Fred Taylor is a problem solver for Clayton Reed, a very wealthy Bostonian and very serious art collector. Clayton’s first rule is that no one should ever know when he is interested in a piece of art. It is Fred’s job to ensure that the first rule is never broken.
Fred’s gets an additional role after Clayton is approached by two men from the Stilton Academy of Art. One of the teachers is missing. Worse, an 18 year-old female student is also missing. Worst, the student is the daughter of the school’s most generous donor.
Stilton Academy of Art evolved over the years to a status that attracted some fairly talented students who couldn’t afford the tuition at other schools. Most were on the work-study program, saving Stilton in janitorial and secretarial costs. The school was missing out on the really talented students who could not only choose whatever school they wanted to attend but could get a degree as well. Stilton Academy of Art was not accredited; it could give students a certificate when they completed their studies but they could not confer a degree. Without a degree, students could not gain entrance to any graduate schools. Without a liberal arts curriculum, Stilton Academy could not be accredited so the school embarks on a program to solve that problem and to do it quickly. They hire Morton Flowers to teach the necessary liberal arts courses, all of them. Now Morton is missing, an accreditation review has been scheduled, and if it is postponed it may be canceled. If it is canceled, the board cab dispose of all Stilton Academy’s assets.
Clayton assures the men from Stilton Academy that Fred will come to help resolve their immediate problem. Fred, knowing Clayton, asks for a description of the assets. Clayton, invoking rule one, tells Fred he doesn’t want to prejudice Fred’s opinions but he wants Fred to take a very deep and close look at what might be hiding in Stilton Academy.
To accomplish his assignment, Fred goes to Stilton Academy undercover as the replacement for Morton Flowers. The town of Stilton, Massachusetts sits on significant ocean front property and the art school owns a great deal of real estate in the town. If the academy goes under, all of its property goes up for sale. Fred concludes early on that there are a lot of people guiding Stilton Academy who wouldn’t be unhappy to guide it into oblivion.
Clayton, true to form, sends Fred off with the admonition, “Trust no one. Look at everything.” Fred has no problem with either directive and, while looking at everything, he discovers the likely reason for Clayton’s interest in Stilton Academy. Many years before, the original building was destroyed in a fire. Fred learns by listening that there is a rumor that a mural done by German-born American artist Albert Bierstadt.
In the book Bierstadt’s murals are described as needing a space as large as a gymnasium to be presented as a complete work. Kilmer hints at what the panels at the Stilton Academy might be, suggesting a few possibilities.
One painting is specifically mentioned. It is the one that fulfills Clayton’s rule one, and the reason he told Fred, “Trust no one. Look at everything.”
The painting is “Storm in the Rocky Mountain,” painted in 1866.