The Degas was real.
I had seen the painting of the ballerina at the Minneapolis Institute of Art about a year earlier. The Institute sold it at auction soon after, despite much criticism, claiming it required the income to cover overhead and pursue new acquisitions. Only the auction was less public than MIA members had been led to expect, and gossip swirled that the man who eventually purchased the painting had simply seen it, wanted it, and used his considerable connections to get it.
I was admiring the painting in the lobby on the top floor of that man’s bank, thinking it actually looked pretty good hanging there. My escort stood close by. He was wearing a gray trench coat with the belt cinched at the waist, looking like an extra in a bad Humphrey Bogart movie—actually, there are no bad Humphrey Bogart movies, but you get my drift. He gestured for me to move along with the pocket of the trench coat. There was a gun in the pocket, a stainless steel Charter Arms .38 wheel gun, but I ignored him. If he didn’t shoot me when we were alone, I doubted he would do it now, in a lobby filled with purposeful business people. I spoke loud enough for most of them to hear.
“Hey, pal. Do you have a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
My escort’s face went from pale to crimson so quickly you would’ve thought I bitch-slapped him, which I had every intention of doing at the first decent opportunity.
I heard the gallop of footsteps behind me, followed by a woman’s voice.
“Come,” my escort said, taking my arm. I shook it free and pointed at the Degas.
“Have either of you ever stopped to look at this painting? You’ve probably passed it a thousand times, but have you ever taken a moment to really look at it? The lines, the blending of color, the woeful expression on the ballerina’s face? Critics didn’t like the ballerinas that Degas painted. They said he was vulgar and cruel. But he was neither. It’s just that while everyone else at the time was painting dancers in all their resplendent glory, Degas wanted to capture them offstage, catch them when they were worn down by tedious tryouts and exhausting rehearsals. He wanted to show us the pain they endured, the suffering that went into their art. Perhaps he thought it would help us to appreciate them more.”
“Don’t tell me,” the woman said. “You’re the expert on nineteenth-century art we were told to expect.”
“Merely a gifted amateur.”
“You be sure to give Mr. Muehlenhaus your opinion of French Impressionists. I’m curious to hear his reaction.”
“Let me guess. Muehlenhaus is one of those guys who knows nothing about art but knows what he likes.”
The woman stared at me with smart brown eyes and an expression that suggested I was mad.
“Mister Muehlenhaus knows when he has been kept waiting for thirty minutes. This way.”
She moved toward a pair of glass doors; I could see offices and workers beyond them. I followed. It was only polite. After all, the man had gone to such extremes just to meet me. The woman opened the doors for us and my escort gave me an unnecessary shove through them.
“You’re pushing your luck,” I told him, but I don’t think he believed me.
Immediately, I could detect a soft, pleasant hum—the noise of many people performing complicated tasks with the efficiency of a Maytag. Voices rose and fell as I passed small offices and cubicles and there was an occasional peal of laughter. I wondered what would happen if I suddenly shouted, “Help! I’m being kidnapped!” Would anyone come to my rescue? Would someone tell my escort, “Unhand that man”? I was tempted to give it a try, but the woman turned abruptly, leading us down a narrow corridor.
There was a large double door at the end of the corridor made from wood I didn’t recognize. The woman rapped twice and opened one side. My escort nudged me forward into a large, richly appointed conference room. It looked as if the decorator had been admonished to fill the room with an air of grandeur, which he accomplished with a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with leather-bound books and drawings by Picasso that could have been originals for all I knew. The far wall was entirely glass and provided a panoramic view of downtown Minneapolis with the Mississippi River beyond. In front of the window was a gleaming wood table long enough for a dozen English lords to have sat around while discussing the colonial tea tax two hundred and fifty years ago. A handful of men sat at the table, four at the end farthest from the door, a clear pitcher of water and several long-stemmed glasses arranged on a sterling silver tray in front of them. A much older fifth man was seated alone at the near end of the table, his ancient hands folded on top of a black leather file folder. Like the room, the inhabitants also were richly appointed, each in a suit that cost more than season tickets to the Vikings. Truth be told, I would have been impressed with both the room and the men if not for a persistent odor that for some reason reminded me of the inside of a shoe store.
