North Carolina’s hills are a crazy quilt of old farmsteads and new beginnings, of locals, strangers, artists, and new age wanderers….Here Elizabeth Goodweather has made her life, a still-young widow who moves easily between the gentrified world of Asheville and old-timers in their hollows. But when a flamboyant performance artist is murdered, and Elizabeth learns the amazing history of a magnificent piece of folk art, she gets caught between her two worlds–and in the middle of an agonizing mystery.
A young woman, taking her artwork to the breaking point, has brought a history of unexplained deaths and dangerous liaisons into Elizabeth’s life. Courted by an ex-cop, trying to protect her love-struck nephew, Elizabeth knows that danger has entered her peaceful world. But she can’t guess how deadly the threat is–nor how masterfully a killer can hide....
Release date: June 27, 2006
Print pages: 448
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Don't Know Much about Art, But . . .
(Saturday, August 27)
From her vantage point at the top of the steps leading into the gallery, Elizabeth Goodweather regarded the pile of burnt matchsticks with an expression that wavered between hilarity and disbelief. The heap of pale wooden slivers, some charred just slightly at one end, others little more than a fragile curl of carbon, sat in the exact middle of the room on a low pedestal covered with a sheet of thick red vinyl. The assemblage was about four feet in diameter and its peak was knee high. And growing.
The stark bone-white walls of the gallery had been covered with a fine grid of narrow scarlet-lacquered shelves bearing red and blue boxes of kitchen matches in uniform rows. As Elizabeth watched, one after another of the dinner-jacketed and evening-gowned throng of art patrons took boxes from the wall and began striking matches, extinguishing them, and adding them to the charred accumulation that was the focus of the evening's event.
Seemingly all of Asheville "society" had turned out to mark the late August opening of the Gordon Annex: a long-awaited and costly addition to the Asheville Museum of Art. It was the munificent gift of a single benefactor--Lily Gordon. This elegant little woman--"somewhere in her nineties," whispered a woman to Elizabeth's left--had cut the crimson ribbon that stretched across the entrance to the annex and had spoken a few brief words in a voice that, though slightly cracked with age, was clear and carrying. Her spare frame was upright, conceding not an inch to age. Now she sat in a comfortable chair with the museum's director crouched by her side and the chairman of the board leaning down to catch her words.
The old woman wore a simple but beautifully cut evening dress of black satin accented with white--"vintage Chanel," Elizabeth's neighbor had informed a friend--and her arthritic fingers were covered with rings that glittered as she reached up to accept a glass of champagne from the chairman of the board. Behind her chair stood a tough-looking, gray-haired man in a dark blue suit. His craggy face was expressionless and his eyes scanned the throng without stopping. More a like a secret service agent than an art lover, Elizabeth decided.
Fascinated, she studied the little group, wondering what this very old woman made of the scene unfolding before her apparently amused gaze. "She's always been the museum's greatest patron," someone behind Elizabeth murmured, "absolutely millions of dollars. Her house is literally crammed with art--Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock--just to name a few. She and her husband began collecting just after World War II. Of course . . ."
The voice moved away and Elizabeth smiled, wondering if she looked as out of place as she felt in this rarified crowd.
"You are coming in for the opening of the Gordon Annex at the museum, aren't you?" Her younger daughter Laurel, on a visit out to the farm a few days earlier, had fixed her with a demanding eye. "It's this coming Saturday."
"Ah," Elizabeth had hedged, "Saturday . . . Well, I. . ."
"Mum, this is a really important show! And you know the artists--Kyra and Boz and Aidan. They're just across the hard road which makes them neighbors. So the least you can do . . ."
As an aspiring artist herself, Laurel was very much a part of the burgeoning art scene in Asheville and had done her best to develop Elizabeth's appreciation for the latest trends. Last year Laurel's passion had been outsider art; this year, performance art was evidently the next new thing. Although she supported herself with a job tending bar at an upscale restaurant, Laurel devoted most of her free time to constructing vast mixed-media "pieces," as Elizabeth had learned to call them. Recently, however, Laurel had begun to speak wistfully about the "ephemeral beauty" of performance art and of the "spiritual purity" of a carefully choreographed presentation that would never be repeated.
