Story Excerpt

Night Flight to Bali

by Jane K. Cleland

NightFlight_exc1Art by Ally Hodges

Sabrina Ellison sat alone in the front pew of the First Congregational Church, her mother’s church. She wore a black long-sleeved sheath that fell to just below her knees and low heels.

Sabrina tucked her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ears and focused on the altar. She wasn’t sorry Eve was dead, she couldn’t lie about that, not when the truth was she was relieved. With her mother gone, her own life could begin. She glanced over her right shoulder. Sam Rollins was there, leaning against a stone column, watching her. He nodded, one quick up-and-down motion. You’re doing great, the gesture said. Stay strong. It’s almost over. She smiled, letting him know his message was received, and appreciated. Sabrina had nearly sunk under the weight of her mother’s disapproval. Without Sam, she’d be adrift.

Under different circumstances Sam would be by her side, but not now, not with her parents’ old friend, her dad’s drinking buddy, Senator Patrick O’Connell, in the room. The senator, closer to eighty than seventy, was as devout a Catholic as Sam’s wife, Marjorie.

Marjorie refused to consider a divorce and Sam refused to push it, not wanting to risk the scandal. At St. Vincent’s Hospice, where Marjorie worked as a social worker, the nuns who ran the place still wore habits, and divorce was a surefire way to derail your career. At first, when Sam told her about Marjorie’s refusal to even discuss the topic, Sabrina couldn’t believe it, not in this day and age.

Sabrina had found a newsletter article about Marjorie on the St. Vincent’s Hospice’s website. Marjorie was thirty, two years older and much prettier than she was, with creamy skin, delicate features, and big brown eyes. The article spoke about her commitment to her patients and her kindness. Sabrina had loathed her on sight. Sam, a poet and part-time English teacher, depended on Marjorie’s earnings and benefits. He wouldn’t let Sabrina help him, though, which was one way she knew their love was real, no matter what her mother said. Not that Sabrina could help him much, since a barista’s pay wasn’t much above minimum wage. But he loved her for offering to help—he told her so. That was when they made out wills, leaving all their worldly possessions to one another. Sam warned her that it was hard to disinherit a wife, but it didn’t matter, not really, since he had so little to bequeath. It was the gesture of devotion that had sustained Sabrina through many lonely nights. If they could sell the painting for real money, maybe as much as eight or even ten million dollars, Sam could leave Marjorie, and they’d be able to live the dream. Sabrina sighed loudly enough that a woman sitting in the pew behind her, one of Eve’s church friends, heard her and patted her shoulder.

 

Senator O’Connell, who planned to run for a sixth term, and had no chance of losing, approached the podium as if he were entering a campaign event. He moved slowly, turning from side to side, nodding to acknowledge the congregants’ smiles. As he made his way to the front, Sabrina gazed out the window. October was a beautiful time to die, at least in Massachusetts. The red maples that dotted the church grounds glowed with an opalescent sheen in the afternoon sun.

Senator O’Connell’s eulogy was filled with warm and touching references, including one tall tale. He lied about the ginger cookies, the ones Eve had made for Sabrina to take to school the next day, and that he stole. He said Eve made them for him. Ha. Sabrina had to bring graham crackers, which wasn’t as bad as saltines, but was still bad enough, all because the senator, who was only a congressman at the time, took what he wanted, and that was that.

The pastor, a man named Jared Mitchell, had only been in the job a few months, and Sabrina had never met him before. Eve had liked him, though, saying he had an ardent soul. He led the congregation in Eve’s favorite hymn, “Amazing Grace,” and then the service was over. The pastor approached Sabrina, and following his lead, she walked up the center aisle feeling conspicuous. Unless she was on stage, she hated being the center of attention.

“I know this is hard,” he whispered.

“Yes.”

Sabrina stood where he positioned her, a receiving line of one. The only child of only children, there was no one else. Except Sam, who stayed off to the side, waiting and watching.

