A Novel

      We are instinctively blind to what is not relative.
      We are not cameras. We select.
      —Robert Henri, “The Art Spirit”
      In Villa Real, fall is the season. It is then the tourists come in single spies instead of in battalions, and those that come appreciate the old city and even know how to pronounce its name. It is quite acceptable to say Villa in the English manner, but to say Real as in ‘real good’ is beyond the pale, only Rayahl is correct. In summer the air is thick with ear-assaulting attempts at this Spanish name, Veelya Reel being the most popular, and worse than calling San Francisco, Frisco. But after Labor Day peace descends, again there are parking places around the Plaza, well a few, and there is time to gossip with passersby while going for the mail. This is a time-honored Villa Real habit; mail deliveries are reasonably prompt and as reliable as any other city in the United States, but few if any of us would give up our precious post office boxes. This gloriously cool crisp fall afternoon I had checked my box, but left the Villa Real Art Association box until tomorrow, when I would pick up the mail in it on my way to work. I was surprised to see in passing that my immediate boss, the curator of the Art Association, was emptying the box.
      “Hi, Clem,” I said cheerfully, “doing me out of a job, I see.”
      Mr. Dennison started slightly and dropped a letter he had in his hand. I bent over to pick it up for him, but he forestalled me and pocketed the letter quickly.
      “Just checking up on something, Mary Mac, nothing important. Look, I’ll leave the rest of this stuff for you.” He put a pile of mail back into the box, slammed it shut and, giving me a tight smile, strode off in his neat upright way.
      Now I liked Clem Dennison; he got me my job, ill paid but interesting, as general help at the Association gallery. He called me Mary Mac, instead of plain Mac, or Miss MacIntyre; this I liked too. Not mine to reason why, I thought, as I walked home enjoying the familiar sights of Villa Real on the way. As I rounded the high adobe wall of the Archbishop’s garden, I saw that the pear tree jutting over it, which had delighted me in spring with its stars of white against the blue sky, was drooping, its green tired and dusty, and here and there a leaf showing a trace of dull yellow. The cottonwoods along the Alameda would soon be turning their bright gold, I thought, as I crossed the road to walk under them. I sniffed the air to catch that faint piñon smoke that is the very essence of Villa Real, and I found myself thinking with affection of Clem, as he had asked me to call him, though I stuck to Mr. Dennison while in the gallery. Returning health undoubtedly accounted for my increasing zest in life, but Clem’s kindness in making a job for me helped too.
      Crossing the bridge over the Rio Villa Real, which had been last year nothing but a dry ditch, but this year had run all through spring and summer to the joy of the old timers and the delight of the children who fished in it, I saw Edythe Kendall Chambers coming over on the other side. I waved and went purposefully, hoping she would not stop to yak. A middle-aged woman who I was sure had talked her husband to death and was seeking persistently for another victim, she lived very near me and was the worst bore around too. We all avoided her as much as possible, and this time most oddly she avoided me. In fact she did not seem to recognize me but hurried by with a grim look on her usually carefully bright face.
      I went up Delgado, finding myself a little chilly in the shade of trees lining it, and turned off at Acequia Madre. Once this insignificant little ditch had been the main source of irrigation water for the long settled Canyon Road area, and it still ran busily in a good year, such as this was. I enjoyed its companionable chuckle as I walked close beside it and left it with reluctance at Camino Monte Sol, off which was the compound I lived in. Compound may be a strange word to use in the Spanish Southwest, since it has an oriental ring to it, but it was the only word I had ever heard used for the group of houses I surveyed now. Each house was quite separate and distinct and totally individual; all they shared was a common entrance and a common landlord, who, bless him, was not one to raise his rents at the slightest provocation. On the other hand, I reflected, he was not one to do much repair work, either. You paid low rents and were on your own at our compound.
      My house was one of the smallest and least adapted to artistic pursuits, but it also had the biggest patio, surrounded by a six-foot adobe wall, and this gave me a most pleasant feeling of privacy and protection. Other houses in the compound had larger rooms, and more of them, and many had studios with coveted north lights, so necessary to a serious artist’s well being. I loved my own little adobe with its sunny patio, complete with apricot tree, lilacs, wisteria and a rampant silver lace vine softening the hard edge of one wall.
      As I walked through my garden, and it was mine really, because I had rescued it from weeds and the neglect of a former tenant, my eye wandered over it looking for Villa Real’s daily paper, which might land anywhere from the casual toss of a newsboy’s hand. It was not under the hollyhocks, now with a single last bloom at the very tips of their tall stems, not under the lilacs, still their plain green bushy summer selves, but marked for their winter death. It was not entangled in the branches of the apricot tree, showing like the Archbishop’s pear an occasional yellow leaf, nor lying on the gray catmint bordering the flowerbed, nor among the vivid yellow and bronze chrysanthemums, at their peak of bloom. I grumbled to myself as I found my key under the mat and unlocked my bright blue front door.
