s ear. He didn’t think “Merry Christmas” would make her feel better. She needed to hear something to let her know she was special in an interesting way.

“I don’t think this is really an iron lung.” He forced himself to pat the glass. It was warmer than he expected it to be. “It’s a space ship.”

For the first time since Knox approached her, Lucy seemed to notice him, but it was the way a cat half asleep in a window might notice a cloud. He’d never actually visited the Loomis’s house again. Occasionally, he and other kids from the neighborhood would stray into the Loomis’s field next to his house. Those excursions always ended badly. Then when he joined the band at school—and after he realized that Cheryl didn’t care to hear him practice his trumpet—Knox would take his music stand and lawn chair into the distant back corner of their back yard and practice next to the rusty barbed wire fence that separated his yard from Lucy’s Field. Part of his brain knew she couldn’t hear him, clamped inside her iron lung, shut up in her boxy house, secluded at the far side of her field. But some shadowy pool of conviction whispered that she didn’t have anything else to listen to. Besides, Knox had noticed that even his parents seemed happier when the weather was mild enough to let him practice outside.

He’d tried playing trumpet in his first semester of college. Aside from the competition being brutal, Knox also discovered that he couldn’t find a place to practice outside. For the first time in his life, he confronted the need to be practical. Deep in Knox’s gut, his father’s warning echoed: he couldn’t expect to live off the insurance money all his life. So he grabbed onto a business major. When he graduated, he had found himself a job as a furniture salesman. After all, he’d grown up in Hibriten, North Carolina, one-time furniture center of the South. And he had spent his summers working in a furniture factory.

Selling furniture, Knox discovered, harmonized profoundly with all of his adult natural instincts. First of all, even though he worked for a furniture company, his job required him to travel as far from Hibriten’s shellacked atmosphere as he possibly could. Second, furniture had always been a prominent part of his horizons. His parents had never been able to afford the tables and beds they helped build. Consequently, Knox had grown up with the marginally deprived’s appreciation for all things he had been denied. He was able to sell furniture because he would have bought it all himself if he could have. So sincere was his desire for his own merchandise that he had no trouble infecting his clients with his covetousness.

Knox checked his watch. Nine-thirty. The sign on the door of Levinthia’s shop said they didn’t open until ten. The Levinthia he had lived with was not a woman who willingly made the connection between schedules and reality. Once, after Knox had asked her to be more responsible about keeping appointments, Levinthia had told him that time was like those artificial colors one found in a box of crayons. She preferred mixing the events in her life rather than simply stringing them like so many drab beads along the yarn of minutes and hours.

Still—Knox rotated so he could lean against the cedar pole with his other shoulder and conduct a casual inspection of the window behind him—he expected Levinthia to show some curiosity, some interest in seeing her ex-husband after three years. After all, she was the one who had called him. Nobody was more unforgiving than an artist. Nobody could nurse a grudge like an artist, especially an artist married to you. By the end of their marriage, Levinthia had gone way past nursing her injured feelings. She was slurping them. In their last meeting, Knox had told her that he’d be glad to get away from her oily, piney scent. She hadn’t taken that criticism very well, even though she probably knew he was lying.

When Knox married Levinthia, he suspected she was an impractical woman. All the way back in high school, Levinthia was an impractical girl. While they were in high school, Knox had never thought about dating her. She was a sophomore when he was a senior. Worse yet, she was a highly visible underclassman. Already taking art lessons, Levinthia carried a giant portfolio case instead of notebooks. Frequently, if she had been working on a picture before coming to school, she was likely to be wearing samples of paint somewhere on her arms or clothes.

One afternoon in high school, Knox had followed her down the hall, fascinated by a smudge of crimson on the back of her arm just above her elbow. At first, he thought she had scraped her arm and was bleeding. He planned on pointing out her injury to her because the deep red contrasted alarmingly with the pale skin underneath. Before Knox caught up to her, he realized she wasn’t bleeding. That smooth skin wasn’t injured. For a few seconds, he thought this tall, willowy girl had a tattoo. He was convinced he saw some sort of exotic fish standing on its tail, waving British flags with its dorsal fins. Flexing her triceps as she shifted her arm under the weight of her portfolio, Levinthia transformed the fish into a wavy portrait of Bob Dylan wearing his harmonica as a bowtie.

