WHEN DEATH IMITATES ART
A SUSPENSE NOVEL BY P.D. HALT
P. D. Halt takes you to a dark side of the German art scene in trendy 80s Cologne, with her debut suspense novel, When Death Imitates Art.
Cologne, West Germany, 1980
Amanda Lee, a young American gallery owner, discovers the murdered body of her business partner, Marlene Eichler. Hours later, she finds a painting depicting the scene down to the jagged knife wounds and splattered blood. She offers to help the police identify the artist/killer, but learns that she’s a prime suspect, along with her partner’s ex-husband. Thrown together by circumstance, she finds herself falling deeply in love with him even though her senses scream beware.
She soon realizes how little she knows about Marlene as she wades through the murky waters of her past—illicit affairs, a tumultuous marriage, and underworld connections. Now Amanda must confront the mind-numbing truth and the terror of a brutal demise as she stumbles across her own death painting.
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A luscious mélange of art, love, and murder.
“Don’t start believing your own press releases, dear boy.
Remember, I’m the one who wrote them.”
–Dieter Becker, Art Critic
Cologne, West Germany, 1960:
Like apparitions in the night, shadows of the small film crew moved silently into position as the camera began to roll. On cue, her robe cascaded to the floor, becoming a silk pool around her feet and leaving her naked and helpless, blinking in the glare of the kliegs. She grabbed the artist’s hand, bowed her head, and followed him to a vat filled to the brim with red paint. Hesitating only for a moment, she allowed herself to be submerged. A nearby canvas, gleaming white against the darkness, stood ready to consume the imprint of her breasts and abdomen, the essence of her youth and beauty.
She walked back to the vat and was dipped once more, like angel cake into a strawberry sauce, to be pressed into a second canvas, this time echoing her contours from her face to the graceful line of her thighs. This process was repeated over and over.
Still adorned in nothing but paint, the scarlet muse smiled and posed next to the artist in front of some two dozen works.
Suddenly, she grabbed her throat. The camera moved in for a close up. Her lips quivered, and her eyes grew wide with fear. She resembled a swimmer trapped in an undertow, battling against a crushing tide. For a few moments, she struggled for air--nostrils dilating, chest heaving--then fell to the floor in a fit of involuntary shuddering that became less and less intense. Her head rolled to one side. She lay completely still.
Cologne, West Germany, Late October 1980:
“This footage of Jurgen Ept and his model was shot twenty years ago,” Dieter Becker told his television audience.
Germany’s foremost art critic had a voice like a Shakespearean actor. His commanding presence made him appear to be more attractive than he was. He strode over to one of the canvases just shown in the film.
“Ept was an innovator, the first and last artist ever to experiment in this way with paints containing lead, cadmium, and chromium. Cadmium inhalation alone can kill you. To be immersed in it, well...” Dieter shook his head and lowered his voice for effect. “One can only speculate as to whether or not Ept realized this, sacrificing his model for his art. He disappeared after that. Some say he left the country. Others believe he has disguised his looks and is still painting under an assumed name right here in Cologne. In any case, these works are highly prized by collectors and bring a fortune on today’s market. Strange isn’t it, how death increases the value of art.”
Strains of a Bach “Brandenburg Concerto” rose in the background, signifying the end of Dieter’s show. Now only his face dominated the television screen.
“Before I say goodnight, I want to remind you that the Klaus Kruger exhibition at the Lee Eichler Gallery is open to the public beginning November eighth. If I were you, I wouldn’t miss it. I predict that Kruger will be viewed as a modern master of the eighties. Till the same time next time, this is Dieter Becker, speaking of art.”
Amanda Lee pushed the remote’s off button, and Dieter’s face disappeared in a flash of light. “That poor girl couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old. Where does Dieter get this kind of thing?”
“His connections, liebling,” Marlene Eichler said. “The TV show itself and, of course, his column in Die Welt put him in touch with all sorts of people.” She leaned back on the office sofa as if posing for Vogue. Most women would have sold their souls just for her cheekbones. “Dieter mentioned our Kruger opening as he promised. That should insure a good turnout.”
“Whatever Dieter claims is art, sells,” Amanda said, “regardless of its merit.”
“You are questioning Kruger’s value as an artist?”
“Well, I personally don’t like his work, but if Dieter wants us to push this man, we more or less have to.”
“Without Dieter, we could not have opened this gallery,” Marlene said. “And this association has not exactly hurt our sales. I would like a glass of champagne.”
“What’s the occasion?”
“It is Thursday, liebling. Isn’t that occasion enough? Hans gave me a bottle of Dom Pérignon.” She got up, removed the wine from the fridge, and poured it into Baccarat crystal glasses.
“It must’ve cost him a couple hundred marks,” Amanda said.
“He can afford it.”
When she and Marlene had opened their gallery the year before, they bought the best they could afford, in order to impress clients. Marlene insisted on doing their office all in white. “It is the only background for paintings and for people.”