      When I get home in the evening, I like to sit down and read the paper before doing anything else, so back out I went. Failing again to find it in the garden, I opened my patio door to look outside. It was not on the ground outside, either, so I looked up, and there it was caught between a branch of the apricot tree and the wall, just too high for me to reach. I was gazing at it with annoyance when along came a neighbor, a young man whose solitary habits had aroused speculation and concern among other inmates of the compound. He sized up the situation with a glance.
      “No way to deliver a paper, is it,” he said with a grin. “Guess I can get it for you.” He reached up and as he handed over the rolled up paper remarked casually, “Seems a shame we haven’t met before, being neighbors. I’m Bill Thorpe, from New York, been here six months and love it.”
      “I’m Mary MacIntyre, from San Francisco, by way of Canada, been here nearly two years, and love it too.”
      He said in a diffident way, “I wonder if you would come in for a drink this evening, say in an hour. I’m feeling like some company now.”
      I agreed, rather thrilled, I must admit, because as I could see he was a personable youngish man, a bit older than I, perhaps, but not too much and certainly not the bearded beatnik bohemian type that seem to be the only young men abounding in Villa Real.
      Well, I thought to myself as I sunk into my fireside chair and curled my feet under me, life is looking up all over. My eye was caught by the headline as I unrolled the paper, “Artist drowned in Tojauque,” I read. I skimmed the story quickly; who was it? I knew most of the artists in Villa Real through my job, and had to know at once who it was. Oh no, I gasped aloud. Yes, it was John Graham, a delightful man, universally liked and respected old guard artist, and one of the founders and pillars of the Art Association. “Terrible,” I groaned, reading on.
      He had been found dead in his own swimming pool that morning by his wife, who had been aroused by the barking of their dog. He was only 50 and left, beside his wife, two daughters, both away at the time. I sighed and, putting down the paper, thought unhappily of the other two deaths of Association members that had occurred recently. Nicolai Polkoff, who lived right here in the compound, had drifted off to a peaceful enough death at 68 just last April. There had been a sudden cold spell, and a faulty gas pipe and no ventilation adds up to death. He was the first. And then after him Bela Ferency, who fell off a cliff at Puye while sketching last June. A fitting end for an artist, but with his youthful vigor and zest for life at 67 he should have more years to enjoy painting. Three of them, I thought, three of the old guard gone, and who is left to take their places and hold the Art Association together?
      I shivered suddenly, and my imagination took a wild leap. Suppose these deaths were not the accidents they seemed to be, but were, say, “arranged”? So I had read far too many detective stories during my sanitarium days, so I had far too much imagination anyway, still it was odd, wasn’t it? I cut out from the paper the paragraphs about John Graham’s death and went to my desk to find the clippings I had put away referring to Nicolai and Bela. Sitting back again, I studied them all thoughtfully. Now that summer was over, I would have very little to do at the Art Association gallery. Clem did all the selling, Liz did the books and the secretarial work. My job was nothing much anyway and would be even less from now on. Why not do a little investigation of these three deaths, with a view to writing a mystery later on, perhaps in early spring, when Villa Real was dead itself? Of course, they were accidents, no disputing that, but the coincidence tempted my imagination.
      Mentally asking each one to forgive me as I wrote his name, I ruled three columns, headed the first Nicolai Polkoff, the next column Bela Ferency, and the last John Graham. Then I ruled off a fourth column on the left side of the sheet and wrote, in descending order, Date, Time, Place, Age, Family, consulting my clippings as I did. What else, I wondered, would be relevant? I thought for a bit and added Method to the left column. Suddenly catching sight of my watch, I was reminded of that drink with Bill Thorpe. I dashed into my bedroom for a look at my face; shiny, I saw, so I repaired that, ran a brush through my hair, a touch of lipstick, and nothing more could be done, I decided.
      Bill was waiting for me in his rather larger adobe up the compound from mine; at least, I amended, looking around curiously, his living room, which he used for a studio, was larger; nothing else was visible. He had obviously hurriedly straightened up a bit, but I was disappointed, both in his house, which I considered unattractive compared with mine, and his paintings. These were all over the room in various stages of progress, if that was the word, I thought ruefully. I did not feel obliged to comment on this occasion, as Bill was anxiously acting the host, pressing a drink on me and giving me the one comfortable chair.
      We got to know each other very quickly, once it came out that we had both come to Villa Real to convalesce. He was 28 to my 22, I was happy to learn, and the reason he had been more or less a hermit up to now was that he had to rest for decreasing periods each day. While we chattered away, I observed that he looked tired and haggard, and I thought if he were not so tanned he would be gray. He was too thin for his framework I saw too.
      To excuse my lateness, I explained that I had been shocked at the news of John Graham’s death, and then on impulse, I added, “You know, that’s the third of my artist friends at the Association to die within six months, and I’m wondering, maybe they were murdered.”
      Bill made a face combining amusement and disapproval. “Your imagination matches your freckles,” he teased. “No, seriously, I knew Nick Polkoff quite well for a short time. He was the first person I met in the compound, and he used to let me watch him paint while I rested, and how he talked! And Bela, he used to come to Nick’s to talk old times once a week or so; a good guy, a sweet guy, really. Nobody would want to rub them out. What for? You must be wanting to make a mystery; maybe you want to write one?”