My escort said, “Here he is,” and shoved me again.
“Thank you, Norman,” the older man said.
Enough is enough, I decided.
I pivoted swiftly on my left foot and drove my right fist just as hard as I could into Norman’s solar plexus. The shock and pain doubled him over. I stepped behind him, yanked down the top of his trench coat, pinning his arms against his body, reached into his pocket and pulled out the .38. I shoved him toward the table. He lost his balance, fell against the table, hitting his face on the gleaming top, and slid to the floor.
I pointed the .38 more or less at the table. The four men at the far end were on their feet now and looking helpless. The fifth man never stirred from his chair. He looked at me with an expression of quiet curiosity.
Norman managed to free himself from his trench coat and struggled to his feet. He didn’t want to take me on, but he would have if he were told to. The old man shook his head, and my escort made his way to a chair against the far wall and sat down. He fingered his nose, apparently relieved that it wasn’t broken.
I held up the gun for everyone to see. The four men at the end of the table were obviously frightened. I liked that. I broke open the wheel gun and dumped the five cartridges on the carpet one at a time, making a production of it, then flicked the gun shut and tossed it on the table. I arranged myself in a nonthreatening posture in a chair opposite the old man, right elbow resting on the arm, my chin cupped in my palm, adopting an expression that I hoped said, “Bored.”
“Mister Muehlenhaus, I presume.”
Muehlenhaus was elderly-looking but fit—or at least as fit as someone on the far side of eighty years could be. His face was the color of old paper and framed by wisps of silver hair. He had the strong eyes of a man who knew what he wanted and usually got it, yet when he smiled—which he was doing now—he became the kindly uncle who always had toys and candy hidden in his pockets for the kids.
He said, “Was that necessary?”
“Given the nature of our relationship, I thought it was prudent to make a statement early.”
The other four were sitting again, but they didn’t seem comfortable. Three of them were in their sixties and looked like the only exercise they ever engaged in was walking to their limousines. The fourth was younger—I guessed late forties.
One of the older men was wearing a politician’s uniform—dark blue suit, white shirt, and solid red tie. He said, “What statement?”
The old man answered for me.
“He’s not afraid of us.”
“He should be,” the politician said.
I grabbed the .38 and skipped it hard across the table. It bounced twice before smashing into the pitcher and two of the glasses. Water and glass shards spilled over the tray, table, and the four men. They jumped to their feet and brushed at the debris like it was acid.
“I’m sorry,” I told Muehlenhaus. “Was that crystal?”
“Your behavior is inappropriate, Mr. McKenzie.”
“Someone might say that your behavior is even more—what’s the word—indecorous? I’m not suggesting for a moment that you gentlemen are above kidnapping and assault, but to do it so openly? To bring it into your office? In front of witnesses? Someone with experience in these matters might think you were putting him to some sort of test. Or playing a practical joke, although none of you look like you have much of a sense of humor. So, which is it? Why did you bring me here?”
Muehlenhaus carefully opened the leather folder in front of him. He looked down on the white sheets of typed paper therein as he slipped a silver fountain pen from his pocket and prepared it to write.
I couldn’t recall the last time I had seen one. When I was a kid at St. Mark’s Elementary School the nuns made us use fountain pens thinking it would help us learn to write with a graceful hand, except I kept breaking off the nibs.
Muehlenhaus said, “You were a member of the St. Paul Police Department, respected, decorated, poised for promotion, until you killed a perpetrator—”
“Suspect,” I corrected him. “They only say perpetrator on television.”
“Suspect, thank you. You killed an armed suspect in a convenience store robbery. There was some trouble concerning the use of unnecessary force—you killed him with a shotgun. You have, in fact, killed several men . . .”