Laurel had been relentless. "It's going to be something really special--the people attending the show will participate in the creation--" She had broken off, seeing Elizabeth's face, which unmistakably said, Oh, great. "--if they choose to, I mean. And then Kyra and Boz and Aidan will be taking pictures during the piece and next month there'll be a show at the QuerY to display the photographs. And--" she continued, with the air of someone producing a trump card, "there's going to be a really awesome twist to the whole thing that I can't tell you about now but it's going to generate some incredible publicity for those guys."
Elizabeth had, without enthusiasm, agreed to meet Laurel at the Saturday night opening. Kyra and Boz and Aidan were neighbors and one did for neighbors whenever possible. Even if it means going to some ridiculous performance and dressing up for it--evening clothes, my god! Elizabeth had fumed, rummaging in her closet for something to wear. At last she found a long black skirt of heavy polished cotton that she had worn to some forgotten event, and a white silk shirt still in its gift box, a Christmas present from her sister two--or was it three?--years past. A narrow jewel-toned scarf, discovered crammed in the back of a drawer of socks and underwear, would work as a cummerbund. Suddenly her mood had improved. They're just kids, after all. To have a show at the Museum of Art is a big deal for Kyra and Boz and Aidan.
KyraandBozandAidan: one tended to think of them that way. Indeed, when they had first moved to the little house across the road from her farm, Elizabeth had assumed they were a menage à trois. Laurel, however, had explained, with the careful patience of one speaking to the elderly and unhip, that while at first Kyra and Aidan had been partners, when Boz had come on the scene they had briefly experimented with a three-way relationship. Eventually Kyra and Boz had excluded Aidan from the king-size futon that dominated the larger of the two bedrooms. However, no matter who slept with whom, the three still functioned artistically and domestically as a single entity and seemed to live in relative harmony.
When Dessie, her old neighbor across the road died, Elizabeth had been saddened to see the once neatly kept yard growing up in weeds. It had been welcome news when one of the daughters called to say that the house was rented. "They said they was friends of Laurel and they seemed real nice, though they are awful hippies. They want to fix up the ol' barn fer a place to do their paintin' and such."
And the three young people had settled into the rural mountain community with uncommon ease. Boz and Aidan had been quick to offer help with simple carpentry and plumbing repairs for some of their older neighbors and were said to be "right good hands to work," while Kyra--whose nose ring and tattoos were the source of much head-shaking and tongue-clicking among the local women--Kyra had won hearts by joining in, friendly and competent, at a quilting bee held at the volunteer fire department.
Elizabeth had taken her new neighbors a round loaf of homemade bread and a basket of fresh herbs when they first moved in. But chores of the farm had kept her busy, and beyond a quick chat the few times she met one or another of the trio at the mailboxes, Elizabeth had seen little of the three in the six months since they'd arrived.
There had been the occasional encounter in Ransom, the nearby county seat, a somnolent country town that had only recently attained its second stoplight. She'd seen her neighbors most recently in the hardware store where she was purchasing hinges to repair a sagging door. All three were clustered around a metal bin, evidently assessing the artistic potential of a mass of nails. Boz, at six five and in his customary red cowboy boots, towered over the other two. His frizzy brown mop of hair, wide, crooked nose, and acne-pitted face were unattractive, at best, but his deep voice and booming laugh seemed to mark him as the trio's obvious leader.
Aidan was as handsome as Boz was ugly. Really . . . beautiful, rather than handsome, Elizabeth had thought at the time. Slender, but well muscled, Aidan stood not quite six feet tall with smooth tanned skin and long pale blond hair that he usually wore in a sleek ponytail. Only his lower left arm and hand marred the perfection, carrying as they did the discolored marks of some long-ago injury and three permanently crooked fingers.
Kyra was tiny, barely reaching Aidan's shoulder. With her spiky hair dyed a jet black, nose ring, and multiple tattoos, she was an incongruous sight amid the hardware and farm implements--yet in spite of all these distracting affectations, Elizabeth had suddenly realized that Kyra was a very pretty young woman.
Shaking herself out of her reveries, Elizabeth tried to pay attention to the scene unfolding around her. Strike on Box had been billed as participatory performance art and had been accorded the honor of being the inaugural "piece" to be presented in the museum's new wing. Kyra and Boz and Aidan, billed simply as The 3--the name they signed to all their joint artworks--were moving around the gallery, each armed with a digital camera. Kyra was flitting about the room, chatting easily with onlookers and encouraging their participation. Aidan's camera was focused on the growing pile of burnt matches, and as Elizabeth watched, Boz, snapping shot after shot, approached the chair where the old woman was seated. He thrust the lens close to her unsmiling face and said something. An expression of distaste pulled down the old woman's thin lips, but she did not reply. Instead she raised one hand slightly.
