Some may remember sitting in a darkened room, watching Rod Serling's “Night Gallery.” Each episode began with an unusual painting, about which Mr. Serling would deliver a brief monolog, something along these lines:
“Consider, if you will, what may be the most well-known and oft-copied works of a man named Henry Fuseli, scholar, man of the cloth, and painter of the different and disturbing. Like many artists, he sketched sometimes before mixing his pigments. The subject of our tale is a simple pencil drawing, perhaps a preliminary study for Fuseli's “The Nightmare” paintings.
“Carl Singleton is a would-be art dealer. We will let him tell you about his find himself.”
Not many people showed up for the widow Collins' sale that dank October day. The house was slated for demolition to allow construction of a new highway interchange. Apparently, her fight with the state to keep the place took too much out of the old woman. They found her in the parlor, hanging from a noose. Her suicide note was taped to an over-turned chair. The rats were well-fed by old Mrs. Collins.
As the owner of “Carl's Curiosities,” I sometimes act as “dollar man” at estates sales and auctions. I'm the guy who pays a dollar for any lot the auctioneer can't sell for more. There's a lot of trash, but I also get vintage costume jewelry, antique dishes or photos, or clothing I can put together to sell as costumes. Often, there are things I can use around my apartment and store, like hardware and garbage bags. Fifty dollars spent on auction rejects usually buys at least that much in useable household or office supplies plus items I can sell for a tidy profit.
The sign outside says, “Antiquities, Oddities, and Art From Around the Globe.” Some of my inventory fits that description, but a lot of it’s junk. The store is basically an indoor flea market.
Some things the auction crew brought out of the Collins house smelled of death. I got stuck with all of that, a dollar added to my bill for every musty item of furniture, linens, or clothing tainted with corpse-stench. Many lots were cardboard boxes filled with God knew what. That was common with this type of sale. A worker would bring an over-stuffed carton to the auction block, and people bid based on what the auctioneer said and displayed of the contents.
A helper brought a box to the auctioneer, sparking the usual frenetic monolog. “Okay! What do we have here? Looks like items from the bedroom! Couple of sealed bottles of shampoo, some light bulbs, and a drawing! Who wants it for fifty bucks? Fifty? It's a pencil sketch, folks! Looks old! Frame it and hang it over the mantel! Fifty? C'mon, folks! Fifty? Fifty? Twenty-five! They're halogen bulbs! None in the package, but they might work! Ten bucks! Gimme ten!”
He milked it like a good auctioneer does with every lot, but by default, it joined the pile in my truck.
I stopped at the landfill after the sale to get rid of things that smelled too bad to take back to my shop. Rufus met me at the dock. “Whoa, Carl! What'd them boys do? Stuff what was left of that old witch in one o' them boxes?”
“I got stuck with some real junk, Rufus. I wish I had a gas mask. The dust and mildew is bad enough without the rotting corpse smell.”
“Well, c'mon, drive up on the scale. Ah'll help yuh unload.”
As we struggled with some smelly furniture, Rufus said, “Wonder what it was like when they found her. They say she was dead two weeks.”
“I went inside to look around, but I couldn't take it. Some of this stuff should have been worth good money, but it's ruined.”
“Ah wouldn't trust nuthin' from that woman's place. She was a witch or into voodoo or devil worship or somethin'.”
“There were no pentagrams, chicken entrails, or skulls, so I doubt that. I think she was just a lonely, bitter old woman. Her husband shot himself in their bed years ago, you know. Living in that horrible old house where he died took its toll.”
“All's I know is, Carl, if yuh find anythin' weird, or a Bible with pages tore out or stuff wrote funny, call a preacher.”
“You watch too many movies, Rufus. There are no witches or evil spirits. You know that.”
“Ah know what's good fo' mah immortal soul, too.”
I drove back to the shop with the windows open. After a long shower, I went downstairs to unpack my treasures. There was some nice costume jewelry, bundles of old letters, unused packs of shoelaces and thumbtacks, and a few pieces of cutlery. Eventually, I got to the box with the light bulbs.
One of the bulbs worked when I tested it in an ugly desk lamp I bought somewhere. Nice and bright. I re-arranged my desk so I could spread out the rest of the contents of the carton.
At first, I was going to throw the drawing into a box of stuff going to the trash, but then I took a better look at it. The auctioneer was right. It was old, or at least, the paper the artist used looked old. The drawing itself was ... odd. I dialed my phone.
“Main Street Rare Books,” a familiar voice answered.
“Hey, Frank! It's Carl. Are you busy?”
“Not too busy for you, buddy.”
“Could you take a look at something I bought?”
“What's the title?”
“It's not a book. It's a pencil sketch. Looks like a woman with a monkey sitting on her chest and a horse in the background.”
“You're supposed to be the art dealer, Carl.”
“True, but you're the one who knows paper. That's what I'm curious about. I think it could be pretty old.”
“Come over now. Let's see what you have.”
I put up my “Back Soon!” sign and walked down the street. Between customers, we spent time in Frank's office, studying my find under a magnifying glass.
Frank leaned back in his chair. “That's a really strange drawing. A dead woman, a baboon, and a horse.”
“What's that written on the back?” I asked.
“It looks like, 'Consideres hoc vel pati. Vos excipiam mortem.' It's Latin. I'm pretty rusty. Let's see....” Frank rummaged through a messy bookcase behind his desk for a Latin-English dictionary. “Okay, a literal translation would be, 'Respect this, or suffer. You will welcome death.' Sounds like a curse!”
“God, Frank, you're as bad as Rufus at the landfill. When he helped me unload the junk from the sale, he told me to call a preacher if I found anything 'wrote funny'.”