Eve’s friends lined up. Sabrina smiled and thanked each of them for coming, and for their good wishes. She admired them, she always had. They were like her mother, genuine, generous, and smart. Sabrina felt impatient, though. She wanted to go home. She wanted to be with Sam.

“My child,” Senator O’Connell said, taking her hands in his.

She didn’t like being called a child. The senator leaned down and brushed his lips against her cheek, tickling her with his bushy mustache. She went up on tiptoe and kissed him back, all a ruse to lull him into thinking she cared, that she valued him. It was easy because it wouldn’t ever occur to him that she didn’t.

“Thank you, Senator. Your eulogy was wonderful. So moving. I loved the story about the ginger cookies. I always wondered what became of them.”

The senator’s laugh rumbled through the narthex. “I can still taste that icing.” His laughter stopped abruptly. “You should call me Pat, my dear. It’s time. You’re a grown woman now.”

Sabrina smiled. “I don’t feel like a grown up, Senator.” She looked down, fighting tears. “Especially now.”

“Ah! It’s an awful thing, losing your mother, especially one as special as yours.”

Sabrina sighed. “She was a remarkable woman.”

He squeezed her hands before releasing them. “I have to head back to Washington today, but I have some fund-raising events scheduled next spring. Let’s plan on getting together.”

“I’ll look forward to it, sir.”

The senator spotted Sam standing off to the side. “Ah! I see Sam is here. Say what you will, he’s been a good friend to you, Sabrina.”

She quashed her instinct to tell him off, settling instead for a platitude. “We all do the best we can.”

“One hopes that’s true.” He glanced behind him. “I’m holding up the line. Thank you for inviting me, Sabrina. It was a wonderful service.” He poked a finger at her face. “You need anything, you call.”

“Thank you. Senator, I will.”

Senator O’Connell passed Sam without a glance.

As soon as the senator left, Sam approached Sabrina and whispered, “You’re doing great, babe.” He touched her cheek, then left the church, stopping in a sunny spot next to her car to read something on his phone. She couldn’t take her eyes off him.

“Sabrina, I’m so sorry,” a man said.

She turned back. It was Chester Matthews, a man she’d known for years, a neighbor. Next in line was the florist, Jeanette. Eve had loved fresh flowers. Tulips had been her favorite. Sabrina kept up the act, knowing her place, saying her lines, a professional at work. Fifteen minutes later, it was over. The pastor, who’d been hovering nearby, stepped closer. She glanced over her shoulder. Sam was waiting for her, leaning against the driver’s side door, his eyes closed. Sabrina thanked the pastor, calling him by his first name as her mother had. He said something, maybe that he hoped to see her again, but she wasn’t really listening. She smiled sweetly and walked out.

 

Sam drove. Sabrina sat next to him, staring into the woods that lined the secondary roads in Beverly.

“It’s so hard, Sam. Everyone looking at me, expecting me to faint or weep or something. Jesus.”

“It’s only natural. They’re trying to help.”

“Senator O’Connell asked me to call him Pat.”

“That’s good. Real good. Warm, like family.”

“I don’t know.”

“I do. He doesn’t like me, but he loves you.”

“He thinks you’re an infidel.”

Sam took her hand and placed it on his thigh. “I am.”

 

Sam looked up from his iPad and smiled. “Frisco’s just announced that they’ve scheduled a twentieth-century Expressionists show for early April. It’s a perfect fit.”

“I thought you wanted Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Does Frisco’s have enough clout?”

“The number-three antiques auction house in the world? They’ve got plenty of clout.”

 

Sabrina wrangled a meeting with Dr. Clark Winslow, the Frisco’s art appraiser assigned to curate the Expressionist art auction, only because she showed up with the painting in tow. She sat on a stylish leather-and-chrome bench in the atrium overlooking Boston Garden, waiting, the brown-paper-wrapped canvas at her feet. A young woman with pixie-short blonde hair peered at her through big-framed round glasses. She didn’t smile.

“I’m Dr. Winslow’s assistant, Dawn Murphy. He asked me to confirm that you have a Fernand Léger painting you’re interested in consigning.”