Not wanting to be caught gaping in through a window, Knox turned back to gaze at the smoking stacks of Hibriten’s furniture factories. Through the distance of time and disappointment and recovery, he could appreciate their sprawling metal roofs and mazes of lumber hacks that always stood between the factories and the gravel parking lots. His success as a dealer in art reproductions also gave him the distance from the factories that he needed to feel moderately comfortable surrounded by them.

For a few years, he had carried the energy and the promise of these factories out into all the surrounding states: Virginia, South Carolina, Tennessee. For three years in a row, he had won the company’s outstanding salesman award. The first year, he’d been given a complete dining and bedroom suite. The second year, he’d been given a car. The third year, he’d been given an exclusive franchise to the south Georgia/north Florida territory and a two-week vacation in Hawaii.

A month before he was supposed to leave on his vacation, he went to the U-Haul center to line up a truck for his move down to Albany, Georgia, roughly the midpoint of his new territory. In front of him at the counter, returning a trailer she’d used to bring home a load of paintings which hadn’t sold in New York, stood Levinthia Witherspoon. He recognized her hair first, but if he’d had any doubts, the smudge of paint on her neck below her right ear would have been sufficient to encourage him to tap her on the shoulder and step out of her past.

From Knox’s perspective, he’d caught her at a good time. Her show in New York hadn’t gone well. She’d been criticized because beneath her paintings lurked suspiciously good drawing. She was depressed because the gift that had won her awards and scholarships in college had turned out to be a weakness in the metropolis. Standing there in the U-Haul office, she confessed to Knox that she hadn’t wanted her paintings to go to New York. She had let one of her friends who owned part of a small gallery persuade her to exhibit.

That day, Knox was as sincere in his desire to go out with her as he was in his desire to sell furniture. Levinthia had responded to his sincerity. They’d gone out every night that week. Now, Knox could see that Levinthia was looking for an avenue of retreat. Everything that was not New York City’s art world, she had found in Knox. By the end of the week, she had agreed to go with him to Hawaii.

Before Knox could follow his nostalgia any further, he was disturbed by the tinkle of a bell which accompanied the opening of the door behind him. As he turned to face his ex-wife after almost three years, he knew that she would be the type to have a brass bell screwed to her door of business. However, the woman who leaned out of the door, inspecting Knox as if he were a badly upholstered couch that had been abandoned on her porch, was not his ex-wife.

Undeniably, she was the kind of woman his ex-wife would persuade to assist her. This woman had dark hair and round cheeks. And the brownest eyes Knox had ever seen. The pupils seemed about to dissolve under the darkness of her irises. Knox felt his eyes wanted to water as he approached the woman, offering his hand.

“I’m Knox Pritchard.” He caught a whiff of cinnamon and eucalyptus swirling from the inside. And underneath was a sweeter odor that caused a faint pang of hunger in Knox. Or was it the woman in the door? “Levinthia wanted me to look at her inventory.”

“And haul it off?” The woman lifted her wide chin toward Knox’s truck as she shook his hand.

“I’ll pay for it first.” As he moved past the woman, he noticed that she had very intricate lips. Her upper lip, especially, seemed to have one too many curves on each side. When the woman smiled, as she was doing now, the smile bloomed full of implications Knox couldn’t quite grasp. It was a mouth attached to other people’s personal secrets.

“Levinthia seemed pretty certain you’d want to take the whole lot.” The woman lingered for a moment in the door, prolonging her inspection of Knox.

