Today I had to push through to 2040 words. I’m not really sure where this story is going…
She stared out a window, the diagonal brushings of rain visible beyond. It was as if a pop-culture view of the famous Edward Hopper painting, Hotel Window, had been cast across the canvas. It was unclear if the woman was waiting for something. Perhaps she was bored. Maybe, just maybe, she simply wanted to look out the window. If this were a photograph instead of a painting, the object or objects of her focus might be discerned on closer inspection. There really wasn’t anything remarkable about the painting. The blue linen blouse billowed off the frame, as if Hopper could produce a painting of Marylyn Monroe. The dark wet hair contrasted against the sunny blouse as if the juxtaposition was intentional. Maybe even meaningful. The painting was scrutinized, and muted conversations buzzed at the artist’s feeling, or technique. Teresa knew that the artist really just wanted to paint a woman looking out a window.
Teresa blinked, and stared down at her flute of red wine. She felt the current vintage was a poor sibling to the previous year. It was still complimentary, she had just overpaid for it. Besides, wine tasting was bullshit, really. Studies had shown that even the most respected wine connoisseurs couldn’t tell the difference between table wine and the expensive stuff. She grimaced, and set the unfinished flute on a serving tray that moved by. The server gave Teresa a dirty look, which subsumed to an embarrassed blush when she smiled sheepishly. The unspoken apology went pretty far in these circles.
Teresa grabbed a long stem of champagne off a tray as another server gracefully moved through the crowd. It was a moneyed crowd. These people probably think they know about wine. She imagined their butlers bringing them freshly opened vintages; they would sniff the cork and smell something other than cork and wax. Pinkies raised, they would slowly sip the wine, swish is around their perfectly purchased teeth, and declare, pure nose, or well defined, or even something as stupid as it would be lovely after aging.
She arched her eyebrow when she expected to taste sparkling wine, but was rewarded with real champagne. An inexpensive Prosecco would’ve been fine, but the owner of the gallery had obviously spent quite a sum for the gathering to show the latest collection. Teresa knew wine. Or at least she knew the right things to say. It was all subjective anyway. Just like art.
And she knew art. She dabbled growing up, and continued for the first part of her commitment to university. When she discovered journalism in her senior year, she torpedoed her fine arts degree and jumped into journalism with both feet. Her scholarship wouldn’t cover a change to her major this close to finishing the degree, so she and her brother moved in together while they both worked several jobs. He managed to get a few internships operating a video camera, and she trudged through proofreading and line editing.
Fortified with better quality libations, she returned to the painting. The placard declared the artist was a Kimberly Smith. Teresa got all dressed up for the event. She’d been writing stories on art and high culture for quite a while now, and the editor shot down each submission. She was determined to claw her way into something meaningful. Perhaps investigative reporter, but she had to do her time in the trenches, and utilizing her almost degree to support her actual degree seemed like a good way to get her name out there.
The gallery was only showing neo-expressionism for another week. She watched for security flaws, kept an eye out for guard and docent schedules. She thought of the best time and way to steal one of the expensive paintings. But instead of imagining her suspended from the skylight with a cardboard tube and a box cutter, Teresa found herself drawn to the painting no one else seemed to care about. There weren’t any bids on record, and it had been tucked into a quiet corner with terrible lighting that led to the curator’s office.
For some reason, it made her angry.
Teresa took a long sip from her glass, and resisted the urge to act on her urge and to actually steal a painting. A criminal record wouldn’t exactly do wonders for her career aspirations.
“You must be lost.”
Teresa’s eyes flicked slightly to the left. It was the only reaction to the intrusive voice she allowed. Forget a poker face, she had reporter face. The voice materialized next to her, a bit too close, even for her, someone who had tried her hand at ambush reporting.
The first thing she noticed was that his hair was a shade lighter than his champagne. The flute reflected varying shades of gold and blonde when it was tipped back. Teresa knew it was a deliberate choice when his latest sip resulted with a grimace.
A polite smile flashed on her lips before taking a sip of her own. “This does appear to be an art gallery,” Teresa waved her champagne glass to encompass the room.
The man laughed too loud for Teresa’s taste. He ran his hands down an off-the-rack suit, smoothed back his tousled hair, and flashed a toothy smile. Her creep-o-meter was dangerously close to the red zone.
“No, no,” he chuckled, “I meant that everyone else attending this soiree,” he emphasized the word with air quotes, and continued, “seems to be riveted to the interpretations of a… dinner party.” The last words elicited a scowl. He nodded toward the painting they stood beside. “Compared to them, this one seems so… pedestrian. Almost as if it were an afterthought.” He leaned forward, and examined the brushstrokes, and then focused considerable time on the frame. “It seems quite ordinary compared to the frame that houses it.”
Teresa crossed her arms, the foot of her champagne glass bobbing against her hip. “That’s what makes it so extraordinary.”
The man chuckled his agreement, and thrust out his free hand. “Frank Donaldson.”
Teresa forced herself to not react, her only surprise revealed by several blinks. “You’re pretty brazen to be walking around this neck of the woods, Mister Donaldson.” She tossed her chin toward a man in a cheap suit doing his best to look inconspicuous in the self-portraits section.
“Then again,” she continued, “With the FBI as your date, I suppose you can throw caution to the wind.”