“This is from the Collins auction?” He turned the drawing over and studied the image again.
“Yeah. Look at it. Rufus would run screaming for the hills if he saw this and heard your translation.”
“Did you get anything else from the house with hand-writing on it? Maybe we can compare the penmanship.”
“There were a bunch of letters that looked like they may have been from Collins to his wife while he was in England during World War Two. Stamp collectors come into my shop sometimes, so I saved a box of that stuff.”
“Go get it, Carl. If we can figure out who wrote this, it may tell us something about the sketch.”
An hour later, we agreed. The hand-writing on the back of my new find appeared to be by Mr. Collins, who shot himself some fifty years earlier. With some on-line searching, we found his obituary from the local newspaper.
Mr. and Mrs. Collins were recluses. Mr. Collins was reported to have been “in ill health for some time” before he took his own life. His wife was outside with a zoning officer serving a complaint about the appearance of their property. They both heard the gunshot, and they found the body and the note together. The police and the coroner said it was a clear-cut suicide.
“I don't know about all this, Frank. If Collins was a brick-layer, where would he have learned to write in Latin?”
“You met my grandpa, Carl. He was a brick-layer, but he was far from stupid. Maybe Collins was an old-school Catholic.”
“Whoever drew this was pretty good with a pencil.”
“One thing is certain. If it was Collins, he used old paper. If this is his work, it can't even be eighty years old, since he'd be ninety-three if he were still alive. This paper looks hand-made. The top and sides are straight, like they were cut with a knife and straight-edge, but the bottom looks like someone tore it from a bigger piece. This could be a lot older than eighty years.”
“It seems familiar, like I saw the same theme in an art history book somewhere. Maybe it's a sketch someone made before doing a painting. I'll have to do some research, but I can't shake the feeling that I've seen this idea before.”
“Maybe Collins knew it was old and valuable, so that's why he wrote his note.”
“Could be, but it's hard to believe he was a connoisseur of the arts. I got stuck with some framed 'masterpieces' from the house, too – paint-by-numbers with mistakes, dogs playing poker, and Elvis on black velvet.”
“Sounds like old man Collins believed in self-euthanasia. Maybe he got tired of suffering with a terminal illness.”
“Yeah, but it has to be bad to shoot yourself in the mouth where your wife will find you.”
“You were in the house today. What was it like?”
“She couldn't have changed much after he died. The whole place looked like it was stuck in the 1960s. The bedroom wallpaper still showed bloodstains.”
“That's creepy, Carl. She apparently never left the house after his funeral. They say she had her groceries delivered, but didn't go outside. Why would she stay locked up in the house where her husband killed himself? She even refused to move out when the state offered her a lot of money for the property.”
“Some of the stuff I got from the sale is pretty old. How do you test the age of paper?”
“You could send it to the lab I use for non-destructive testing, but they're expensive. I'd hate to see you spend a lot of money on a sketch that isn't worth anything. Since I live and breathe old books, I know enough to run some crude tests myself on just a piece from the edge down there where it's torn. If you frame it, you'll have to trim it anyway.”
He tore a sliver of paper from the ragged bottom edge, sealed it in a plastic bag, and put it on his workbench. We talked a bit more, and then I took my drawing and went home to finish picking through the late Mrs. Collins' trash.
Hours later, I thought I should be hungry, but I wasn't. In fact, my stomach didn't feel right at all. My eyes and nose burned, probably from dust and mold on some of the things I was handling. When an ugly headache threatened to join my other discomforts, I went upstairs to bed, hoping to sleep through the worst of whatever bug I was catching.
Before dawn, sirens woke me, fire trucks screaming past my building and stopping nearby. I opened my window and smelled smoke, so I got dressed and went downstairs to the sidewalk. Flames roared from a building in the next block. Frank's store and his apartment above it were fully engulfed.
“What happened?” I asked a woman in pajamas and an overcoat.
“There was some sort of explosion, and then there was fire everywhere. They think he's still inside.”
The roof collapsed a moment later, and fire crews directed more of their attention to the safety of neighboring buildings. There was nothing to be done for Main Street Rare Books or its owner.
I stood on the sidewalk, sick with grief, watching Frank's funeral pyre. There was no point in hurrying back to my shop to open for the day. Fire equipment and hoses blocked the street. Being ill, and now trying to deal with this, I couldn't face customers.
Later that day, I was in my office in the back of the store, sorting through more of the treasures from the Collins sale and watching a report on the local news about the fire. “Officials have confirmed that a body was found in the ruins of the building. We have unsubstantiated reports indicating that arson is suspected in this tragic pre-dawn fire.”
The bell over the door jingled. Two men in suits walked in. I went out to meet them.
“Are you the owner?” the taller one asked.
“Yes, Carl Singleton. How may I help you?”
“I'm Detective Joshua Hayes, and this is my partner, Detective Mario Bertoli. We're with the Homicide Division. We'd like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Singleton.”
“Lead story on the local news, sir. The fire at Main Street Rare Books this morning was intentionally set. We believe it was the owner's remains that were found inside. Until the coroner tells us he died of natural causes before the fire started, we're treating this as an arson death, which means it's a homicide. We understand you knew the owner, Frank Brown.”
“Yes, I did. Wait! What's this about? Do you think I had something to do with it?”
“Not at all, sir. If we did, Detective Bertoli would have read you your rights. We need help. Anything you can tell us could point us in the right direction.”
“How well did you know Brown?” Detective Bertoli asked.
“We've been close friends since high school.”
Hayes looked up from his notepad. “When was the last time you spoke with him?”
“I was at his shop yesterday afternoon. He knew a lot about old paper. I bought something at the Collins auction I hoped he could help me identify.”
