Stephanie Kane is a lawyer and award-winning author of six crime novels. Born in Brooklyn, New York, she came to Colorado as a freshman at CU. She owned and ran a karate studio in Boulder and is a second-degree black belt. After graduating from law school, she was a corporate partner at a top Denver law firm before becoming a criminal defense attorney. She has lectured on money laundering and white-collar crime in Eastern Europe and given workshops throughout the country on writing technique. She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats.
Stephanie’s books have won A Colorado Book Award for Mystery and two Colorado Authors League Awards for Genre Fiction. Her latest crime novel, “A Perfect Eye,” is a finalist for three awards: Colorado Authors League Award for Mystery, Crime, Suspense; Willa Literary Award for Original Softcover Fiction; and National Indie Excellence Award for Mystery.
The following is an excerpt from “A Perfect Eye.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League finalist for Mystery, Crime, Suspense
Built by an oil baron’s widow and bought by an Italian financier as a surprise gift for his wife, the Kurtz Castle had a two-story arched portico, stone parapets and a coat of arms filched from Burke’s Peerage. Its wrought-iron doors, copper-framed windows, greenhouse and lily pond added charm, but the storybook effect was undercut by a Mobile Crime Unit van and a half-dozen police cars parked out front.
“I think you’ll want this,” Paul said. He held out his snowy hanky.
She shook her head. The last thing she wanted was to smell cloves.
He showed his ID to a uniformed officer at the gate. A plainclothes cop escorted them in. They went from an entrance hall with a travertine staircase with twisted railings and bronze plaques, through a living room with a carved marble fireplace, a walnut parquet floor, gold-plated light fixtures, and a Cezanne and a Picasso. A fan was running a few rooms away. At the soaring library paneled in red oak, the fairy tale ended.
The first thing she registered were the hot police lights and men in sport coats and ties talking quietly as they clustered around an object against the far wall. The second was the stench. Then the frigid air from a ventilation system on full blast and the loud whir of an industrial fan. Paul hadn’t mentioned Kurtz’s body would be there.
Something cool and crisp pressed into her hand. His hanky.
The talking had stopped, the men were watching her. She was glad she’d skipped breakfast. She balled up the hanky and slipped it in her pocket.
Propped on an upholstered chair against a wall papered in celadon silk with gold leaves, Kurtz stared imperiously. His head was intact, and his thinning silver hair was parted at the side and darkened and slicked with brilliantine. His hands rested on the chair’s arms in a lord of the manor pose. From his chest down, he was riven in two. There was so much blood she couldn’t tell if he was clothed, or even if he had skin. The Klieg lights flickered, creating a grotesque chiaroscuro. Paul seemed unaffected by the odor and gore. Maybe it was because he’d grown up on a farm.
“When was he found?” she asked.
“This morning, by his butler,” a paunchy detective replied. He seemed to be in charge. She almost missed the wink to his colleagues. Indulge the little lady so we can get this stiff outta here.
Paul stepped in smoothly. “Ms. Sparks has been invaluable to the FBI. She’s a pro like you.”
Their faces spoke resentment, skepticism, and doubt. How did they feel being one-upped by a Fed in a fancy suit jetting in from D.C., and some blonde he was probably shacking up with? It must’ve been hard for him to come to her for help. She ran through her dad’s training.
Focus on one thing at a time.
Quantify, assign a value to each data point.
It’s only what you refuse to see that can hurt you.
But nothing prepared her for this. She closed her eyes to block out the lights and faces and stench. Think of it as a work of art, like the bird Jack caught.
Specks of fluff by her night stand, a tiny red smear on the floor under her bed. The huddled mass fit neatly in her palm. Then the maggots…. Jack coolly watching, concealment versus credit resolved—it took you long enough! His jade cat-eyes devouring her with the naked passion of a lover. I did it for you….
“Lily?” Paul said.
“Can you turn off those lights?” The steadiness of her voice surprised her. “And the fan. They’re distracting.”
He signaled one of the men, and the heat and noise cut off. “Just your impressions,” he said softly. “I’ll send you the photos later.”
Breathing through her nose, she approached the body. Kurtz’s torso had skin, but every inch of it was flayed. She reached into her backpack for the tool of her trade.
“What the hell is that?” the detective asked.
“A loupe,” Paul said admiringly. Every conservator worth her salt carried one.
She peered closer, trying to keep the nausea at bay. Just another canvas. Now she saw dozens, hundreds of geometric slashes and pointillist pricks, driven to the bone.
Artists control their conditions.
“Was he tied up?” she asked.
“Not that we can tell,” the detective said.
“Were these wounds inflicted before he died?”
Paul came to her rescue. “This took time,” he explained. “The killer couldn’t subdue Kurtz long enough to carve him up if he was conscious.”
A whiff of excrement emanated from the wall. She took four steps back. Daubed like impasto on the celadon silk were gobbets of intestine. From the flaying, or added later? Some gobs appeared completely dry, others wet-on-wet. Did he tamp down Kurtz’s guts with an instrument, then rub them in with his finger? They were confined to a specific area.
Nothing an artist does is accidental.
Putting away her loupe and stepping farther back, she turned to the composition. Art was deliberate, with an eye toward how it would be viewed. To the left of the chair was a divan with a coat and hat. If you ignored the divan, the tableau was compact, rectangular. The back of the chair created a strong horizontal line that tightened the structure. But was Kurtz meant to be viewed head-on? She moved back and forth, examining the scene from different angles.
Degas said the frame is the painting’s pimp.
What was central to Kurtz’s display, what was his proper frame?
With the fan off, the smell had become a rancid, nauseating reek. The cops were getting impatient. They wanted to wrap it up, but she wasn’t ready. She looked again at the pale green silk, the crimson daubs…
The wall itself was part of the display. But something bothered her. She was missing an important detail. She refocused on the chair. Granted Kurtz’s torso was split from sternum to hip, but something was unnatural about his legs. She took another six paces back, feeling the men behind her part to give her room.
“Why are his legs bent like that?”
“He was tall,” the detective replied. Papers rustled. “Six-one.”
“Were his ankles broken?”
“How’d you know that?” he demanded.
“They’d have to be, for his feet to curl like that under the chair…. An inside joke.”
Did I say that out loud? But painters inserted all sorts of things in a canvas or frame that had meaning only to them. “Maybe he wanted to make it look like the chair cut off Kurtz’s legs.”
“Was anything stolen?” she asked.
“No,” the detective said.
“It and the cameras were disabled, but Kurtz’s paintings are armed. That pissed the burglar off.”
At that gala, how quickly Kurtz’s flattery had turned to insolence! Did he insult his killer? She stepped back one last time. In the natural light, the wounds seemed artistic—impressionistic. But something about his legs…
The detective signaled the medical examiner to remove the body. Crime scene specialists bagged and tagged the remaining evidence. It was almost dark when she and Paul left. He put his arm around her and before she could stop her herself she leaned in.
“I owe you a drink,” he said.
She pulled away. “Some other time.”
“There’s something I want—”
“Let’s not go there, Paul.”
He dropped his arm. “Come on, Lily. One drink doesn’t mean a thing.”
She hesitated. “I have a date.”
He opened the passenger door and waited for her to buckle in. By the time he was behind the wheel, he was all business. It was better that way.
“Just between you and me, what did the crime scene tell you?” he asked.
“I felt like I was looking at a painting.”
He stared like she was nuts. “You think an actual artist killed Kurtz?”
“Yes. And he cropped the body to fit the frame.”