“None of this is answering my question, Muehlenhaus. Why am I here?”
A lightning hit of anger flared in his eyes, but passed quickly. I don’t know if he disliked being interrupted or if he expected to hear a “mister” in front of his name, probably both. He continued reciting the details of my life.
“You quit the police force in order to collect a reward for recovering money stolen by a rather industrious embezzler named Thomas Teachwell. I knew Thomas. I remain astonished by his audacity. The finder’s fee amounted to several million dollars, which you have since doubled due to some rather insightful investments. Very impressive.”
I tilted my head at the compliment, even though it was misplaced. For practical purposes, I was financially illiterate. All my so-called insightful investments had been made by a twenty-seven-year-old former homecoming queen living in a houseboat on the St. Croix who played the market the way some people played Texas Hold ’Em.
“You are known for doing favors for friends,” Muehlenhaus continued. “We are aware of your dealings with the so-called Entrepreneur’s Club, for example, and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation last spring.”
“Do you have a point, Mr. Muehlenhaus?” I don’t know why I used the “mister.” Maybe it was because, bravado aside, he was starting to frighten me.
Muehlenhaus carefully screwed his fountain pen back together and returned it to his pocket. He hadn’t written a word. He closed the leather folder and folded his hands on top of it. It was a clever ploy, making me wait, playing off my insecurities. I was beginning to think he was clever in other ways, too.
“You are currently performing a favor for the first lady,” he said.
It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer.
“You met with her this afternoon.”
I had no reason to deny it.
“You are friends.” Muehlenhaus made the word sound like an accusation.
I stood slowly, trying to maintain the same bored expression. Norman did the same. Despite the bloodstained handkerchief he held to his nose, he looked like he was perfectly willing to go another round. I gestured toward the Picassos on the wall.
“Gentlemen, do I need to break more stuff?”
“Mr. McKenzie, please.” The youngest of the four men at the end of the table moved toward me. “Please.” He gestured toward my chair. I took a seat.
“First, allow me to apologize for the clumsy manner in which we brought you here today,” he said, but there was neither remorse nor regret in his voice. “We were all quite anxious to speak with you and to judge for ourselves your capabilities.”
“Indeed,” Muehlenhaus said.
“I’m Troy Donovan. Allow me to introduce my colleagues.”
While Donovan recited the names, I attached numbers gleaned from the St. Paul Pioneer Press business section—something I never read until I became filthy, stinking rich. Through his banks and investment groups, Muehlenhaus held paper on a large chunk of the metropolitan area. If the Twin Cities were a corporation, he’d be the senior partner. Prescott Coole ruled an empire of over two hundred convenience stores and gas stations throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. Glen Gunhus made a quarter from every railroad car that rolled into and out of the state of Minnesota. Carroll Mahoney, probably considered middle class by his colleagues, was founder and first president of the 22,000-member Federation of Minnesota State County and Municipal Employees and therefore a valuable friend regardless of income. I had never heard of Donovan, yet somehow I didn’t believe he had gained access to this exclusive circle by selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Collectively, they and their friends were known as the Brotherhood by us peons, and they moved and shook the Twin Cities into whatever shape that suited them.
Each of the men nodded when he was introduced to me, but none smiled and none of them made an attempt to shake my hand. Except for Troy Donovan. He rounded the conference table, took my hand, and gave it a firm squeeze. He smiled. True, it was a smile devoid of humor or goodwill and the tone of his voice was politely demanding, like he was speaking to a trespasser, but at least he made an effort.
“I’ll be blunt, if I may.” Donovan glanced at Muehlenhaus. The old man nodded and Donovan said, “We have been informed that the first lady has been made quite upset over something the past few days and we wish to learn what it is.”
I felt the icy grip of panic on my shoulder. The answer Donovan sought was folded twice and resting inside my jacket pocket.
Copyright © 2006 by David Housewright