Splashes of color came from the ever-present vase of fresh flowers and from four abstracts by Gunter Grah, a friend of Dieter’s.
Marlene raised her glass. “To the Lee Eichler Gallery. May it make us lots of beautiful money.”
Amanda could feel Marlene scrutinizing her face, her hair, and her sweater and jeans. At thirty, she still preferred minimal makeup and wore only a little baby-pink lipstick. Her hair was wash and wear, held back with a clip.
“Why do you wear these boy’s clothes? You should make the most of your assets, liebling. If not for yourself, then for the sake of our business.”
“In the States, we call them classics, and how I look doesn’t affect the gallery. I haven’t heard any complaints about the way I handle the finances or mount our shows.”
“You work hard. I would not say otherwise. It is just that, if you fixed yourself up a little, you could participate more in client meetings and parties, get to know the people who can help us,” Marlene said.
“That’s your job, and you’re so much better at it than I am,” Amanda said. “My German is still sketchy. Besides, I prefer to concentrate on the art end of things.”
“For your own good, you must be able to handle any part of the business. What if something happened to me?”
“I’ve never seen you in better health.”
“The pressure of the Kruger reception is starting to weigh on me.” Marlene stretched like some exotic feline. “It will be the biggest party we have ever given and the most expensive. Dieter has invited dozens of prominent collectors. He is even videotaping our festivities for his television show. This time, I cannot handle it all by myself. I need you to be there to help and to look the part of a successful gallery owner.”
Amanda stared down at her shoes. They had seen better days. None of Dieter’s friends would buy a postcard from someone who looked like this, much less a painting. Even her “good clothes” were dated. Reluctantly, she began to see her friend’s point. “Okay, I’ll try.”
Marlene’s expression went from petulant to gleeful. “Wonderful.” She glanced at her watch. “Let me see if my hairdresser can fit you in.”
“Now? Can’t it wait a few days?”
“Now is always the best time.” Marlene picked up the phone and began to dial. “Then we will go shopping for clothes, yes?” Her blue eyes danced with the prospect of the makeover. “It will be fun, liebling. You will see.”
Half an hour later, they arrived at the posh salon of Ute Bauer and entered a soothing world of crystal sconces, antique mirrors, and aqua silk. A combination of hair and beauty preparations scented the air. While Marlene looked on, Ute combed Amanda’s hair, pulling it back, parting it in different places, studying the length and texture.
“What if we lighten it a little?” Marlene said.
“What’s wrong with brown?”
“You will make an irresistible blonde.”
Ute brought out a chart of glamorous possibilities from platinum to dark ash. Marlene selected a shade very like her own, and Ute applied the color. Next came the cut. “Do a smooth bob that just brushes the shoulders,” Marlene said.
“Do we have to cut it? Couldn’t we just--”
When the makeup artist began, Marlene worked with him. “Use the ivory foundation. Like me, she is fair. Pay attention,” Marlene said to Amanda. “You must learn to do this for yourself.”
With every stroke of a sponge, brush, or pencil, Amanda’s “potential” became reality. She couldn’t get over the change. She found the transformation unnerving, but exciting.
“See. Are you not stunning?” Marlene said. They left the salon with a chic tote stuffed with cosmetics. “Now we will see what Sophia has for us,” Marlene said, as they headed for the Trella Boutique.
Sofia Danielle, a slender Italian in her late forties, welcomed them at the door. “Frau Lee, so nice to meet you at last. Frau Eichler has told me so much about you. As you probably know, she buys most of her clothes from me. You look to be the same size.” Sophia took out a tape measure and confirmed her assessment. After disappearing into the back for a few minutes, she returned with an armload of clothes and placed them in a large dressing room. It reminded Amanda of playing dress-up as a little girl.
“Clothes are wonderful attitude changers,” Marlene said. “What you wear affects how you feel and how others feel about you.”
“I don’t think I can afford all this,” Amanda whispered. “Unlike you, I don’t have a rich ex-husband sending me checks every month.”
“Nonsense. We will sell lots and lots of Kruger paintings,” she whispered back. “Think of it as an investment.”
Sophia carefully wrapped a Jil Sander suit, a French angora dress with matching Maude Frizon shoes, and several pairs of leather pants with matching cashmere sweaters.
“If, from time to time you see something special for her,” Marlene said to Sophia, “send it over on approval.”
“Don’t you think this is enough?” Amanda asked.
“No, liebling. We have but one life. We should enjoy it, yes?”
Loaded down with white packages tied in black ribbons, they made their way along the cobbled street, now crowded with people hurrying home. An attractive man turned to stare at them.
“He has never seen two such beauties before,” Marlene said.
“Do you know him?”
“He probably has a wife and ten kids.”
