Death, Taxes, and Cheap Sunglasses by Diane Kelly is the 8th cozy mystery in the IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway series where this time her boyfriend is going deep undercover to catch a drug cartel (available March 3, 2015).
IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway can calculate tax penalties to the penny. But seeing the world of white-collar crime through rose-colored glasses? Priceless.
Tara's career comes with a lot of pros and cons—which is a nice way of saying that she's kick-a$$ in her fight against professional con-artists. And she's tough enough to deal with all the money-launderers, tax-evaders, and other such criminals who cross her path…Until her own boyfriend, Nick, joins their leagues. Now all bets are off.
Nick is about to go deep undercover—and the stakes are higher than Tara could have ever imagined. It's all part of a joint task force with the DEA to bring down a powerful, violent drug cartel. It's going to take more than a pair of dime store shades for Tara to bring their dark deeds to light. Can she help Nick without blowing his cover…and ending up in harm's way herself?
Nick’s New Assignment
I slid my gun into my purse, grabbed my briefcase, and headed out to my car. Yep, tax season was in full swing once again, honest people scrambling to round up their records and receipts, hoping for a refund or at least to break even. As a taxpayer myself, I felt for them. But as far as tax cheats were concerned, I had no sympathy. The most recent annual report indicated that American individuals and corporations had underpaid their taxes by $450 billion. Not exactly chump change. That’s where I came in.
You’ve probably heard of my earlier exploits, but just in case you haven’t, let me introduce myself. I’m IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway. My hair is chestnut brown, my eyes are grayish blue, and I comport myself with the style, manners, and grace expected of all graduates of Miss Cecily’s Charm School—except when I don’t. I might stand just five foot two, but I stand my ground. When men say I’ve got a nice rack, they’re not lying. My gun rack holds five rifles. My bra, on the other hand, holds a couple of 32As.
After earning my accounting degree from the University of Texas—hook ’em, Horns!—I spent four years preparing tax returns at a CPA firm here in Dallas. I learned a lot about taxation, business, and business people, which was great. But I sat at a desk for eight to twelve butt-numbing hours a day, which was not great. When my butt refused to stay in that chair a second longer, I applied for a job with IRS Criminal Investigations.
The agency accepted me as a candidate for the program, then did its best to kick my ass in training. Fortunately, I’d learned how to study hard at UT, developed a good work ethic at the accounting firm, and been taught by my father how to shoot an empty can of root beer off a fence post at a hundred yards. I aced both my written exams and my physical and weapons tests, so now here I was, fighting for truth and justice on behalf of honest taxpayers like you.
And can I get a raise, please?
* * *
It was a gorgeous spring morning in late March as I drove through downtown Dallas with the top down on my red convertible BMW. Despite being mere knockoffs of the more expensive Brighton brand, my tortoiseshell sunglasses blocked the early sun’s rays with reasonable effectiveness. My stereo speakers blared Miranda Lambert’s feminist revenge anthem, “Gunpowder & Lead.” Yep, Miranda got it right. Those two things were what little girls were made of, at least where I was concerned. Nobody had ever accused me of being made of sugar and spice. Not unless that spice was cayenne pepper.
As I turned into the parking lot of the IRS building, my eyes noted a sporty Volvo C70 in the rear of the lot. Given the rolled-up purple yoga mat standing in the backseat, the pink hoodie hanging from the driver’s headrest, and the “Above the Influence” bumper sticker gracing the back bumper, I knew the car belonged to DEA Agent Christina Marquez. She and I had worked several cases together in the past and become fast friends. You pair two badass female federal agents together and sic them on a drug-dealing ice cream man and they’re bound to bond.
I pulled into the spot next to Christina’s car, punched the button to raise the top on mine, and removed my sunglasses, sliding them into the breast pocket of my blazer. Before climbing out I performed one last visual check in my vanity mirror, fished my tube of Plum Perfect gloss out of my purse, and applied a fresh coat. Probably not necessary since I’d been dating my coworker, Senior Special Agent Nick Pratt, for months now and he’d seen me many times without any makeup on. Still, it never hurt to put some effort into it, right? Our relationship was solid, but we had yet to officially seal the deal with rings and a license. Of course we’d only been dating a few months and it was too soon to think about marriage. It wasn’t too soon to think about thinking about it, though. I was already in my late twenties and Nick had hit thirty. We weren’t exactly kids anymore. That fact didn’t prevent us from acting like children on occasion, though.
