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EXCERPT: The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey, by J. Michael Orenduff

In the latest Hubie Schuze mystery, the sleuth-slash-treasure hunter is suspected of killing one of his art students.





The Pot Thief Who Studied Edward Abbey

By J. Michael Orenduff

It was over two hours before a policeman called my name and led me to a room, where one of the detectives was questioning the witnesses.

The detective was Whit Fletcher. He should have been more surprised to see me than I was to see him. After all, he’s a homicide detective. There are only nine of them in the Albuquerque Police Department, so my chances of drawing him were better than 1 in 10.

But there are half a million people in the city, so the chance of him drawing me was a lot slimmer.

He wasn’t as surprised as the odds would dictate. “I mighta known you’d be here. What is it about you and dead bodies?”

I shrugged. “Bad luck.”

“Nobody has that much bad luck.”

“Oh yeah? A park ranger named Roy Sullivan was hit by lightning seven times. And he was attacked by a bear twenty-three times. One of the bear attacks happened right after he was hit by lightning.”

“Where do you get this stuff?”

“I read a lot.”

Whit and I have known each other for almost as long as I’ve been in the pottery trade. He doesn’t care about my digging up pots.

“So why were you here?” he asked.

“I’m teaching a class this semester.”

He gave me a crooked smile. “Teaching them how to steal pots?”

“Teaching them how to make them.”

“They must be hard up for teachers. Weren’t you kicked outta this place?”

“That was a long time ago.”

“So you brought your class to see how to cover a naked girl with clay?”

“It was plaster of Paris, not clay.”

“Same difference. So you and your students were just spectators?”

My mind flashed back to the image of Ximena on the gallery floor. I took a deep breath. “My class had ten students. Six of them were spectators. Two were absent. One was helping the artist. The other one is the dead girl.”

“I’m sorry, Hubert. You know her well?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know any of them well. She was the one I probably knew least well.” I thought about her. “She seemed shy and sensitive.” Then I thought about Whit being a homicide detective. “You think she was murdered?”

“Don’t know. The FDMI said he couldn’t tell by looking, but the OMI will figure it out.”


“Field deputy medical investigator. Every county in the state has at least one. They investigate any death that’s sudden, violent, untimely, unexpected, or where there’s no known cause of death. After the FDMI finishes his work, the body is transported to the OMI—Office of the Medical Investigator—right here at the med school, where they determine the cause and manner of death.” He was silent for a moment. “One of the other homicides you were involved with was a guy who died of a poison you were using to paint your pots.”

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  • Photo Credit: Matthias Kinsella / Unsplash

“I wasn’t involved with that homicide. I just happened to be making plates for the restaurant where the dead guy worked.”

“The body was found in your vehicle.”

“I didn’t put it there.”

“Just more of that bad luck?”

“Exactly. And I don’t paint pots. I glaze them.”

“Kinda like that homicide at the restaurant glazed you without involving you.”

I resisted the temptation to comment.

“You know anything about the plaster they covered that girl with?”

“Looked like ordinary plaster.”

“Could there have been chemicals in it?”

“Anything is possible.”

“I saw him in an old movie where he played Sam Spade.” I said. “The original movie with Bogart was classic noir, but the remake with George Segal was a comedy. I knew he played the banjo, but I didn’t know he’s also an artist.”

“He isn’t,” Susannah said. “The artist is a different guy with the same name.”

She had just told me that George Segal was the first artist to wrap people with gauze and plaster. It was the day after Ximena’s death. I was willing to lay part of the blame on the idiot who first came up with the idea of wrapping people in plaster.

I sipped my margarita and said, “I guess it didn’t occur to him that there might be a reason why no artists had done that in the fifty thousand years since the first cave paintings.”

“That just shows his genius,” she said. “Rodin was almost run out of Paris because his statues were so lifelike that people thought he was doing what is called ‘casting from life.’”

“Which is what Prather was doing, right?”

“Exactly. But the tradition is for artists to create statues by carving. They might ultimately use casting if the statue was to be in bronze, because you can’t carve bronze. But they had to be great artists to carve a likeness of someone in wax.”

“Why wax?”

“Because it melts. After they finish the figure, they encase it with plaster. After the plaster is dry, they pour in molten metal. The wax melts and runs out the bottom, replaced by the metal. Then you remove the plaster and walla.”

“That’s pronounced vwä-’lä.”

“Learning French is making you stuffy.”

“Sorry. So Segal wasn’t a good carver and resorted to cheating by just making molds from real life?”

“They weren’t technically molds because he never filled them with anything.”

“His art was just the gauze and plaster?”

“Yes, but he manipulated it. He would smooth it out, add more plaster afterward, paint it, things like that.”

“And he became rich and famous for this?”

“He did. He was given a Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award by the International Sculpture Center. We saw a documentary film about him in my class on controversial art.”

“So casting from life is still controversial?”

She shook her head. “What was controversial was a casting he did of two lesbians on a bench.”

“Were they doing something lewd?”