Instantly the blue-suited man came forward and motioned Boz to move away. Boz stared down in disbelief at the smaller man, then laughed. The smaller man took a step forward and spoke briefly. After a moment's hesitation Boz shrugged his shoulders and moved on. The other man watched him go and then turned to the old woman, whose displeased look had not wavered. She raised a finger and the man bent his head close to her mouth. She spoke a few words, then resumed her aloof study of the evening's entertainment.
Elizabeth looked on, bemused, as the flamboyant Boz moved through the crowd, seemingly unfazed by the recent rebuff. He moved to one wall where a voluptuous blonde--trophy wife, Elizabeth decided--was stretching to retrieve a box of matches from the topmost grid. Boz crept up behind her, aimed the camera at her stiletto heels, and slowly, lasciviously, shot the length of her tightly gowned body, lingering on the rounded buttocks, then, as she turned, zooming in on her abundant cleavage. Her squeal expressed surprised delight, and a tanned, silver-haired man who had been wordlessly watching burst into a raucous guffaw. "He's immortalized that expensive ass of yours, babe. I always did say you were a work of art."
Across the gallery a little knot of attendees burst into laughter. From their midst emerged a trim middle-aged man in beautifully tailored evening clothes. His head was completely bald and shone as if waxed. Diamond studs sparkled in his earlobes, and a vest, lavishly embroidered in deep metallic blues and greens, could be glimpsed beneath his dinner jacket. A man's voice somewhere to Elizabeth's right said in a low tone to an unseen companion, "He's here to protect his little investment. I warned him that he was taking a chance with a loose cannon like Boz, but oh no, the big gallery owner knows best. He swears that the photographs from this performance will fly out the door, once he mounts the show at the QuerY."
"I'd heard that he likes them rough," sniffed the other man. "I, personally, don't care for the acne-pitted look. Now, the other one . . . that blond boy . . . quite delicious. Just like that gorgeous elf in the Lord of the Rings films."
The owner of Asheville's newest gallery had succeeded in gaining Boz's attention and was trailing after him, speaking urgently as the young artist continued his circuit of the room, seemingly intent on capturing images of all the attendees. After a few minutes, Boz turned the camera on the bald man, aiming first at his shining head, then, as he had done with the shapely trophy wife, slowly panning the gallery owner's body, pausing at his crotch, then crouching down to angle for a rear shot.
The bald man whirled, his face flaming, and melted back into the crowd. Pleased snickers erupted from the pair at Elizabeth's right, and they, too, moved away, trading delighted speculations as to whether or not those particular photographs would show up at the QuerY.
Elizabeth looked around the crowded room for Laurel, who seemed to have disappeared. Standing on tiptoe, she tried to catch a glimpse of her daughter's fiery mop of dreadlocks amid the careful coiffures of the society matrons who were giggling like teenagers as they struck match after match.
But Laurel was nowhere in sight. Elizabeth began edging toward the door that led to the smaller gallery where photographs of rural Appalachia were on display. She had seen them before, but . . . All this silly carrying-on, she thought, I need to look at something real.
She wove her way between the chattering art patrons, feeling safely invisible in her anonymous black skirt and white shirt. Maybe not exactly invisible, she thought, as a pair of men thrust empty glasses in her direction while continuing to squabble amicably about the stock market.
At the door to the smaller gallery, Elizabeth stopped and scanned the crowd once more for sight of her daughter. No sign of Laurel, nor, she suddenly realized, of The 3. She hesitated, wondering if a new phase of the performance was about to begin. But the smell and smoke of hundreds of matches were beginning to be annoying. Deciding that she would risk missing whatever was next, Elizabeth shouldered her way between two brittle-faced women who were regaling each other in piercing tones with horror stories concerning the outrageous demands of their respective au pairs.
The smaller gallery was blessedly quiet and almost empty. A few patrons studied the large black-and-white photographs whose subjects were so like many of Elizabeth's neighbors. Straight ahead of her was a picture of a sturdy white-haired woman in a housedress leaning down to milk a cow. That looks familiar. Elizabeth smiled, remembering her recently deceased neighbor. She moved slowly around the gallery, working her way to her favorite picture--a shaggy workhorse being led down through a snowy barnyard toward a rude gate--when she heard voices.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...