“She may not fully understand the needs of my clients.” Knox took a deep breath, hoping to convey his attitude of appraisal. “I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate the tastes of my clients.” Knox had been a salesman long enough to know that he should get this woman’s name. Yet, because she struck Knox as about to become haughty, he deliberately turned his back to her and studied the picture-covered walls around him. “I hope she hasn’t invested too extensively in mystical, medieval, or surreal art reproductions.” Such art did not transfer well to the walls of banks and insurance offices.

“What do your clients need?” The woman finally got around to closing the door. Head lowered, hands clasped behind her back, she walked to the center of the room.

It was the way Knox imagined a medieval monk might walk. Her dark hair resembled a cowl. “Decoration, mostly. Atmosphere—but nothing too rarefied.”

“Well, we’ve got lots of interesting pictures . . .”

“Interesting is not necessarily what I’m in the market for.” Knox let his impatience slip out. From women like Levinthia and her assistant, “interesting” all too often implied “lacking in any appeal to the common man.”

“All good art is interesting.” The woman unfolded that troubling smile of hers. It was like the roofline of some exotic desert tent. “Artists despise dull. That’s what they want to escape more than anything.”

“I didn’t say I wanted dull art.” Knox walked over to a reproduction of Max Weber’s abstract Rush Hour, New York. He didn’t know the name of the picture or the artist, but he stood beside the painting and pointed to the muted triangles of reddish browns. “See that brown? It goes with about ninety percent of the carpets and drapes you’ll find in most banks. It’s a busy picture. Which makes people passing by it on their way to finance a car or a house feel that they’re in a place that’s thriving and can pass that energy on to them and their enterprises. But because the picture also has these soft greens—the color of money—and these nice yellows—the color of gold, these customers are comforted by the reassuring but tasteful promises of wealth.” Knox gave the picture an appreciative pat then turned back to the woman. “Now, I know that Levinthia wouldn’t find my response to this picture very interesting. But you and she have to realize that most people don’t want art to upset them.”

“I can appreciate not wanting to upset potential customers.” The dark-eyed woman smiled, her lips flexing that extra, judgmental joint. She tapped her chin then splaying her fingers, index finger curled in Knox’s direction. “Levinthia says you sell reproductions to banks. How did you get into that line of work?”

Lease reproductions.” Knox walked over to a full-sized reproduction of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It was probably the first painting that he and Levinthia had fought over. He knew it well. He despised it deeply. “Not just to banks, although I do service quite a few. Any business office that needs art on its walls and needs that art changed, ‘freshened,’ I like to say, once or twice or three times a year, I provide them with pictures that won’t clash with the carpet, the furniture, or the drapes.” He studied the Bosch reluctantly, repulsed by it and yet nostalgically drawn to it. “Not long after Levinthia left me, my furniture sales plummeted. I was in this store one day, and the owner told me he was about to go out of business. He offered me all of his art reproductions just to get them out of the way. A day or two later, I was in the bank and started talking with the office manager. She was complaining about how tired she got of the same old pictures on their walls. I started negotiating with her, and I’ve been negotiating with office managers ever since.”

The dark-haired woman kept her smile aimed at Knox while she shook her head. “When Levinthia said you sold art from a truck, I had this vision of you sitting by the side of the road surrounded by Elvis on velvet, matadors on velvet, and tigers on velvet.”

“Those pieces have a larger market that this ‘masterpiece’ here.” Knox tipped his nose in the direction of the Bosch.

Because Levinthia had been so angry with him when he refused to love it, he had spent a couple of hours, years ago, trying to see what she found so appealing in the three-panel painting. It was demented. The panel depicting hell was especially disturbing. All those fragmented bodies and demons with bird heads.

One demon in particular who seemed especially vicious with a face like what you’d expect to come gibbering through the fire and brimstone had never failed to unsettle Knox and taint the rest of the day for him. It sat on a round-backed stool, stuffing a human torso down its bony beak. Reluctantly, Knox let his eyes drop to that spot in the painting inhabited by this particular demon. His eyes stumbled. The demon wasn’t there. It’d been replaced by—at least its head had been replaced by—a normal human head, with a receding hairline, pale blue eyes, a weak chin.