“What was that, sir?”
“A drawing. Guys, are you sure it was Frank?”
Bertoli answered. “He hasn't been seen since the fire. His car was in the parking lot. The coroner has his dental records. Members of our squad are reviewing security video from remote feeds at the company that monitored Brown's alarm system and from neighboring businesses. We should be able to see who came and went from the building before the fire.”
“You'll see me going in the front door of Frank's shop around four in the afternoon, and then leaving and coming back again from the camera on the drugstore across the street, and the pizza shop's camera should show me leaving around six. Frank locked up the front before I left, and I went out the back.”
“Did Brown have enemies?” Bertoli asked.
“No. Frank was well-liked. He kept a nice shop and helped his neighbors. He did volunteer remodeling work on slum homes and a church, for pity's sake.”
“We don't understand either, sir,” Hayes said. “Everything we've learned so far says Brown was a model citizen. That's why we don't understand why someone would kill him and burn down his shop.”
“You mean his death wasn't an accident? Someone torched the place after murdering him?”
“One of the points of origin for the fire was the ground floor room we understand Brown used for repairing and cleaning books. That's where the body was found. Did he often go downstairs and work in the middle of the night?” Bertoli asked.
“No. Frank's the most habit-driven guy I know. He goes to bed right after the eleven o'clock news and needs his alarm clock to get up at seven. We joke about that. He can't function on less than seven hours of sleep. He says he never wakes up in the middle of the night. That's part of the reason he got that high-tech security system. He was afraid he'd sleep through a break-in or a fire.”
“Did Brown keep flammable liquids in his work room? Solvents? Adhesives?”
“Never. Those fumes can be very harmful to old books. Frank used all natural, water-soluble cleaners and glues. I don't think any of that stuff burns.”
“There's accelerant residue in several locations on the main floor, including the area of the workroom. We suspect the fire was deliberately set in that room, and Brown, if that proves to be his body, was there when it started or got there soon after.”
“So you're saying someone broke into the store, poured flammable liquid around, and lit it while Frank was in the workroom?”
“That's one scenario. It's possible he discovered the fire and was overcome. We'll know more when we see the video from the security company. Does anyone else have keys to the building?”
“No. Frank changed the locks after that rash of burglaries by those guys who copied keys.”
“All the doors were locked and dead-bolted, including the one on the upstairs fire escape. Detective Hayes and I wonder how that can be, since you need keys to lock them from outside.”
They left soon afterward, each taking one of my business cards and giving me their own. “We are truly sorry for your loss, Mr. Singleton. We'll keep you updated on anything we learn.”
I displayed the “Closed” sign when I locked the door behind them. Upstairs in my kitchen, I poured a tall whiskey. This made no sense. Frank was one of the few people I considered a friend. We had known each other for decades. I spent as much time at his apartment as he did at mine. Now he was a “locked room” murder victim.
I made dinner and picked at it. The whiskey calmed my nerves but soured my stomach, and my head started to pound again, worse than the night before. I went to bed and dreamed of musty old houses, the smell of death, and fire in the night.
The phone rang about nine the next morning. “Mr. Singleton? This is Detective Hayes. Is there a time today when we could talk?”
“On the phone or in person?” I replied.
“We'd like to show you some video, and it would be easier if you came to our office. Please believe, sir, we in no way suspect you of wrongdoing of any kind. We simply need your help understanding what we have.”
A half hour later, I sat in a room in front of a large monitor. At home, I felt emotionally drained and tired but reasonably healthy. Now, I felt sick. Again I wondered how bad it would get. I didn't want to be here, across town, talking about poor Frank's death.
Bertoli pointed at the screen. “That's you leaving, shown on the pizza shop camera. The time stamp is three minutes after six.”
“Skip ahead, Mario. Mr. Singleton, all cameras show no one entering or leaving the building until much later. There were a few pedestrians out front and some pizza shop customers in the back lot, but nothing involving the book store itself. Brown set his security system to remote-monitor all cameras at eleven thirty-four. Video from the drugstore shows the last light going off in his bedroom a few minutes later.”
“Here we are, two forty-nine,” Bertoli said. “Brown turned off the alarm on his back door then, and the pizza shop camera shows it opening.”
“I gave Frank that jacket for his birthday last year.”
“That's a positive ID on Brown?” Hayes asked.
“Absolutely. He got that baseball cap for sponsoring a little-league team. He always wore it with the bill turned up, so you could see his face. It was clear when he was locking the door.”
“Okay, we may ask you to sign a statement to that effect later,” Hayes said. “He's getting in his car and leaving the parking lot. No further activity for well over an hour. Skip to the pizza cam at four twenty-one, Mario.”
The video showed Frank pulling back into his parking place and opening the trunk. “Detectives, are those gas cans?”
“They are,” Hayes answered. “He carries eight of them inside, two at a time. They appear to be five-gallon cans, full, considering how he lifts them. Each can would weigh about forty pounds, eighty per load. Brown's medical records indicate he had a bad back, but he doesn't seem to have any trouble.”
Bertoli paused the video. “The last time he goes inside, it's four twenty-five. His security system alerted the fire department at four twenty-seven, and the pizza shop cam shows fire at the same time.”
“What about the time in between?” I asked.
Bertoli said, “Brown's security system included interior surveillance on the ground floor. Video was stored on-site, but the security company had a remote feed, too.”
“Does it show the fire starting?”
“How did it start?”
“Mr. Singleton, it appears your friend committed suicide.”
“Brown lit the fire,” Hayes said.
“That can't be right. Show me.”
The cops looked at each other. Then Bertoli pushed the button.