      I was casual. “You must know me too well already. I’m just mulling this over in my mind. Maybe it’ll make a detective story. Have to find something to do in the long winters here. I’ve read so many who-dun-its, you know how it is when you have to rest so much.”
      He nodded. “Sure, I do. In that case let me in on this. I’ll help with alibis and such, and we can enjoy it all knowing it’s just a joke. Because, sorry as I am to spoil your story, it is all imagination.”
      “Can’t be anything else, I suppose, can it?” I asked.
      “No,” said Bill, “I know Henry Martin, he’s not a policeman exactly, but does night duty sometimes at the main station, and he told me that despite all you hear about the corruption in the police force here, there is one thing they did do thoroughly and that was check out those accidents.”
      “Henry Martin?” I exclaimed in surprise. “He’s an artist, a darn good one too. He paints mostly very meticulous sort of stuff, every hair is numbered, every wrinkle accounted for. Lately his work has been less hard and a lot better too.”
      “Oh, he’s a damn good painter, all right, but as to that job of his, you’ve got to know what I know, then all becomes clear, in fact, predictable. Our Henry’s name isn’t Martin, it’s Martinez.”
      “Really?” I asked, amused and enlightened. All political jobs in Villa Real are held by Spanish Americans, and all jobs are political. Meritocracy may be on the way but it will take a long time to conquer Villa Real. “So one of his no doubt numerous relatives is helping him out,” I remarked casually. “But, Bill,” I went on with more interest, “you may think I don’t know nothing about painting, but perhaps you’ll believe Nick, and I remember he once told me that Henry would be a very fine painter in time, he just needed experience.”
      “Ha, not just time or experience, but dear Nicolai Polkoff’s guiding hand is what he added, I’ll bet,” said Bill rather sarcastically.
      “Maybe,” I agreed with a smile, for everybody in Villa Real knew that Nick’s amour-propre had never been in need of propping. You could name any artist, and he would comment, ‘a competent painter,’ which was a term of praise, ‘but . . .’ and the buts were many and justified. Or he would more frequently dismiss the victim with a contemptuous ‘doesn’t know one end of the paint brush from the other.’ Even his old friend Bela did not escape his strictures, ‘a nice fellow, but never progressed an inch since his student days.’”
      Bill went to fix another drink while I was thinking of Nick, and when he returned I asked him idly, “How come you didn’t take lessons from Nick? He was the recognized Old Maestro ‘round here.”
      Bill winced. “You’ve touched a sore spot. We got along outside painting, but I wanted to go my own way, and Nick wanted me to go his. No hurt feelings, mind you, we agreed amiably enough to disagree.”
      I looked again at the paintings around me, done with a very muddy palette and with a palette knife in broad heavy strokes. To Nick, who used clear fresh colors and brushes only, they would not appeal. I frowned and, realizing that Bill was expecting me to comment on them, I prevaricated.
      “You take goo, and I’ll take gout,” I said lightly.
      Bill looked puzzled for a second and then light visibly dawned, I was glad to see. “But I’d rather we had the same taste,” he said, a bit hurt.
      “You can’t have everything,” I said, getting up to leave, “after all, you’re lucky I’m not one more female artist. I don’t paint, never have, never wanted to, so you’ll get no advice, competition or even sympathy from me.”
      “Miss MacIntyre . . .” Bill exclaimed dramatically.
      “No,” I interrupted, “call me Mac, everyone does, except Clem Dennison, and he calls me Mary Mac.”
      “Fine, but I prefer Mary. So Mary, you have taken a great weight off my mind. We will stick to sleuthing, and you needn’t say a word about my paintings.” He was smiling, but there was a distinct note of bitterness in his voice.
      “Done,” I said gaily, but that was not the note I wanted to leave on. So as an apology, I took his arm and smiled as warmly as I could up into his eyes. The blue eyes that met mine gave nothing away at all, but their owner smiled back at me. Encouraged, I said, “Let me know if anything occurs to you about Nick. I need help.”
      Bill gave himself a little shake as if to re-route his thoughts and replied rather absently, “Oh, sure, let’s think about it and meet to compare ideas next weekend.”
      We went to the door together and, as I made as if to go, Bill stopped me. “You’re sort of scrutable, aren’t you? You’d better not share your wild ideas with anybody else; just keep me informed.”
      That suited me very well, but I did not commit myself. I just smiled and left, trying to look a bit more inscrutable. At home again, I went into my bedroom and studied my face in the tin-bordered mirror, wishing for the first time that it was a bigger and better one with perhaps two more sides and a good light so that I could see myself as others see me. Mousy hair, green eyes and freckles. With that set-up anyone would expect red hair, I thought, and made a mental note to get a rinse. Perhaps I was still too thin, but not a real string bean, luckily, so why had Bill seemed to lose interest suddenly, and when we had been hitting it off very well? I shrugged my shoulders and dived into a new Agatha Christie.