Sabrina stood. “Yes. It’s called ‘Woman in Gold With a Cat.’”

“Are you sure about the title? When the receptionist told us that, Dr. Winslow checked the catalogue raisonné. Léger never painted a picture by that name.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“It’s a list of works by an artist. The only title that’s even close is Léger’s ‘Woman With a Cat,’ which is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

“Maybe I have the name wrong, but that’s what my grandmother always called it. ‘Woman in Gold With a Cat.’” Sabrina reached down and gently tapped the painting. “I have it here.”

“How did you acquire it?”

“My mother died last fall and I’m just now cleaning out the house. This painting has hung in the dining room forever. My grandmother said her father—my great-grandfather—bought it at a Paris gallery in nineteen nineteen.”

“Which gallery?”

“I don’t know.”

“All right. Follow me.”

Dawn led her through the warren of corridors to a large corner office with a view of the swan boats, now in dry dock for the winter. Dr. Winslow was middle-aged and middle-sized. His hair was sandy brown and cut short. He wore a European-cut dark blue suit, blue and red club tie, and a light blue shirt with white collar and cuffs. From the start, his skepticism was evident. Sabrina had him pegged within two minutes—he was an intellectual snob. She’d met a lot of them at Vassar, and she knew that a judicious mixture of flattery and deference invariably lulled them into the comfortable conviction that the listener appreciated their superiority. Sabrina feigned interest by nodding periodically and murmuring, “Interesting,” occasionally, as the wise man explained to the ignorant rube why her painting couldn’t possibly be genuine.

When he finished, Sabrina smiled shyly, meeting Dr. Winslow’s eyes for a moment, then lowering her own to the floor. “I was hoping you’d look at it.”

An hour later, he’d agreed to appraise it and she promised to go through her mother’s house with a fine-tooth comb, looking for the receipt or anything that might prove the veracity of her story.

 

Sabrina and Sam received complimentary passes to the auction. They sat in the back row, on the aisle.

Sabrina felt queasy, and focused on her breathing.

Sam sat with his long legs stretched out in front of him, his ankles crossed, a man at ease.

The first lot included a Kandinsky, oil on card, mounted on canvas, “Studie für Improvisation 5,” dating from 1909. The catalogue described it as a masterwork, a magnificent modern painting, executed in jewel tones. When the gavel dropped, Sam took Sabrina’s hand and held it tightly. The study sold for just over twenty-three million. Next up was a Munch lithograph printed in black, brick red, and blue on tan, fibrous woven paper, one of the “Madonna” series. It sold for more than one million. When “Woman in Gold With a Cat,” was brought out, a hush fell on the packed house. The discovery of the painting had created a totally—to Sam and Sabrina, at least—unexpected and dramatic stir. Senator O’Connell had called the day the Boston Globe published a lifestyle story called, “What’s in Your Attic?” featuring Sabrina’s breathtaking discovery of a previously unknown Fernand Léger.

“Your grandfather—and your father—must have played their cards very close to their vests. I had no idea your family owned something like this. Maybe it wouldn’t have come up with your granddad, but I thought your father and I were friends. Close friends.”

“I don’t think either of them knew how valuable it was, sir. From everything I’ve heard about my great-grandfather, he was unassuming. He bought the painting because he liked it. I doubt he ever thought about value. It wasn’t listed on my mother’s insurance policy.”

“Thank you, Sabrina. You’ve given me some comfort. One wants to think that the people you call your friends really are—or were.”

“My dad thought of you as one of his best friends, Senator.”

“That’s kind of you to say.”

Sabrina had agreed to the Boston Globe interview only because Dr. Winslow had arranged it and pushed for it. After the interview with the Globe, Sabrina declined all other requests, which, it turned out, only added to the mystique and allure swirling around the painting. Articles appeared in lofty publications and local newspapers discussing the cultural significance and potential value of the find.