The interior cameras showed the back door being opened from the outside. Frank appeared, carrying two cans, which he placed in the middle of the sales floor area of the store, caps off. He went back outside and came in with two more, one for each end wall of the front part of the building. The next two went in the open doorway to the stairwell that led upstairs. When he brought in the last two cans, he set them down to deadbolt the door and re-set the intrusion alarm. Then he carried the cans into his work room.
He took the cap off one, set it in the open doorway and tipped it over, so that gasoline flowed across the floor in the back part of the building. He opened the other and poured it onto the work room floor.
“Maybe we should stop it here, Josh,” Bertoli said.
“Play it!” I snapped.
Frank stood in the middle of the lake of gasoline with an odd smile on his face. He pulled a lighter from his pocket, kissed it, studied it for a few seconds, and flicked the wheel. Through the fireball, the camera showed Frank still holding the lighter as his skin blistered. Then the screen went black.
Hayes said, “That's when the alarm came in. Go to the outdoor cameras, Mario. Pizza cam, same time, four twenty-seven. We see fire in the windows, and at four twenty-eight, the drugstore cam shows the front windows blowing out on the ground floor and heavy fire upstairs.”
“You detectives want me to tell you why.”
“If you have ideas, we'd like to hear them.”
“I don't know. Sirens woke me. I smelled smoke, so I got dressed and ran down the street to see. The roof caved in soon after I got there,” I said, watching video of the inferno that had been Main Street Rare Books, my friend's home and life.
“Do you have any idea why Brown would do that? We know the business was turning a profit, so arson for insurance doesn't sound right,” Bertoli offered. “Besides, he had to know he'd die, starting it that way.”
“I never saw that expression on his face before. He looked like a madman. That's what gets me. Frank and I have been close friends since high school. I know his moods. He was fine when I left. He wasn't despondent or upset. He seemed excited about helping me get information about the drawing I bought. This doesn't make sense.”
“I'm sorry you had to see that, Mr. Singleton,” Bertoli said.
“If we're done here, I'd like to go. I think I ate something I shouldn't have.”
After being violently ill in the restroom in the police station lobby, I struggled outside. I wasn't sure I could drive, since my headache was so intense, but after I got in the car, I felt a little better. By the time I got back to my shop, I was well enough to shower and change clothes. Instead of opening for business, I got out my tools to begin work on the shelves I wanted to build.
That evening, I thought I was coming down with the flu again. I had ginger ale and saltines for dinner and crawled into bed.
Falling asleep wasn't easy. The images from those videos haunted me – watching your best friend burn himself to death doesn't lead to a restful night. Through my pounding headache, I tried to think in the darkness. What happened? Why did he get up in the middle of the night and commit suicide by self-immolation? Why the crazy smile? What drives a man to that?
In the shower the next morning, I promised myself to try to carry on as though Frank's death hadn't happened. I could make myself as crazy as he must have been by worrying about it, so I convinced myself to let it go. I'd never understand what he did.
It was time to get to work. I spent the entire day unpacking and pricing the rest of my purchases from the auction. Along with a lot of trash, I found a number of license plates from the 1940's, a few pieces of decent silver, a mint-condition yearbook from the local high school with both the Collins' senior pictures, and some nice old jewelry. Not a bad haul. I would get over two thousand dollars for this stuff.
Still, the drawing might be the big find. It seemed special, maybe valuable. I cleared an area on my desk and carefully spread out my sketch so I could study it. It was beautiful, powerful, its bold lines and careful shading making it seem alive.
Suddenly, I was confused. The monkey-thing had pointed ears and an ugly scowl, hateful eyes glaring toward the corner where Frank had taken his sample. Odd. I could have sworn it was staring directly at the viewer before. Ridiculous. Stress, grief, and oncoming illness explained everything. The awfulness of the scene matched my mood, almost cheered me up. If my drawing didn't turn out to be worth much, I'd frame it and hang it over the mantel, like the auctioneer said.
“Earth to Carl. You have customers in the shop,” a female voice behind me laughed.
I spun around in my chair, annoyed at the interruption, even though it was my old friend Marge. I always enjoyed her company on slow days in the store. Marge was the woman everyone thought I was going to marry when I got out of high school. We both knew it was a stupid idea, so we promised each other to be friends. Sometimes, she helped me out in the shop, or invited me to dinner with her husband Bob and their kids.
“They might like to buy something,” she giggled, setting down a carrier with two coffees from the shop around the corner.
We waited on the couple together, and Marge wrapped their purchases. She was always good with that, and I was happy for her help in packaging the set of antique glassware they bought.
Marge wanted to look at some old record albums I had on display, so I helped her sort through them. By the time she made her choice, my head hurt. “I want some of that coffee. I'm getting a headache. Caffeine sometimes helps.”
We went in the office and sat down. Marge opened our coffees, now cool enough to drink, and we talked about Frank. She told me more or less what was in the newspaper. Frank Brown died in an apparent arson fire that destroyed his shop. She speculated on who would have done such a horrible thing to a guy as nice as Frank.
Dabbing her eyes, she asked, “Did you get anything good at the Collins auction? You said you were going.”
“I did okay. I got some clothes I can sell for Halloween costumes. There was silverware in a few of the boxes I got as dollar man, enough to complete a nice service I already have of the same pattern, and some old license plates that are in decent shape.”
“What's that?” Marge asked, pointing to my drawing.
“Not sure yet. Frank thought it was pretty old, so I was going to do some research to see what I could learn about it. I have a feeling I've seen this picture before, or something like it. It's really pretty, isn't it?”
“I don't know that I'd call it pretty,” Marge said, standing up to get a better look at it. “It's well done, but that's not a pretty scene. I mean, look at the face on that thing! It looks like some sort of demon.” She leaned over to point at the monkey-like creature, spilling her half-full coffee cup.