I rode up in the elevator, sipping my skinny latte as I thumbed through e-mails on my cell phone. Mom had sent me a recipe for pecan-encrusted fried okra. As if I ever cook. Give up on it, Mom! My favorite clerk at Neiman Marcus had e-mailed to let me know the petite department had a new line of suits in stock. I’d stop by on my lunch hour to take a look. My best friend and roommate, Alicia, who worked at the same downtown accounting firm I’d escaped from nearly a year ago, had sent me a message from her office at 6:08 this morning that simply read Ughhhhhh … Poor girl. Looked like tax season was getting her down. I’d have to make up a pitcher of peach sangria later and have it waiting for her when she got home.
As I stepped off the elevator, my eye caught a flash of lima-bean green over which towered a pinkish-orange beehive. My boss, Lu “the Lobo” Lobozinski, was heading down the hall that led to my office. Christina, dressed in black slacks and a gray blouse, walked beside her. The two slowed in the hallway as they approached my office, but rather than turning right into my digs they turned left into Nick’s office, which sat across the hall from mine. After they slipped inside, Christina pulled the door closed behind them.
What was Christina doing meeting with Lu and Nick? Did the DEA have another case that called for an agent with financial skills? If so, why hadn’t she recommended me for the gig? Christina and I always had fun working together. Performing stakeouts, plotting tactics and strategies, taking down criminals. Heck, I think some of the criminals got off on being manhandled by a couple of young women.
It was totally nosy and unprofessional of me to stop in front of Nick’s door and put my left ear to the frame to listen. But, yeah, sometimes I’m nosy and unprofessional.
Lu’s voice was the first I heard. “Got a new drug case for you, Nick.”
“Oh, yeah?” Nick replied.
Drug cases were standard fare at IRS Criminal Investigations. Drug dealers rarely reported their earnings and paid their taxes to Uncle Sam. The few that did usually laundered the money in an attempt to make it appear as if the funds were legit.
Christina spoke next. “We’ve been working with Mexican drug authorities for years trying to bring down an extensive drug network. We recently got a break that could help us nail these guys.”
Nick spoke now. “A break? What kind of break?”
“A guy on the inside who wants out,” Christina replied. “An informant. Alejandro was forced into the family business, so to speak. He never wanted to be involved.”
And apparently he was now willing to spill the frijoles to help law enforcement. Bueno.
Despite my best efforts to eavesdrop, my ears couldn’t quite make out what she said next. Was she asking Nick to help track a money trail? To review financial records to prove money laundering? While Nick had the financial skills to perform a financial analysis, any agent in the office was equipped to handle that type of work. So, why Nick? What did he have to offer that the rest of us didn’t? Only one way to find out. I pressed my left ear closer to the frame and stuck a finger in my right to block out the soft whir-whir-whir of the copier down the hall.
“I’m going to pose as Alejandro’s girlfriend,” Christina continued. “We’ll bring you in as a friend who can help move the money.”
“So we’ll be going undercover?” Nick asked.
“Deep undercover,” she replied.
“Meaning what, exactly?”
I had the same question myself.
“No contact with the outside world until the case is resolved.”
The outside world? Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute here. Would I be considered part of that “outside world”? Or, as a fellow member of law enforcement, would I be exempt from the no-contact rule?
Nick hesitated for a moment before responding. “How long do you expect the investigation to take?”
“Weeks,” Christina said, “maybe months. But we’ve got to put some people on the inside if we’re ever going to break up the ring. This could be our chance to finally nail El Cuchillo.”
“El Cuchillo?” Nick repeated. “The Knife?”
That doesn’t sound good at all.
I swallowed hard and kept listening.
“He’s a key member of the network,” Christina said, “one of its most trusted drug runners and a suspect in dozens of kidnappings and murders in Mexico. His weapon of choice is a butcher knife. Evidently, he thinks using a gun to kill someone is too impersonal. If we can get him, we could take down an arm of the Sinaloa cartel.”
My hand, still clutching my cell phone, flew involuntarily to my chest. A soft crunch told me the sunglasses in my breast pocket were DOA. Nick, too, could end up DOA if he worked on this case.
From previous conversations with Christina, I knew the DEA had been after the Sinaloa cartel for years. Known previously as La Alianza de Sangre, or Blood Alliance, the cartel worked with other drug-trafficking organizations in a loose federation that extended upward all the way from Argentina to the northernmost parts of the United States. Not only did the cartel supply drugs to distributors in Latin and North America, it also supplied parts of Asia and Europe.