Donaldson extended his arms and shrugged with his best aww shucks he could muster. Teresa suspected he was still moving large sums of dirty money around to cover The Guastavino family involvement. Donaldson tugged at the sleeve of the arm holding his glass. He replied, “House arrest is so…” He raised his glass shoulder height, and waved it back and forth, “boring,” he concluded, his eyes momentarily going wide.
“I can imagine,” Teresa replied, as Donaldson lifted his pant leg to reveal an ankle monitor. She nodded, and offered a half-smile to the agent barely concealed behind the wall. How do these guys expect to be invisible if they keep touching their earpiece? she thought, and turned to drink her champagne to cover her eye roll.
“Grand jury’s in a week,” Donaldson sighed melodramatically. “After that, Frank Donaldson won’t exist.” He smiled. “No more accountant to the rich and famous.”
“You mean infamous,” Teresa retorted, and swirled the remainder of her champagne in her glass. She doubted anyone would consider Andre Guastavino as anything other than the thug he was. Albeit a wealthy thug. She performed a sympathetic nod.
“You never told me your name,” Donaldson spoke, his smile widening into a leer before he corrected himself.
Teresa sighed inwardly. Oh great, she thought, before extending her right hand. “Teresa.”
A sweaty hand engulfed hers, squeezed, and finished with two sharp pumps. “Just Teresa?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
This time Teresa couldn’t hold in the sigh. “It’s Collins, Teresa Collins.” She yanked her hand back the moment Donaldson released it, and curled her fingers around the stem of her glass, hoping the chill from the bowl would somehow relieve the lingering disgust of his touch.
Bright green eyes bored into Teresa’s brown as Donaldson considered her. “Nice to meet you… Teresa.” His voice lowered an octave.
Damn it, thought Teresa, I don’t need this shit right now! She looked over her shoulder for another painting to stand at – preferably one with a crowd around it. She started a mental checklist on the best ways to politely extricate herself.
Donaldson smirked, then snapped his fingers in an ah ha moment. “From the paper?” His index finger stabbed in her direction.
Teresa’s smile never failed, but her shoulders tensed. She had submitted more than one story criticizing the Guastavino family, but every they were all rejected by her editor. Every. Single. One. She started to turn away, an angry flush rising on her cheeks.
Donaldson held up both hands, his glass stem pinched between two fingers. “Don’t be angry, Teresa. I have heard of you. Now that I’m playing for team Justice, we’re teammates,” His lecherous smile returned. “Colleagues even.”
Two counts of suspected murder, alleged assault, money laundering, evidence tampering. For those alone he should be facing life in prison. Of course, he turned state’s evidence, with a immunity deal, and a cozy future in witness protection. All he had to do was testify to the whereabouts and amounts of Guastavino’s many off-shore accounts and illegal operations.
“No,” Teresa said evenly, sarcasm flaring on her cheeks, “I don’t think so.”
Donaldson’s mask slipped, but he recovered quickly. “I was just thinking,” he declared, “this is my last week as Frank Donaldson, and it would really help my soul to unburden my sins and transgressions before I’m sent away to a life of boredom and obscurity.”
“Better than a truncated life,” she retorted, taking a step back.
Donaldson retorted by stepping forward. “I’m sure an exclusive interview would do wonders for a burgeoning career.”
“Perhaps a toast is in order?” Teresa spied a server weaving amongst the crowd, two glasses on that wine balanced on her tray. Teresa closed the distance in a few steps, replaced her glass for the two from the tray and handed one of them to Donaldson. Her professional smile almost faltered when Donaldson’s fingers brushed against hers before while accepting the drink.
“Fare the well, Frank Donaldson,” he toasted with a smirk. He winked at Teresa. “May better parties lie ahead.”
Teresa ignored his advance, and took a sip. She scowled at the offense to her taste buds. The wine is even worse at room temperature. She could feel Donaldson’s leer heavy on her shoulders.
The painting she had sought solace in started to morph, Donaldson’s lame come-ons echoing in her ears. Donaldson lurked in the shadows, her vision clouding. She stared at the wine flute, but it had turned into a microphone. She was trying to come to grips with the situation when she felt like her limbs were made of stone. Unfamiliar pain radiated from all over her body.
She felt trapped, a steel grip on her arm, its weight crushing her. She knew something was amiss.
“Sir, you can’t come back here!”
Unfamiliar voices tickled her ears.
“Collins! Collins! Wake up, you cold blooded bitch!”
She felt something warm on her ankle, pulling it straight.
“Sir, if you don’t leave right now, I’m calling security.”
“And if you don’t back the fuck off, I’m gonna arrest you for obstruction of justice!”
Something cold clamped hard on her ankle.
“Hold her down, damn it!”
Bile filled her mouth, throat, and nose. She couldn’t breathe. She heard a shriek and a gurgle, but she couldn’t speak; couldn’t move.
“I said, ‘hold her down!’ Collins, you’re only making this worse!”
“Fuckin’ whore bit me!”
Teresa’s eyes snapped open, her transition from her dream to the present complete. A flat face with a bleeding mouth loomed over her. She yanked her arm back, but a shiny metal handcuff prevented her movement. She bucked, but a pair of hands held her down. The flat unfamiliar face snarled. “Teresa Collins,” he spat, spittle landing on her face, “You’re under arrest for the murder of Frank Donaldson.”