I felt like I was moving in slow motion as I snatched my drawing away from the advancing flood. I was almost too late, but only a small part of the edge got wet. “You stupid clumsy bitch!” I screamed, frantically blotting at the tiny stain. It cleaned up easily, but I was still furious. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Carl, what the hell is wrong with you? I'm sorry, but aren't you over-reacting a little? Look at it. It's fine.”
“You could have ruined it! You could have ruined everything!”
“I'm sorry, Carl, I really am. You're right, I was clumsy. At least I didn't get coffee on your computer.”
“Computers can be replaced! The drawing can't! It's important. I have to protect it.” I inspected the sketch again, and when I couldn't find any damage, I felt myself calming down.
“You're really upset about Frank, aren't you?” she said.
“I am. I can't believe it happened.”
“Carl, I heard a rumor that Frank started the fire. One of my neighbors is a fireman, and his wife told me he smelled gasoline when he first got there, like there must have been a lot of it. She also said all the doors were locked from the inside. Why would he have gas in there?”
“I wish I knew. It's not a rumor. The police were here, asking about Frank, and they showed me security video that proves Frank did it. He brought the gasoline into the store in the middle of the night and intentionally lit the fire.”
“I don't know.”
When Marge left, I was almost glad. I've known her as long as I knew Frank, and I've always enjoyed her company, so I wondered why I was happier alone. Maybe it was guilt about snapping at her. At least my headache was gone.
A few more customers interrupted my day of researching my treasure. Along with the other things I wrote down, I made a note to look into different bulbs for the lighting in the display area of my store. Colors didn't look quite right out there, and it seemed like the light hurt my eyes. Every time I was in the sales area for a long time, my temples started to throb.
I was very glad to hang out my “Closed” sign. I wanted to learn more about the artist whose work this sketch may have been. Customers spending a few dollars were a distraction from spending time on the thing that might change my life.
The synthesized bells in the tower of the church up the street struck twelve midnight. No wonder I was exhausted. I went to bed without eating, hoping I might feel better in the morning if I let my system calm down.
My phone woke me from my fitful sleep before six in the morning. “Carl? It's Bob.”
“Bob, do you have any idea what time it is?”
He started crying. “I wanted to be the one to tell you. Marge is dead.”
“She's dead, Carl. What am I going to do? The kids are still in bed. My mother came over to watch them while I went with the police. She'd dead!” He didn't even try to stifle his wails this time.
“I don't know. She said she didn't feel well when we went to bed. I woke up when I heard her car in the middle of the night. I have no idea where she was going. Now she's dead!”
“She was in a car accident?”
“She was speeding, and the cops were chasing her. She ran cars off the road, and then she got on the freeway going the wrong direction. They said she was going over a hundred miles an hour when she veered off the pavement and into a bridge abutment. Why, Carl? Why would my baby do that?”
“Where are you now, Bob?”
“At the morgue. I have to fill out some forms, and then the cops will give me a ride home.”
“I'll go to your house and help your mom. We'll get through this.”
In the shower, I broke down. I had lost a second life-long friend before the memorial service for the first. No wonder I felt like hell.
I forced myself to eat breakfast, even though I didn't feel like it. Before I was halfway to Bob and Marge's place, I pulled off the road, my stomach cramping painfully as it emptied itself on the ground. My head pounded again, my joints ached, and I felt feverish and weak. Bob and the kids needed me, but they didn't need me to make them sick. I turned around and headed home. By the time I locked my car, I felt like I might live.
It was late enough in the morning that I thought the kids would be up and Bob would probably be home. His mom answered the phone. “Mrs. Fitzgerald, it's Carl Singleton. Bob called me. I'm so sorry about Marge. I told Bob I'd come over to help you, but I'm really sick.”
“That's all right, Carl,” she said. “You concentrate on getting better. I can hold down the fort. I did it before when Marge was sick. You know I used to babysit Frank, don't you? I watched you kids grow up. Maybe Frank's death was God preparing me for this.”
“Maybe. Tell Bob I'll call him this evening, regardless of how sick I am, or he can call me.”
I didn't open the shop. Instead, I went upstairs and crawled back in bed. I couldn't sleep, so I went downstairs with some ginger ale to study my drawing.
I felt half decent after an hour or two of studying nuances of the artist's work I hadn't noticed before, comparing it to renditions I found of similar subject matter. None of them were the same, although they contained the same elements – a sprawled-out woman, a demon, and a horse with bulging, blind-looking eyes. Oddly, in my drawing, it seemed the horse wasn't focused on the viewer, though I thought it looked that way before. Now, the horse appeared to be glaring off to one side, toward the slightly puckered edge dampened by Marge's spilled coffee.
My memory was playing tricks on me, not surprising, considering what I had experienced in the last two days. At least, sitting there with my drawing, I felt halfway healthy, thrilled with what I learned. My sketch was a definitely a preliminary study by Henry Fuseli for his “Nightmare” series. That or a damn good forgery.
I was deeply immersed in an article on art forgery when the buzzer on the front door of the shop went off. Damn it! What do they think a sign that says “CLOSED” in big black letters means?
The person buzzed again. And again, finally leaning on the buzzer for a while. Then the knocking started.
No! I wasn't going to answer. I had more important things to do. I needed to stay right here, learning more about my wonderful drawing.
The shop phone rang, but I let the answering machine get it. Then it was my apartment line, and finally my cell. I forced myself not to yell when I answered. “What do you want, Detective Bertoli?”
“Mr. Singleton, are you all right?”
“Never better! My two best friends just committed suicide, and I'm sick as a dog. Thanks for asking.”