Though the cartel often bought its way into power via bribes and threats, its members were not above kidnapping, torture, and murder to achieve their aims. In recent years, the cartel clashed violently with the Juárez cartel in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city just across the border from El Paso, Texas. The battle for power left thousands of innocent residents dead, along with untold numbers of rival cartels members. The cartel had kidnapped numerous people and held them for ransom, including at least one high school student. The cartel had also kidnapped reporters in Mexico in an attempt to force them to spread criminal communications, and gone so far as to invade a wedding being held by purported members of another drug ring. They’d kidnapped the groom, his brother, and uncle, and left their tortured, lifeless bodies in the back of a pickup truck that was found days later. A fourth person was killed at the wedding. Men with ties to the cartel were responsible for the execution-style murders of seventeen people at a drug rehabilitation center in Mexico. When one of their own lost hundreds of pounds of marijuana in a drug seizure by law enforcement, the cartel beat the man to death and severed his hands above the wrists, placing them on his chest and dumping his body on a Juárez street as a reminder to others within the cartel to carefully tend to their business.
Things had become so bad the U.S. State Department had issued travel warnings for people considering visits to Mexico. Texans who had previously flocked to Mexican border towns and beaches for vacation were now thinking twice before heading south.
Of course the violence didn’t stop at the border. Not only did it spill over into Texas border towns like El Paso and Laredo, but it headed farther north as well. The cartel had hired thugs from MS-13, a gang founded by former members of the El Salvador military who fled to Los Angeles in the 1980s following the civil war in their country. In St. Paul, Minnesota, the gang members kidnapped and tortured two teenagers whom they’d suspected—wrongfully—of stealing drugs and money from the cartel.
Forbes magazine had estimated the fortune of the cartel’s leader, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, or “Shorty,” at $1 billion, making him the wealthiest drug lord of all time. He’d escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 and later evaded apprehension at his home in Culiacán by escaping into a secret tunnel system through a hidden hatch under a bathtub. Finally, in early 2014, he was captured by Mexican marines in a predawn raid in Mazatlán.
The arrest of El Chapo had left a power void within the cartel. As those who remained vied for control, the violence had escalated even further. The instability posed not only further threats to security in Mexico, but also provided a unique opportunity for law enforcement to go after the cartel while it was vulnerable.
My stomach flooded with acid and my mind went fuzzy from fear. When it cleared, I knew one thing for certain. The only way Nick would be going undercover inside a violent drug cartel would be over my dead body.
I grabbed the handle and threw the door open. It banged against the wall with a resounding BAM that rattled the window behind Nick’s desk.
Nick, dressed in his customary white business shirt, navy Dockers, and cowboy boots, stood from his desk, his tall, broad-shouldered form blocking some of the light streaming in the window. He cocked a dark brow in question.
“No!” I shrieked. I turned rage-filled eyes on Christina and Lu before returning my focus to Nick. “You are not going to work on this case. You’ll get killed!”
Lu leaped from her seat and closed the door behind me. “Tara! Keep your voice down!”
“No!” I cried again, shaking my head so violently it’s a wonder my brains didn’t rattle. “No. NO. NO!”
Nick sent me a pointed look, his amber-colored eyes on fire. “Get a grip, Tara.”
Oh, I’d like to get a grip all right. I’d like to grip him by the ears and shake some sense into him!
“Were you listening in the hall?” Lu demanded.
“Yes,” I spat, “and if you’re expecting an apology you’re sorely mistaken.”
“Well, now.” Lu pursed her lips. “If you’re expecting me not to note this unprofessional outburst in your performance report, you, too, are mistaken.”
My boss had probably hoped her threat would bring me to my senses, but frankly it only added fuel to the fire, making me more upset.
“This is a big case, Tara,” Nick said, a defensive tone in his voice. “This type of opportunity doesn’t come along every day.”
“Opportunity?” I was flabbergasted. “This isn’t an opportunity. This is a suicide mission!”
Nick crossed his muscular arms over his muscular chest. “Call it what you want but I’ve been waiting my entire career for a case like this.”
Looked like I’d get nowhere with him. After all, he could be just as stubborn as me. Fueled by terror and rage, I turned to, and on, Christina. “You’ve told me how dangerous the Sinaloa cartel is. How could you drag Nick into this?”
She knew how I felt about Nick. I loved the guy, dammit! What kind of friend was she to involve him in this case?
Christina gave me a look that was both pointed and apologetic. “You know why, Tara.” She gestured at Nick. “He’s got the perfect set of skills for this case.”
