Josephine Prelligate was almost pretty. Tom realized this when she stood to greet him as he was escorted into her parlor. Without her greasepaint moustache and eyebrows, it was easier to appreciate her bone structure, her clear skin, her long and narrow jaw. She shook Tom’s hand, and the man with the crooked moustache excused himself, Josephine motioning for Tom to have a seat.
“We have a mess to clean up,” Josephine said.
“You’re a smart man, Tom. You know what’s coming.”
“Let me guess,” he said. “Sal’s already trying to get a deal. He wants you to help him, or he goes public about the stolen art.”
She nodded curtly. “We were contacted by his lawyer. He would like to settle his cases out of court.”
“Tall order for a murderer.”
Josephine sighed and stood, moving toward a painting hanging on an otherwise bare wood-paneled wall. “This is a Degas. My mother bought it. She liked that it didn’t stand out. She liked that it faded into the background. Nobody notices a Degas, she told me. They just feel a tiny bit better in its presence.”
“He killed Rebecca Strahm. He killed Conrad Valiss. How many strings can you pull? How much money are the Prelligates willing to sink into buying his silence?”
She touched the painting’s frame, fingers running along the gold leaf inlays. “Valiss isn’t dead.”
She shook her head. “Not doing very well, mind you. A punctured lung, plenty of blood loss, a crack in his skull. But he is alive.”
“So it’s just Rebecca then. And she was never one of yours, was she? She was never on the payroll.”
Josephine reached out and pulled the Degas down from the wall, carrying it closer to Tom. She set it on the table between them, two feet from his nose. “Can you even imagine? Spending this much money for something you plan to ignore? And the house is full of things like this, Tom. Paintings and sculptures, expensive furniture, lavishly renovated rooms, all washed out of meaning, meant to impress new eyes while invisible to old ones.”
Josephine fumbled with something behind the painting, and then Tom startled backward, jarred by the glint of a blade slipping through the back of the canvas. She brought the knife down, slicing a long black ribbon into the painting before stabbing it a second time, and then a third. When she was finished she let go of the knife, which tumbled noisily with the painting to the floor.
“There’s a high cost to staying unnoticed,” Josephine said. “One that I’m finished paying.”
“I don’t understand,” said Tom.
“I think you do,” said Josephine. “We both have difficulty letting things go. For me, it was the notion that by keeping private I was also keeping innocent. I wanted you here so that I could tell you, in person, I will do what I can to see justice through.”
Tom wanted to believe her.
She began walking toward the door, and so Tom followed. In the next room, the man with the crooked moustache sat reading the paper while slicing an apple. He looked surprised to see them.
“Already?” he asked. Josephine nodded. He popped an apple slice into his mouth then crumpled his newspaper around the rest of the fruit and carried it with him as he headed for the garage. Tom let him get a head start, then turned to look at Josephine.
“How can I be sure you meant what you said?”
She shrugged, a sad smile crossing her lips. “Keep an eye on the papers, Tom.”