“I'm not on duty right now. I'm at your door. May I come in? I'm worried about you.”
“Are you current on your shots? I don't know what I have. I keep thinking it's the flu, but the symptoms come and go.”
“I'll take my chances. Please open the door. I'm here as a man, not a cop.”
I unlocked the front door and walked back to my office, squinting with the pain in my head. As soon as I was better, I was definitely doing a lighting upgrade.
Bertoli closed and locked the door behind himself and followed me to my desk.
“Sit down, Detective Bertoli.”
“It's Mario. May I call you Carl?”
“That's my name.”
“Carl, I'm going to tell you something, but I'm going to ask you to keep it in confidence for now. Can I trust you to do that?”
“Of course, but what's all this about?”
“Some things leading up to Mrs. Fitzgerald's death. Her husband Robert doesn't know this yet.”
“You know she was being pursued by police, don't you?
“Bob told me.”
“Do you know why we were chasing her?”
“She was involved in some hit-and-runs and was going a hundred miles an hour the wrong way on the interstate.”
“Yes, but the original pursuit started when her car was seen leaving at a high rate of speed from two different store break-ins.”
“Store break-ins? Marge?”
“Your friend was a recovering alcoholic, wasn't she?”
“Yes. She just celebrated the fifteen year anniversary of her last drink. Was she drunk?”
“No. Zero blood alcohol, but she broke into a liquor store and a drugstore. We found a large amount of sleeping pills, a pack of razor blades, and some broken wine bottles in the wreckage.”
“I don't believe it. Marge wouldn't do that.”
“From what we know, Mrs. Fitzgerald wouldn't do a lot of the things she did this morning. She broke into a liquor store. The owner saw her and confronted her, but she threw a bottle at him and sped away. He got her license number and called it in. The pursuit started when she hit a police car responding to the drugstore alarm. This was a woman who never even had a parking ticket.”
“That's crazy. Marge was a careful driver. I would have trusted her with my car any time. When she was a drinker, she never drove.”
“Carl, this is important. You went to school with her. Did she drive fast then? The units chasing her said she drove like a pro, knocking cars out of the way like a stunt driver. Maybe she just never got caught driving recklessly.”
“No. Marge was a total safety nut. Always had to have the best tires, changed her wiper blades before she needed to, never exceeded the speed limit, wouldn't start the car until everyone fastened their seat-belt, the whole bit.”
“Her seat-belt was buckled behind her. Cars like hers chime the whole time you have the key on if you don't buckle the driver's belt, so people who insist on not wearing one have to buckle it and sit on it. You would think someone like Mrs. Fitzgerald would be the last one to do that.”
“Unless she wanted to die. Maybe Marge was afraid she wouldn't get the chance to swallow those pills with that wine or cut an artery. A high speed run into a concrete bridge was her fall-back plan.”
“So you think it's a suicide too, Carl. Do you have any idea why?”
“No. She stopped by here yesterday afternoon. We quarreled, something we haven't done since we dated in high school, but it wasn't anything you kill yourself over.”
“She told her husband you were in a bad mood yesterday.”
“Big shock there. I feel like hell. I can't keep anything down. I thought I was running a fever this morning when I tried to drive to Bob's house after he called me. I got so sick I had to turn around and come home. I have a headache a lot of the time. I feel like crying or smashing things, and I'm so damn weak. The only thing that's keeping me sane right now, I think, is researching the drawing I bought at the Collins sale.”
“You mentioned that. You said you showed it to Frank.”
“Yeah. He even translated the note Collins wrote on the back.”
“May I see it?” Bertoli asked.
“Sure. It's beautiful. I'm so lucky I found it in a box of trash I got from the sale.” Carefully, I spread it out on my desk. “Look. Isn't it amazing? Every time I look at it, I see more detail.”
Bertoli stood next to me, studying it. “The demon or incubus or whatever that thing is and the horse look like they're staring right through me. Do you think this is holy water or poison?” he asked, pointing at a bottle on a table near the woman's bed, something I hadn't noticed before.
“Please don't touch it,” I cried out, shielding it from his hand. “It's kind of fragile.”
“Um, sure, sorry. What does the note say on the back?”
I turned the paper over.
“Oh,” Bertoli said. “I had to study Latin in Catholic school. That's a pretty stern warning.”
“That's what Frank said.”
Bertoli stepped back from my desk. “I should be going. We promised to tell you anything we found out about the fire, and I thought I owed you the truth about Mrs. Fitzgerald, too. I'll pray for them.”
Without another word, he left my office, fumbled in his pocket for something, and opened the front door. He stood outside, watching me lock up, and then walked away. I saw what he pulled from his pocket – his rosary.
I went back to my office and studied the drawing again against prints I made of the completed paintings. Their composition was different from the sketch, though they were obviously all inspired by the same power. Even though the paintings added color to help tell their story to the viewer, I decided I liked my pencil sketch better. The incubus was the focal point. He seemed much larger than before.
The damn phone rang again. It was Bob. What was I supposed to say to him? I finally shut the ringer off. I didn't feel like I was dying, for a change, so I decided to rummage around in my kitchen. I headed for the stairs, but then realized I could work on my research about the drawing while I ate, so I carefully carried it and my laptop upstairs and set up shop at the kitchen table.
Canned soup never tasted so good. Mindful of the risk of spilling something on my sketch, I ate standing up at the counter. An hour after I finished the soup, I knew it wasn't enough. My stomach felt good, and it clamored for more. I worked a little longer, and then made myself a proper early dinner. I ate quickly, running back and forth between the counter and the table, chewing while I searched for more information about the artist and his work.