I could understand why the DEA would want Nick on the case. He’d lived in Mexico for three years and was virtually fluent in the language. Of course the time he’d spent there was in forced exile after his cover had been blown in an earlier undercover investigation. Nevertheless, he knew more about the language and culture than any other special agent in the Dallas office.
Nick was also especially equipped to handle cases calling for physical intimidation and defensive skills. Not only had he been a linebacker on his high school football team, he’d been raised on a farm and engaged in physical labor that had further developed his muscles and stamina. Thanks to time at the shooting range with me, his aim had improved vastly. He’d never match my sharpshooting skills, of course, but he was nonetheless one of the best shots in the office.
Despite Christina’s undeniable logic, I wasn’t about to surrender. “How can you call yourself my friend?”
Lu intervened. “This is business, Tara. It’s not personal. Besides, putting Nick on the case was my call, not Christina’s.”
I turned on Lu now. It took every bit of my restraint not to rip off her false eyelashes and beat her with them. “There’s gotta be someone else,” I said. “Another special agent who could handle this. What about…”
I racked my brain. There was my usual partner, Eddie Bardin, of course, but he had two young girls and a wife to think about. No way could I suggest him as a replacement for Nick. The new guy, William Dorsey, was smart and capable but he, too, was a family man. Josh Schmidt would also be a poor choice. Though his cybersleuthing skills were top-notch, he was a total wimp when it came to the physical aspects of our job. Hell, he’d probably wet himself if he just heard the name El Cuchillo.
“Me,” I said finally. “Put me on the case instead.”
“Tara,” Nick said in a tone probably meant to be soothing but which instead struck me as patronizing. “Come on.”
“I mean it.” My gunmetal-gray eyes locked on his whiskey-colored ones. “You’re an only child and your mother is already a widow. If something happened to me my parents still have each other and my brothers.” I turned back to Lu. “Please, Lu,” I pleaded. “Please. Assign me instead.”
Lu offered no acquiescence, only a feeble smile rimmed in bright orange lipstick. “Nick’s a big boy, Tara. He can take care of himself.”
“Not always,” I spat. “He was getting the shit beat out of him at Guys and Dolls until I showed up and saved his ass.”
Nick, Christina, and I had worked undercover together on a previous prostitution and drug case at the strip club. Three of the club’s bouncers had attacked Nick and, despite his impressive efforts to fight the trio off, he’d been seriously injured. If I hadn’t shown up and shot each of the bouncers in the foot, who knows if he would have survived the ordeal.
Nick scowled, his eyes aflame now. “Hell, Tara, why don’t you just kick me in the balls? What went down at Guys and Dolls wasn’t a fair fight and you know it.”
I slammed my fists down on his desk and leaned over it to stare him directly in the eye. “And you expect drug lords to fight fair?”
Without taking his eyes off mine, Nick addressed Lu and Christina. “Could you two excuse me and Tara for a moment?”
Lu nodded. “We’ll be in my office.”
With that, she and Christina stood from their seats and headed to the door.
Christina turned in the doorway and looked back at me. “For what it’s worth, Tara. I’m sorry to have to involve anyone in this.”
The sincerity in her words and expression cut right through me, taking my emotions down several notches.
“For what it’s worth,” I replied, my voice quavering. “I hate that you have to be involved in this, too.”
She offered me a feeble smile and left.
Once we were alone, Nick and I stared at each other for a long moment. The flame in his eyes flickered out and cooled. He walked around his desk and enveloped me in his strong arms, wrapping a warm hand around my head to tuck my face against his chest. He gave me a soft kiss on the top of my head. “I’ve got to do this, Tara.”
I let out a long sigh, grabbed fistfuls of his white dress shirt, and turned to bury my face between his rock-hard pecs. “I know.”
Fighting bad guys was our job, after all. We’d willingly signed up for this. Still, the fact that we’d volunteered to put our safety at risk didn’t mean it didn’t suck sometimes. Besides, this separation was coming at a bad time. Nick and I had just gone through a rough patch in our relationship when I became all starry-eyed over a country-western singer I’d been assigned to pursue. We’d only just patched things up, and were still enjoying make-up sex. I’d hoped to parlay the make-up sex into a make-up changing of the air filters in my town house. I tended to neglect the darn things and the dust always made me sneeze when I replaced them. Looked like I’d just have to tough it out.
Nick reached down and put a finger under my chin, lifting my face to his. “I love you, Tara.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. “I know that, too.”
I was glad he loved me, but a fat lot of good that love would do me if he was killed. I clung to him for a moment longer, then finally mustered the courage to extricate myself from his embrace. Time to man up. Or, in my case, woman up.