Knox stepped closer to the hell panel. The replacement head for the demon was his own. He still stuffed the human torso into his mouth, and he still wore the blue shirt of the demon, but in tiny letters across the purple band that ran across the chest of the shirt, Knox could make out “Tarheels.” Unable to breathe, Knox stepped back from the painting. His face blended in so well with the other scenes of torment.

“See something that upset you?” Levinthia’s assistant stepped beside Knox and stooped to inspect the Bosch.

“I had no idea that Levinthia was still so bitter. After three years.” Knox put his hands in his pockets, as if searching through the small change of his puzzlement.

“She’s not bitter.” The assistant shook her head, keeping her eyes on the painting.

“Well, she’s something if she felt the need to deface one of her favorite paintings.” Against his will, Knox let his eyes return to the picture. To be perfectly accurate, she hadn’t defaced the picture so much as refaced it.

Refusing to let Levinthia’s assistant detect any irregularities in his composure, Knox stroked his neck to settle his pulse. He didn’t mind what Levinthia had done to the Bosch. He couldn’t rent it to a bank anyway. Nobody wanted to think about hell while in a bank. It was like thinking about death in a hospital. But what really disturbed Knox was how effectively Levinthia had touched up the painting. What if she had put him in other pictures?

Trying to ignore the assistant who followed close behind him with her monk’s posture, Knox moved to one of his favorite pictures, Bingham’s Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Insurance office managers were very fond of this painting of two men in a canoe, a cat tied in the front of the boat, because it was so peaceful. The two men and the cat stared half interestedly out of the painting at their audience. The muted earth tones went with any sort of wall paper and just made you feel good about where the two men were going which in turn made you feel good about where you were going, where you were. Knox wished he could buy fifteen or twenty good reproductions of Bingham’s picture.

But leaning closer to the reproduction, Knox saw once again evidence of Levinthia’s skillful hand. The man sitting in the back of the canoe, paddling, was wearing Knox’s face. In this revised version of Fur Traders, the cat looked as if it had been touched up as well. Yes, Knox concluded, its face definitely reminded him of Levinthia. And the knot in the cord around the cat’s neck was much larger than in the original painting.

Next to Fur Traders was Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip. The second boy from the end of the line, the one actually doing the snapping, had been changed to an adolescent version of Knox. Once, Levinthia had pointed out to him that all of the children playing the game were boys. Now, Knox saw that one of the boys who had been thrown to the ground had been changed to a girl. Although he couldn’t see the child’s face, he recognized the wavy blond hair flying above the tumbling body.

“Has she ruined all of her inventory?” Knox turned to the dark-haired woman.

“Ruined?” The woman laughed, waving her hand over the Winslow Homer. “What ‘ruined’”?

Taking a step back, Knox shook his finger at the woman. He found himself standing in front of a half-sized reproduction of Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. There he was again, the central male figure in the picture. Levinthia had even given him the skimpy moustache and beard of the original male figure. And there sat Levinthia in the middle of everything, nude, staring out at him—as if he were somehow responsible for her being naked.

“Didn’t she think I’d notice what she had done?” Knox stared at the Manet, running his hands across his temples. What if he hadn’t inspected the paintings? What if he had taken these pictures and hung them up in the First National or the Second Federal or the Central Financial?

“What if you had?” The woman stepped between Knox and the Manet. “How many of your customers know exactly what the people look like in Manet’s original?”

Before answering, before really considering her question, Knox glanced at a full-sized Renoir—Moulin de la Galette. In the left third of the painting, the man and woman dancing. They were now Knox and Levinthia. Levinthia had also changed the leg positions so that Knox was stepping on her foot. Beside the Renoir, Degas’ Ballet Rehearsal. Knox was the rotund, balding dancing master, Levinthia was the dancer, high on her toes, straining to please.

“I can’t rent art to offices if I’m in the pictures.” Knox drifted along the walls of the cabin, seeing his face everywhere he looked.