The sun was sinking fast, streaking the November sky with antique gold. The bells of Kolner Dom serenaded the chilly air, and shops began to close with the usual German punctuality. The two women joked and laughed like schoolgirls all the way back to the gallery. As they came through the front door, Marlene’s direct line lit up.
“Marlene Eichler here.”
Amanda watched in surprise as Marlene grew pale and began to tremble. Without a word, she hung up.
“What’s the matter? Who was that?”
“Nobody, liebling. A wrong number, that is all.”
“But you look so strange. Are you sure?”
“I am sure.” Marlene grabbed her purse. “I must get ready for dinner with Hans Demuth. Tonight, I close the sale on the Cristopin I showed him. You should leave too. It is almost six o’clock.”
“Rolf’s coming at six-thirty to help me mount the Kruger show, remember?”
“Don’t stay too late. When you leave, let Rolf see you to your car.” Marlene blew a kiss over her shoulder and hurried out the door.
Busy lining up paintings against the wall, Amanda didn’t hear their young assistant, Rolf Rohr, come in. “I thought I was working with Frau Lee tonight,” he said.
“You are.” Amanda put down a canvas and turned around.
“My God. From just a few meters away, you look exactly like Frau Eichler.”
Blood spurted from a butterfly with a five-foot wingspan. It lay crumpled and broken across a Klaus Kruger canvas. “If this is art,” Rolf said, “I prefer the stains on my T-shirt.”
“I’m not crazy about Kruger either,” Amanda said, “but Dieter Becker calls him the Neue Sachlichkeit artist of the eighties.”
“Sounds like another one of Herr Becker’s marketing ploys.”
“Maybe so, but as Marlene likes to remind me, Dieter’s choices sell whether I agree with them or not, even New Objectivity revivalism.”
Rolf hoisted the monumental work into place and adjusted the spotlight above it. “How’s this?”
“Perfect,” she said. “That’s the last one.”
He climbed down from the ladder and took a swallow of warm Coke. “You really look different. I can’t get over the change. You looked nice before, but now...”
He gave her a boyish grin and pushed a lock of dark hair from his eyes. “Is that it for tonight?”
“Yes, thank God.” She looked at her watch. Midnight. “I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“Do you want me to wait for you? Cologne is not as safe as it used to be.”
“I’ll be okay. I lived in New York, remember?”
“Well then, I’ll be going. See you tomorrow.” He pulled on his leather jacket and went out into the night. A few moments later, Rolf roared off on his motorcycle. Through the glass door, Amanda watched the taillight dwindle until it disappeared. She was tired but content.
What was that? She thought she saw something move in the shadows outside to the left. After a few seconds, she decided it was just a shrub tossed by the wind.
She walked back into the gallery’s exhibition space and surveyed the night’s work. The canvases were arranged for dramatic effect and loomed over a polished floor of one thousand square feet. The interior of the place was spare but elegant, reflecting the Bauhaus influence. On three sides, windows started at the twenty-foot ceiling and came down about a quarter of the way to let in an abundance of natural light. Beneath them, the larger paintings were exhibited. On the back wall, a catwalk gallery displayed smaller works. A spiral staircase graced one end. Kruger’s work filled both the main and catwalk galleries. A single acid-green K, his signature, was a key element in each composition. Professing a belief that death was the ultimate experience, he made it the subject of his work. What did Dieter see in him?
On one canvas, a pack of wolves menaced a rabbit. The tiny creature’s eyes were filled with terror as it awaited its fate. In another work, a young woman hung from the end of a rope, her face contorted in agony. Amanda turned off the spots. A lurid light drifted in from the windows, giving the macabre visions a ghostly quality that all but chased her from the room.
She collapsed into her office chair and started to tackle the stack of RSVPs on her desk. The collectors’ reception was just over a week from now. The phone rang, shattering the quiet. Who could that be at this hour? “Lee Eichler Gallery.” Aberrant sound was the response. After a few moments, it ended with a click. A spidery chill crept up Amanda’s back. Probably just a wrong number, she told herself. Could it be the same “wrong number” that had upset Marlene earlier? The RSVPs can wait. It’s time to leave, the sooner, the better.
Outside, the wind had picked up, causing the trees to sway like drunken dancers. She hurried to her old VW and unlocked the door.
She heard erratic breathing directly behind her. Before she could turn around a gloved hand covered her nose and mouth, jerking her head backward. Within seconds, she was suffocating.
© 2018 by P. D. Halt
“Next time you have an auto accident, don’t call Homicide.”
–Polizei Unter Kommissar Rudolf
“It is nothing a good shot of vodka cannot cure.”
–Marlene Eichler, Partner Lee-Eichler Gallery
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If you want to talk about art, I am an avid museum-goer. I love Hopper, Max Beckman and Picasso. If you want to talk about mystery and suspense, I’m your gal. If you enjoyed the book, and I hope you did, let me know. Write about whatever you want, but please make it good news. This is a happy place.