He chuckled. “You made a mess of my shirt.”
I glanced back to note a smear of Plum Perfect gloss on his chest, along with a smudge of beige foundation. “That’s nothing compared to what a knife could do.”
After the incident in Nick’s office, I went to my office, fished my broken sunglasses out of the breast pocket of my blazer, and tossed them into my trash can.
Plunking myself into my chair, I logged on to my computer and Googled the words “El Cuchillo” and “Sinaloa .” Many of the Web sites that came up were in Spanish, which I could not comprender. Stupid me. I’d taken French in high school. Growing up so close to the Louisiana border, I’d thought it was a bon idea at the time. Besides, several of mes amies had signed up for French, too. We’d planned to one day take a trip together and go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. The closest we’d come was the time we’d climbed the windmill in Junior Huffnagle’s parents’ cow pasture.
The sites that were in English offered gruesome details. Until recently, El Cuchillo often worked with a man known as Motosierra, or “Chain saw.” The two were suspects in dozens of brutal murders in Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States. They had split ways due to disruptions caused by the arrest of El Chapo. Police suspected that each had taken control of an arm of the Sinaloa cartel, thus moving up in the ranks.
There was only one photo of El Cuchillo online and it caused my sphincter to clench so tight I’d need a triple dose of Ex-Lax to compensate. The man’s dark hair was shorn to the scalp in an extreme, military-style cut. His face was a roadmap of scars earned in knife fights. He looked directly into the camera with eyes as hard and cold as a glacier as he licked a victim’s blood from his blade.
“Oh, God,” I whispered. “Oh, dear God!”
I slammed my laptop closed and shut my eyes. I willed my mind to erase the image, but it was seared into my brain as if branded there.
There was only one thing that could take my mind off what I’d just seen.
Cute, cuddly ones.
And lots of them.
I opened my laptop and hurriedly went to YouTube, pulling up video after video of adorable, playful kittens romping in a yard, batting a ball of yarn, licking the camera lens. My sphincter relaxed a little. Maybe a mere double dose of Ex-Lax would do me now.
Once I’d gotten my kitten fix, I did my best to force my attention back to my work. It wasn’t easy.
At two in the afternoon, Eddie came down to my office to round me up. “Ready to go to the art museum?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
I’d spent all morning sick with worry, trying not to cry or throw up or kick my filing cabinet. Okay, so I’d actually kicked my filing cabinet, putting a big dent in the side that I’d then had to try to push back out. But I was damn upset. It was dangerous enough working for a cartel. After all, they killed their own members regularly if they screwed up. But if anyone found out that Nick and Christina were undercover law enforcement they’d be in for some unique and special type of torture. El Cuchillo might decide to try out his entire Ginsu collection on them, starting with a paring knife and finishing up with a meat cleaver.
What would I do if Nick were julienned to death?
Thanks to these lovely thoughts, I’d managed to force down only a single piece of sushi at lunch. The new pantsuit I’d bought at Neiman’s afterward hadn’t helped much, either, though the glittery Michael Kors cap-toe pumps I’d scored for a mere $97 on sale improved my spirits slightly. I vowed to wear them on my first date with Nick when he returned from working the cartel case … if he returned from working the cartel case.
Should’ve bought myself a new purse, too. Maybe some earrings.
I’d looked over the selection of sunglasses, but none had looked as good on me as my Brighton knockoffs. I wasn’t willing to spend a hundred dollars on a pair of shades that didn’t totally knock my socks off.
Eddie eyed me as I grabbed my blazer and briefcase. “You okay?”
Eddie and I had been partners since I began at the IRS a year ago. He’d been the only special agent who’d agreed to train the newbie. We’d come to know a lot about each other over the months we’d worked together. While familiarity might breed contempt in some cases, our familiarity had somehow led to respect and understanding and the occasional good-natured ribbing. Each knew how the other worked, and we could sense each other’s moods.
“Okay?” I let out a long, loud breath. “Not really. Nick’s going deep undercover. He won’t be allowed any contact with anyone until the case is resolved.”
Eddie’s brows lifted. He knew without my saying that a deep cover investigation would be particularly risky. “So he’ll be completely out of touch?”
I nodded. “God only knows for how long.”
“That sucks. When does he leave?”
“Tomorrow. He’s over at the DEA right now being debriefed.” Of course Nick and I had planned our own type of debriefing for later tonight, one last good-bye boink before he disappeared into the underworld like Hades descending into his realm.
“You’ll just have to keep yourself busy,” Eddie suggested. “That’ll keep your mind off things.”