After doing the dishes, I moved my base of operations to the sofa. With my sketch carefully laid out on the coffee table, I went back to work, although my eyes were constantly drawn to the drawing instead of the computer. When I stopped to watch the eleven o'clock news, I dozed off. I woke up sometime in the middle of the night, took my off shoes, and stretched out more comfortably. Light from the street-lamp let me see my treasure again before I closed my eyes. The incubus' facial expression had calmed into a cruel grin. I slept soundly.
In the morning, I felt better than I had in days, well-rested, and ready to get to the bottom of the mystery of my beautiful sketch. Ignoring my empty stomach, I carried things down to the office, and typed up everything I had learned about this amazing piece of art. Stopping frequently to examine it for inspiration, I found myself wondering if I would ever sell it, no matter what it turned out to be worth. Besides, how would I prove its value? I wasn't about to mail it off to some lab. I didn't want it out of my sight that long.
By early afternoon, I decided I should make something to eat. I went up to the kitchen, but before I could open the refrigerator, I was attacked by a vicious headache and sudden stomach upset, the combination I knew all too well. I grabbed the bucket I kept under the sink, and stumbled weakly downstairs. After an hour or two, I felt amazingly better and quite hungry, so I decided to get a pizza from the shop across the parking lot from the remains of Frank's store.
Less than fifty feet from my door, the nausea hit. The ache I felt in my joints the day before was nothing compared to the grinding agony of every movement I made stumbling back to my shop. As I fumbled with the keys, I cursed myself, wondering why a man as sick as I was would think about pizza.
After an hour of resting my sweaty head on my desk, I felt a lot better, ready to resume my web-searching. I looked at the sketch again, and was startled to see that the incubus now appeared to be beckoning to me. I tried to blame it on the stress and horror of the last few days. A tiny part of me knew what I thought I saw was impossible, but my love for the drawing insisted that I was making it all up.
The headline story in the evening paper that day was about Frank. His parents had posted a sizable reward for information that might lead to the arrest and conviction of his killer. They refused to believe Frank killed himself. His memorial service was scheduled for the next morning. Sick or not, I had to go.
I was weak with exhaustion and hunger. I started up the steps to make dinner, but the pain in my joints, head, and gut made it impossible. Afraid of passing out and falling down the stairs, I stumbled back to the desk and flopped in my chair.
My cell phone woke me. Early afternoon sun streamed through the shades on my office windows. I had missed my best friend's funeral. The phone sounded its alert for a new voicemail. “Carl, it's Bob. I'm worried about you, man. Why weren't you at Frank's service? He was your best friend, wasn't he? Are you okay? I haven't heard from you since I called you about Marge. We're having a small thing for her tomorrow morning at ten. It would mean a lot to the kids and me if you were there. I think Marge would want that too. Please call me.”
I started to call him back, but then stopped. What was I going to say? “Hey, buddy, sorry I didn't go to the funeral for my life-long friend who went nuts and roasted himself alive. I'll be sure to come and cry with you over your lovely wife-turned-criminal, who intentionally splattered herself against a concrete wall.”
Who was I kidding? I knew I couldn't go to Marge's service. Even though I felt half alive at the moment, I knew I'd be too sick to even get in my car.
Since I had no intention of opening the shop, I gathered my power saw, hammer, and nails, and resumed work on my shelf-building project. My head was killing me, so I stopped and got some aspirin and a cup of water from the bathroom next to my office and sat at my desk to examine my drawing again. Odd. For just an instant, I thought it looked like the incubus was covering its pointy ears, almost as though the scream of my saw was too loud for it. I was lost in thought about that when I heard the accursed buzzer on my front door.
Damn it! Didn't these morons know I had more important things to do than stand in my shop with them for an hour, making small talk, just so they could hand me a couple of bucks for some trash?
Someone started knocking on the back door of my shop, hammering incessantly on it. I struggled to my feet and looked through the peephole. Bertoli again. I unlocked the door, opened it, and shuffled back to my desk.
“Carl, you look like hell.”
“Thanks. It's how I feel.”
“You would be too, if you couldn't eat.”
“Bob Fitzgerald called me and asked if I had heard from you. He's concerned, since you haven't returned his calls and didn't go to Frank Brown's service today.”
“You saw the paper, didn't you? How was I supposed to face Frank's parents? It sounds like they don't know the truth about how he died.”
“We told them Frank started the fire, but they don't believe us. The mayor won't let us show them the video from inside the shop, so they're convinced we're wrong about the cause of his death. They're threatening a lawsuit against the city, since we're calling it a suicide.”
“Morons. What else could it have been? You told them no one came and went from the building, didn't you?”
“They insist we're wrong. Carl, why didn't you go to his service?”
“I slept right through it. I fell asleep here at my desk. Maybe I even passed out. I don't know. I'm so weak and tired. I tried to go upstairs to bed last night, but I couldn't do it.”
“When was the last time you had a decent meal?”
“I'm dieting, Detective.”
“When was the last time you took a shower or shaved?”
“What business is it of yours? Is there a new hygiene ordinance I'm violating?”
“Of course not. I know you've had a rough couple of days, between being sick and all the horror you've gone through. Maybe you should see a doctor.”
“Why would I go to the doctor for the flu? So he can charge me a hundred dollars and tell me to stay hydrated?”
“I wasn't talking about a general practitioner. You need to talk to someone.”
“I'm fine. See? I'm busy building new shelves to better display my wonderful merchandise.”
“How's the research on your drawing going?”
“Right now, it's the only good thing I have. I'm positive it's the work of an eighteenth century artist named Henry Fuseli. He made preliminary sketches for some of his paintings. My treasure is a study for 'The Nightmare,' series, probably his most famous work. Look.”