When the auctioneer started the bidding, Sabrina felt herself sink into a trance. The world whirled around her, pulsing, fraught with energy and passion. She couldn’t keep up, and she knew that later, if she tried to recall the experience, she wouldn’t remember a thing. When the painting sold for 8.7 million, she sat in a kind of stupor. Sam let go of her hand and touched her elbow. They slipped out before the next lot appeared.

 

Three weeks later, at ten a.m. on Friday, April twenty-seventh, Frisco’s wired the proceeds of the sale into the bank account Sam and Sabrina had opened in Grand Cayman during a two-day minivacation last January. An hour later, Sabrina watched as Sam transferred the entire amount to their account in Bali, which they’d opened online. Bali, Sam told her, was a perfect choice, the most romantic place on earth.

Over the weekend, Sabrina bought them two first-class one-way tickets to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, and chartered a private plane to take them to Bali, five hundred miles to the east. They’d leave Thursday, May third, at noon, flying first to Los Angeles, then boarding the night flight to Jakarta. She glanced at her computer monitor to check the time. It was nine twenty Monday morning, April thirtieth. Two days was just enough time to bring in a used furniture dealer to buy all her household goods, sign on with a real estate agent to sell the house she’d bought with the small legacy she’d received from her grandfather, and choose some new bikinis.

She typed in the URL of the luxury beachfront resort she’d chosen, The One Boutique Villa. They would stay at least a month, however long it took them to find their dream home, the oceanfront villa that would become their permanent residence. For half a million dollars, they could buy an opulent mansion. For a million, they could live like royalty. They had options, and Sabrina couldn’t wait to explore them. She stared at the screen, mesmerized by the view from the resort. She could almost smell the salty brine of the turquoise water, feel the soothing warmth of the pristine golden sand, and hear the palm fronds whispering overhead. She touched the screen, pretend-dipping her finger in the water. But before the fantasy of Sam encircling her from behind in the bathwater-warm ocean came to her mind’s eye, the phone rang, startling her, breaking into her reverie.

She answered with a breathless, “Hello?”

“Sabrina!” Senator O’Connell said.

“Senator,” she said, recognizing his voice.

“How are you, my dear?”

“Fine, Senator. Thank you.” On her monitor, the sand seemed to shimmer as if someone had sprinkled fairy dust along the shore. She blinked herself back to reality, swiveling away from her laptop, away from nirvana. Don’t blow it, she warned herself. “As well as can be expected. Better than the last time we spoke.”

“These things take time.” He punctuated his nothing-saying with a sigh. “I’m sorry to be asking last minute, but my schedule keeps changing. I’m going to be in Newburyport for a luncheon fund-raiser at noon. I never eat at those things.” He chuckled. “Forget the rubber chicken, everyone there has written a check, so they think they ought to have some face time with me. Don’t misunderstand . . . I’m honored to talk to my constituents, but a man needs to eat. Which brings me to the point—I’m hoping I can take you to lunch. Do you know Brine? In Newburyport? It’s a wonderful restaurant. I could make it by two.”

“Thank you, Senator,” Sabrina said with a wicked smile, knowing how foolish he’d feel the next time he called. It wouldn’t take him long to figure out that she’d moved away without telling him, and then he’d have to face the fact that she didn’t care about him, not hardly at all. “I’d love to.”

 

Before Sabrina could sink back into her daydream, the phone rang again. It was Dr. Winslow, and he was brusque.

“I’m glad I got you. It seems there’s a problem. I’d like to stop by and discuss it in person.”

Sabrina’s heart momentarily stopped. “What kind of problem?”

“Because of the lack of provenance, the buyer’s insurance company required an independent appraisal. It seems there’s some question about the materials.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain when I see you. How’s eleven?”

Sabrina swallowed the acrid taste of panic. “Sure. Eleven works.”

Sam wasn’t due to arrive until dinnertime, but they needed to get on the next flight out. Any flight, going anywhere. They had to leave. Now. . . .

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2017. Night Flight to Bali by Jane K. Cleland

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