“Busy? No problem there.” I gestured to the towering stack of files on my desk. “Lu’s given me enough work to choke an elephant.”
Ironically enough, one of my cases actually involved an elephant. An auditor who’d been assigned to perform a routine records check on a tax-exempt animal welfare organization had referred the matter to criminal investigations when those operating the place hadn’t been able to produce any documentation. Eddie and I planned to drive out to the sanctuary tomorrow to see if we could get to the bottom of things.
Eddie and I made our way to the elevator, rode down in silence, and headed to his G-ride, our name for the plain sedans assigned to us by Uncle Sam. I understood that we had to use the taxpayer’s money wisely, but did the cars have to be so darn boring? Why couldn’t we have souped-up cars like the Dodge Chargers driven by Dallas PD? After all, I might get into a high-speed chase attempting to catch a tax evader. It could happen.
We climbed inside, snapped our belts into place, and settled into our usual routine in which the driver picks the radio station and the passenger plays navigator. Eddie, who had a penchant for easy-listening music, slid a Harry Connick, Jr., CD into the player while I used the GPS app on my phone to pull up directions to the Unic Art Space. The name was probably intended to be a creative way to spell “unique,” but my mind read it as “eunuch.” I supposed if you were a male who’d been castrated, you wouldn’t be distracted by sexual yearnings and your hands would have plenty of free time to finger paint.
“It’s in Deep Ellum,” I told Eddie, referring to the nearby entertainment district that featured numerous art galleries, restaurants, and nightclubs.
“Gotcha.” He backed out of the spot and headed out of the parking lot, taking a right onto Commerce Street, then easing over onto Main. In less than six minutes we circled back onto Elm and pulled up to the curb in front of the Unic Art Space.
Eddie and I glanced up at the two-story red-brick building. While the commercial art galleries that flanked the museum on both sides featured colorful signs and displays to lure shoppers into their stores, the Unic’s front window bore only inch-high black lettering that read THE UNIC: OPEN MONDAY THRU FRIDAY 1 TO 4.
Sheesh. That schedule made banker’s hours seem demanding.
Eddie’s brow contorted in skepticism. “Doesn’t look like much.”
“Didn’t expect it to,” I replied.
The museum was run by Sharla Fowler, the mother of former NFL player Rodney Fowler. A Heisman nominee, Rodney had played for various teams back in the 80s and early 90s, earning one of the league’s highest salaries, before retiring from the Dallas Cowboys. Rodney, now in his mid-fifties, was divorced with three grown daughters. Two years ago, he’d decided to follow in the footsteps of philanthropic professional athletes Troy Aikman, Tim Tebow, and Serena Williams, and formed a charitable foundation called the Fifty-Yard Line Foundation. The Fifty-Yard Line Foundation funded the Unic Art Space.
Although the organization’s mission statement claimed the foundation existed “to educate the public about the arts by funding a space where creative works will be displayed and contemplated,” I suspected the space truly existed for the purpose of enabling the former football player to shelter his income from high taxes by shifting it to family members and others to whom he or his family had close personal ties. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had established a sham nonprofit organization to evade taxes.
Eddie and I climbed out of the car and stepped inside. The interior was equally unimpressive, comprising primarily empty space with a piece of art hanging here and there on the vast walls or displayed on widely spaced pedestals. A wide staircase with white steps and chrome banisters led up to the second floor. A young woman with shocking red hair and contrasting black brows sat at a glass table in the foyer, a small cash register and credit card swiping machine within reach.
“’Ello,” she said with a French accent. “Welcome to the Unic. You would like to see the exhibits today?”
Eddie began to pull his badge from his pocket, but I stopped him with a nudge of my elbow. Perhaps we’d learn more from this woman if she didn’t yet know we had come to interrogate her boss.
“Yes,” I told the girl. “Two tickets, please.”
She held out a delicate palm. “Sixty dollars, s’il vous plaît.”
Eddie and I exchanged glances. As sparse as the offerings appeared to be, thirty bucks per person seemed a hefty price. Besides, the ticket income would only further pad the pockets of those involved in this sham. On the other hand, there appeared to be no one else here and I knew from my review of the museum’s financial records that it would be operating at a significant loss if not for the constant influx of contributions from the Fifty-Yard Line Foundation.
“Let me get this,” I told Eddie. This was my case, after all. My partner was along only as a sounding board and backup. I performed the same role when I assisted on his cases.
I pulled out my Visa card and handed it to the clerk. She slid it through the machine, and, in a feminine and genteel gesture, used her pinky to depress the print button. She ripped the paper tape from the machine and handed it to me along with a pen. “Your signature?”