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  • Photo Credit: Khara Woods / Unsplash

“No. One has her hand resting lightly on the top of the other’s thigh, but the pose could just as easily be two heterosexual friends. You only realize they’re lesbians when you see the other statue nearby with two guys holding hands. Or if you read the plaque that identifies the work as the Gay Liberation Monument.”

“So Segal was gay?”

“No. He was married to Helen Segal for over fifty years. She was frequently his model.”

“I can understand a wife being willing to have her husband cover her in plaster—”

“Or whipped cream,” she said, and laughed.

“Exactly. I mean, they’re a couple. So anything goes. But why would Ximena let Prather do that to her?”

“Maybe they were a couple.”

“That’s a disgusting thought. He’s a wrinkly old guy with a scraggly beard, and she was a shy young woman.”

“There are lots of couples you would never expect to be together.”

“Like Sharice and me?”

“By today’s standards, you two are normal.” She drank some of her saltless margarita. “I just remembered something Segal said in an interview—‘My first models had to be people who were convinced I wouldn’t kill them.’ He said most models didn’t mind having plaster on their bodies. But having it on their head freaked them out. Of course he also noted that he never covered their nostrils.”

“Prather put straws into Ximena’s nostrils so she could breathe, but he could have come back after the plaster hardened and plugged them up.”

“Did he stay in there the whole time just watching the plaster dry? Because if he didn’t, anyone could have come in and closed off her air supply.”

“I don’t know if Prather stayed while the plaster hardened. Fletcher wondered if there might be poison in the plaster itself.”

“Yes!” She bolted upright and assumed her Girl Detective face. “There’s a classic murder mystery in which the blind victim is killed by poison on her Braille cards. You want to guess the title?”

She Never Saw It Coming?”


She Never Felt It Coming?”


The Fingertips of Death?”

“Are you trying to guess or just joking around?”

“Well, you didn’t give me much to go on. How about a hint?”

“You were warm with the word felt.”

“Hmm. Felt … touch?”

“Getting warmer.”

The Touch of Death?”

“Even closer.”

Fatal Touch?”

“You missed by just one word. It was titled The Fatal Touch.”

“Not bad, considering I don’t read murder mysteries.”

“You couldn’t have read this one. It doesn’t exist as a real book.”

“It’s one of those ebooks?”


“A book on tape?”


“But you said it’s a classic.”

“I just remembered something Segal said in an interview—‘My first models had to be people who were convinced I wouldn’t kill them.’”

“It is. It’s the title of a book written by a character in a mystery about three aging murder-mystery writers who become murderers for hire using the classic techniques they wrote about before their books stopped selling because they were too intellectual and puzzle-oriented and everyone had started reading thrillers that don’t use poison because the deaths in thrillers have to be gory and noisy.”

When Susannah gets excited, she often packs too many words into one sentence. Strangely, they still make sense once you parse them.

“Ximena wasn’t blind,” I noted, “so the Braille-card method wouldn’t have worked on her.”

Susannah’s eyes narrowed. “Her eyes may have worked, but maybe her voice didn’t. You did say she never spoke.”

I thought she might be on to something. “You think she may have been dumb?”

“Hubie! That’s a terrible thing to say.”

“No, it’s not. It’s only terrible when you use it to describe someone who’s stupid. It’s okay to use it when describing someone who can’t speak because that’s actually what dumb means.”

“It may have meant that at one time, but now it’s politically incorrect.”

“So what do we now call someone who is unable to speak?”


“You have got to be kidding. Speechless means temporarily unable to speak because you’re overcome with emotion. It’s not a permanent condition.”

“Yeah, but it sounds better.”

“It sounds better to call liver ‘chocolate ice cream,’ but it still tastes awful.”

“Just don’t use the word dumb, okay? People will think you’re insensitive.”

“I’m a very sensitive guy. Anyone who doesn’t think so is dumb.”

“Can we get back to Ximena? Maybe the reason she didn’t yell out for help was because she wasn’t able to.”

“More likely it was because her mouth was covered with plaster.”

“Couldn’t she break the plaster just by opening her mouth? The jaw muscles are pretty strong.”

“Remember, she was also wrapped in gauze. If a continuous loop went from under her chin to over her head, that could make opening her mouth difficult. And even without the gauze, it would be hard for her to open her mouth. Jaw muscles are strong when they close because they evolved that way back when we had to crunch bones in the animals we ate when we lived in caves. But jaw muscles aren’t strong when they open because there is normally no resistance to that motion.”

She tested my claim by first biting on her finger to feel how strong the jaw muscles are when closing and then by opening her mouth while at the same time trying to hold it closed with her thumb under her chin and her fingers pressed across her upper lip to show how little force it takes to keep your jaw shut.

I pretended I didn’t know her.

“I think you’re right,” she said after her experiment was complete. “We need to get a list of everyone who was in the gallery after the plaster was applied and a log of when they came and left.”


“Well, you probably. As a member of the art faculty, it’s easier for you to get that info.”

“As a member of the police department, it’s even easier for Whit to get it.”

“Yeah, but will he share it with you?”

“Why would he?”

“Because without it, we can’t find out who murdered Ximena.”

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