“Why not?” The woman took Knox by the arm, anchoring him in front of Cezanne’s Battle of Love. Her smile clamped around Knox’s indignation. “Would you be perpetrating some kind of fraud? Renting a reproduction of a painting most people will barely glance at on their way to open a checking account?” She let go of Knox’s arm and leaned closer, her dark eyes swooping up over his face. “With Levinthia’s changes, these pictures are more like real art than any of your customers would ever suspect.” She turned her attention to the Cezanne.

In the Cezanne painting, Knox saw himself again, he and Levinthia one couple among three others in a Bacchanalian orgy that struck him as much more sentimentalized than anything Levinthia had done to any of the other paintings. While he and Levinthia had never wrestled the way the Cezanne couples did, Knox felt the accuracy of the struggle. The accusation felt more sincere that any of the others she’d improvised.

Turning to the dark-haired woman, Knox knew what she would say even before he asked. “Do I give the check to you?”

Imperceptibly, the woman drifted next to Gauguin’s Ia Orana Maria (We Hail Thee Mary). She was the Polynesian Madonna’s twin. “You’d better ask Levinthia.” The woman took a step back to a counter and slid the store phone toward Knox. She handed him a pad with a phone number scrawled across the middle of the page.

In the few seconds that Knox glanced down to punch in the number, the Polynesian-looking woman had slipped out of sight. While Knox waited for Levinthia to answer, he scanned the reproductions hanging from racks and walls. His truck trailer was equipped with racks for holding and securing framed reproductions. He’d cleared out most of them before he left Atlanta early this morning. With this collection, he might have to rent a larger storage unit. If he took the time to label each painting he bought from Levinthia’s shop, he’d be four or five hours getting the job done. On the other hand, if he just loaded them in the racks then labeled them when he got back home, he could be back on the road in two hours.

Then he heard his ex-wife’s voice. “Levinthia’s Antiques.”

“This is Knox at Levinthia’s Art and Frame Shop.” Knox looked over his shoulder to see if Levinthia’s assistant had returned. He realized he didn’t feel up to carrying on a personal conversation with Levinthia. Even hostile company would keep him from feeling so exposed to his past.

“Well, Knox, I didn’t expect you to get to Hibriten so soon.”

Knox couldn’t ignore the note of friendliness in Levinthia’s voice. “Shucks, in two hours, I’ll be trucking back to Atlanta.”

“Are you telling me you’ve already looked at my stock?”

“Enough to make up my mind.” Knox couldn’t understand why she sounded so surprised. “I’m not buying for the Guggenheim, you know.”

“No, what I mean is Gail, my assistant, told me she couldn’t get to the shop before 11:30. And it’s not even 10:30 yet.”

“She was here when I pulled in at 9:30.” Knox took a few steps toward the backside of the counter and peered down a narrow avenue of art supplies, tube after tube of Windsor-Newton oil paint. No sign of the Polynesian woman down there. “I barely had time to open the back of my truck before she let me in.”

“Put her on for a second. I have to congratulate her for getting there two hours early. This is a first. It’s just too bad she had to wait until I closed the shop to start coming in early.”

Knox tilted his head from the phone and yelled. “Gail! Levinthia wants to talk to you!” He paused, listening, but didn’t hear any sort of response. After yelling her name several more times, he put the phone back to his ear. “Unless you have some soundproof chamber in the basement or an outdoor toilet, I think Gail has left the building.”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

Often when they were still married, Knox had detected the absolute assurance in Levinthia’s voice that he now heard. It was perhaps her most irritating quality. “Maybe it wasn’t Gail who let me in. The woman I’ve been talking to for the last forty-five minutes looks Polynesian. In fact, she’s got exactly the same face as that woman in the Gauguin painting, the Madonna picture.” Knox braced an elbow on the counter, waiting for the argument to begin.

However, several seconds of silence passed before Levinthia replied. “Knox, I don’t have a Polynesian Madonna working in my shop. Gail is a tiny woman with hair about the same color as mine.”

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