After signing the slip, I returned it to the woman, who exchanged it for a couple of brochures. “This guide will tell you about the pieces on exhibit.” She offered a smile and extended the palm once again, this time to indicate the few pieces of art in the room. “If you have any questions, please to let me know. My name is Josette. Enjoy.”
After thanking Josette, Eddie and I walked into the room, our footsteps and voices echoing off the stained concrete floor and brick walls. Instinctively, we both began to tiptoe and whisper. We made our way to the first work of art, an enormous painting that hung on the left wall. Other than the artist’s signature in the lower right corner, the canvas appeared to be blank.
Eddie consulted his brochure. “This piece is called There’s No Such Thing as a Good Cry.”
“It should be called Wasted Canvas.”
Seriously, what was up with this? Wouldn’t an artist want to show off his or her talents by actually doing more than hanging what appeared to be an empty canvas? Then again, I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body. Not a single cell, even. Art to me was a velvet painting of dogs playing poker. Was it possible I just didn’t get it? That I was too unsophisticated?
Eddie held up the pamphlet. “Says here the entire canvas was painted with the artist’s tears.”
“Huh?” I read the entry on my copy. Sure enough, the huge canvas had purportedly been swabbed end to end with tears. The statement provided by the artist, Aly Pelham, said she sought to unify art and spirit by using bodily fluids as a linking medium. I supposed it was creative, but I knew it was bizarre.
The pamphlet went on to describe Aly Pelham as “an emerging avant-garde artist” with “a brave, bold style sure to earn her a spot in the annals of modern art history.” As for me, I was just glad she hadn’t painted with anything that came out of an annal.
My partner took another gander at the exhibit. “What do you think she was crying about?”
“A man,” I said. “Only one of your kind could upset a woman enough that she’d cry the two gallons of tears it would take to fill this canvas.” Hell, as worried as I was about Nick I could probably paint ten of these canvases with the tears I was sure to shed over the next few weeks until he returned home.
Eddie and I shuffled along to the next painting. This one was a tiny canvas approximately the same dimensions as a wallet-sized photo. This canvas bore a small, cockeyed reddish-brown smear along the right edge.
“This is by the same artist,” Eddie said. “It’s called Picking at Scabs.”
“Ew!” I cringed and backed away lest I catch hepatitis.
“What’s next?” Eddie said. “Saliva? Earwax?”
I was almost afraid to find out. If the next piece was called Wigglers, Conception on Canvas, I was out of here. Fortunately the next piece contained neither saliva, earwax, or sperm, though it was nonetheless disturbing. Bad Hair Day was painted by the artist using brushes made from her own hair to apply the acrylic paint in an abstract pattern of tangled brushstrokes. Some of the artist’s hair had stuck in the paint and was clearly visible on the canvas.
Eddie leaned in for a closer look. “Aly Pelham’s a blonde.”
“A bleached blonde,” I said, pointing out a piece of hair with a dark end.
“Nah. That’s just brown paint,” Eddie replied. “Or is it?” He took another step closer to verify.
“This isn’t art,” I whispered. “This is a freak show.”
Wasn’t art supposed to make you think? I mean, at least to think something other than what the hell? The only thought I had about Aly Pelham’s art was that she seemed to be trying awfully hard to shock her audience, to grab attention with odd, disturbing images. Her art didn’t seem to me as much a personal expression as a cry for attention. But perhaps I was being too harsh. After all, who didn’t like a little attention now and then?
We turned and approached the three pedestals. Sitting on the first was a rusty oscillating fan, its cord plugged into the wall behind it. The fan chugged along on low speed, creaking as its jerking movements turned it first left, then right, then left again. The air blew across our chests as we stood watching.
Creeeeak … creeeeeak … creeeeeak.
“This fan could use some WD-40,” I said. “It’s creakier than the Tin Man from Oz.”
I read the entry in the brochure. According to the pamphlet, the artist was someone named Jackson T. Reavis. “This one is called Winds of Change,” I told Eddie. “Apparently the artist uses air as his medium.”
Interesting, perhaps, but shouldn’t it take more than finding a junky old fan at a garage sale and plugging it into a wall to prove your worth as an artist? If not, then I was making art every time I used the ancient harvest-gold hand mixer my grandmother had passed down to me.
As we walked to the next pedestal, Josette scurried up. “Let me turn on this piece for you. It is very loud so we do not leave it running.”