I showed him prints of the known versions of “The Nightmare” and a few other Fuseli paintings, pointing out similarities between them and my wondrous sketch.
“You're probably right. Carl. The horse looks crazy in all of them, just like it does on your sketch, and the incubus is glaring at the viewer, almost like he's challenging us to take the woman away from him. He looks very possessive.”
“Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?”
Bertoli regarded it for a moment. “No, honestly, I find it very disturbing, almost evil.”
“You're an idiot. If you can't see why this work is so important, if you can't appreciate the beauty of it, you could at least keep your dumb cop opinion to yourself. I'm busy. It's time for you to leave.”
Bertoli rose and headed for the door. “Bob asked me to call him back if I got to speak to you. Should I tell him to expect you at Marge's funeral tomorrow?”
“Tell him whatever you want. Now, get out!” I slammed and bolted the door behind him.
I flopped in my chair again and lost myself in the strange and wonderful beauty of my sketch. How could he be so insensitive? Bertoli was as bad as Frank and Marge, not respecting my precious and inspired piece of art.
As bad as Frank and Marge. Yes, that was why I didn't like him. At least he hadn't done anything to actually harm my treasure. If he had, I might have killed him myself, I thought, staring lovingly at the life-like detail of the gift given to me. I turned the paper over, remembering Frank's translation of the Latin inscription on the back: “Respect this, or suffer. You will welcome death.” Frank and Marge hadn't shown the proper respect to my precious drawing, damaging it with their carelessness. Then they killed themselves. Well, good. Cretins like them didn't deserve to live.
I turned the drawing over again. The incubus smiled at me. The grin seemed genuine, almost conspiratorial. We shared a secret. He knew I understood the responsibility for his safety lay in my hands.
Following links in a new search, I learned more about incubi – fascinating creatures, all about need and taking. Legend and fiction concentrated on their sexuality, but they took more than the honor of their prey. Souls were their life-blood. They drained a victim of their strength and consumed the remaining husk of their humanity. Satan's worker-bees, their purpose was to transfer mortals to their Master in Hell.
The logic of it was insanely beautiful. That's what Fuseli's sketch represented. Like a bee, the incubus would lash out to defend itself. It didn't physically kill its enemies. It made them do it themselves. In Fuseli's day, much of Christianity believed suicide was the express route to Hell.
Obviously, Collins understood the danger of the incubus. I started to think I did too.
My printouts fit in my laptop case, making it easy to take the drawing upstairs with me when the sun set. I thawed a left-over Easter dinner and ate walking back and forth from my plate on the counter to my drawing and computer on the table. When I was sure the exhaust fan would keep the moisture under control, I set up a tray in the bathroom door, showering for the first time in days. Clearing my nightstand afterward, I smoothed a fresh pillow where the street-lamp would allow me to see my drawing.
In the morning, I chose some clean clothes, and took everything downstairs after breakfast. The sketch looked perfect, carefully propped on the shelf behind the cash register. Maybe it was the contrast of Bertoli's black and white rendering with the hodgepodge of colors in my store, but somehow, the lighting looked better. After a quick dust and polish of my inventory, I got to work on my shop windows. Careful buying throughout the year gave me some “killer” ideas for last-minute upgrades to my Halloween display.
A few customers came in and bought things I was going to use, but the addition of one of Collins' Elvis-on-velvet atrocities made my windows perfect. I hung my blood-red curtains after waiting on the last customer of the night. Instead of my usual closed sign, I wrote on a chalkboard, “You need what I have for Halloween. See you at dawn.”
The pizza shop down the street delivered in thirty minutes. I devoured the huge antipasto, planning to re-heat the pizza after I closed Halloween night. With a long day ahead of me, I managed to get everything upstairs. In the shower, I figured out how to build a proper and safe place for my treasure. I drew it on my laptop between bites of my pre-dawn breakfast, and I had everything ready to build my little shrine by the time I opened my curtains and unlocked the door.
Two stamp collectors bought complete costumes for themselves and their girlfriends, helped me re-sort the Collins envelopes, and then bought most of them for more than I had planned to ask. I sold some Asian rugs I planned to throw away at the end of the year. By evening, collectors and college kids had cleaned out my windows so I could set up my winter display.
Re-heated pizza is always a favorite. After dinner, we went downstairs. My measurements would work. The reason for my continued existence would have a proper place to live. Four hours and one blood blister later, the shrine was ready for paint. Carefully, I picked up the drawing to wave any dust from it.
At the top of the steps, I nearly collapsed with pain. Why? Now what? Under the light at the kitchen table, I saw it. The gorilla-sized creature dominated the emaciated woman beneath it, and the horse reared up to be able to see over the hunched back of the enraged demon. Both glared at the tiny bloodstain on the upper edge where my injured right ring finger had touched it.
I retched all the way downstairs and uncoiled my long extension cord.
“It's bad in there, sir.” the obviously shaken young cop said. “You might want a mask.”
“Josh, what do we have?” Bertoli called, jogging from his car.
“I haven't been inside yet, but the rookie over there almost lost his breakfast. Ready?”
The two detectives put on gloves and masks and walked to the office in the back of the store.
Detective Bertoli crossed himself. “He used his electric saw? Wait. Wasn't Singleton right-handed?”
“I think so. Yeah.” Hayes said. “How does a right-handed man make such a clean cut though his own right arm with a circular saw?”
Bertoli pulled out his rosary. “Where is that drawing?”
Rod Serling would sometimes end his show with a voice-over, a creepy summation of what the viewer had endured, like this:
“Carl Singleton was a skeptic. He dealt in realities, relics, and artifacts. He didn't appreciate the power art can have over a man's soul, especially in The Night Gallery.”
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