Josette plugged the cord into the wall and turned the dial on the stand to activate the 1950’s-era dome-style hair dryer. As the device forced warm air down toward our shoes, Josette shouted over the noise, telling us about the piece. “This exhibit is The Portal to Hell. Such creativity, no?”
“Such a load of crap,” Eddie muttered next to me.
Josette spun the dial to turn off the machine, putting an end to the warm air and racket. “What do you say, sir? I could not hear over the noise of the art.”
“I … um…” Eddie cleared his throat. “I said ‘such good craft.’”
“Oui.” Josette offered another smile and led us to the next pedestal, where a vintage salmon-pink canister vacuum sat in repose. She retrieved the frayed cord, holding it aloft between her fingers as if it were a fancy cigarette. “The title of this piece is Sometimes Life Sucks. Such a true sentiment, would you not agree?”
Hmm. I never knew how to answer a question posed in that manner. If I said “yes,” would that mean I agreed or disagreed? Instead, I chose to answer with an unambiguous, unequivocal declaration. “Life does indeed suck on occasion. ”Like when your boyfriend has to go on a dangerous undercover mission involving a man known as the Knife.
Josette crouched down to plug in the cord, activating the device. The vacuum emitted a sound like a mechanical burp—BRUPP—and belched a plume of grayish-brown dust into Josette’s face. She shrieked, inadvertently sucking in the dust the vacuum had expelled. As she launched into a coughing fit, I bent down and yanked the plug out of the wall before the thing could burp again and suffocate her completely.
“Excusez-moi!” Josette cried, blinking dust out of her eyes and waving her hands as if performing a jazz dance routine. “I must go clean myself!” With that, she scurried off to a frosted-glass door on the far wall, opened it, and disappeared into the administrative wing of the building.
Having viewed and contemplated the meager offerings on the first floor, Eddie and I ascended the staircase to the second story. This floor, which contained no administrative wing, was wider than the downstairs room had been. The works here were of no less questionable quality, however. We took in Vacation in Venice, a colorfully painted and somewhat abstract macaroni mosaic depicting what appeared to be a boat on a Venetian canal. The gondolier sported the typical black pants and striped shirt formed from linguini, while the girl riding in the boat wore a piece of bowtie pasta on her head. The pasta appeared to be mounted on cheap poster board, though the gilded gold frame around it provided an illusion of grandeur.
“Is this art?” Eddie asked, his tone and expression incredulous. “Or dinner?”
According to my brochure, the masterpiece—or should I say the pastapiece?—had been the brainchild of artist Hunter Gabbert. “The artist really used his noodle to come up with this idea.”
Eddie groaned. “Do you have to be so silly?”
“Don’t you mean fusilli?”
Eddie groaned again. “If I thought I could get away with it, I’d shoot you right now.”
“No you wouldn’t,” I said. “That’s a bunch of bolognese.”
“You’re right,” he said. “Guess I’ll have to shoot myself then.”
Having run out of pasta puns, I moved on. Next was a large sculpture by an artist named Emily Raggio. The sculpture, called Rx: Death, comprised a full-sized coffin completely covered in assorted colorful prescription pills. The same artist had created Shooting Up, a rocket-shaped sculpture made from plastic syringes, a needle on top pointing skyward.
I gestured to the coffin and rocket. “What do you think about those?” Seemed to me it took some creativity and sculpting ability to put the rocket together, and the coffin, no matter how weird, sent a clear message about the pill culture in America and the dangers of overmedicating. “Is that real art?”
Eddie shrugged. “Heck if I know.”
My favorite by far was artist Mallory Sisko’s piece entitled Life’s Compost, in which a wooden composting bin was filled with the detritus of a young woman’s life. A junior high yearbook. A pair of pink ballet slippers with a hole in the toe. An empty tube of acne cream. A letter the artist had received from her boyfriend while she was at summer band camp and in which he broke up with her offering the usual platitudes of it’s not you, it’s me and I can’t love someone else until I learn to love myself. The guy had the nerve to ask Do you know if Nicole Green is still seeing Colt Reynolds? If not, can you tell her hi for me?
Sheesh. What a dumbass.
Copyright © 2015 Diane Kelly.
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Diane Kelly is a former assistant state attorney general and tax advisor, who had many brushes with white-collar criminals during her career. When she realized her experiences made excellent fodder for novels, her fingers hit the keyboard and thus began her Special Agent Tara Holloway romantic mystery series. Diane is also a proud graduate of her hometown's Citizen Police Academy. Diane lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her own romantic hero and a houseful of spoiled rotten cats and dogs.