Momentarily another officer came down the stairs carrying a third bag. The detective, seeking to divert the painter’s attention, rose abruptly, swept around the table, and lifted his cape in the manner of Béla Lugosi. His question lunged at the man. “Are you also a writer, sir?”
Aloysius squirmed on feeling the attending officer smash his finger against the inkpad. He assumed Pincher referred to his journal on the table, which he brought in from the car. “Well,” he hemmed.
“It started as fiction. Now it’s a memoir.”
“It usually works the other way round,” mused the critic. “When an artist turns to writing his autobiography, it is generally to canonize himself.”
If it was in Aloysius’ head to say anything, he was taken aback when the detective plopped a gloved thumb down on the tabletop with a scowl. Something was squashed, and it was likely a flea. The glee in the exterminator’s eye was more like Rensfield than Dracula, though nothing was added to it when he withdrew the thumb. When he spoke again, it was to return to a formulation. “First impressions being what they are, Mr. Gauge,” he said, “you strike me as something of an imposter.”
“I do not say this to be accusatory, but to highlight the difficulty you present me as a case study.” He looked around at the sparsely furnished room. “I cannot connect you to the décor. Honestly, I cannot see you being easily domesticated in any setting.”
“I inherited this place,” Aloysius volunteered. “The furniture came with the house.”
“Ah!” Pincher exclaimed.
The painter winced when his finger was pricked for blood. The officer taking the sample directly cleared away his materials, though the inspector continued to loom.
“One more thing,” he announced.
A videocassette was produced from beneath the flowing cloak and set on the table.
“Is this tape connected to the video equipment in your upstairs closet?”
Not knowing the contents of the videocassette, Aloysius turned pale. He explained, “I filmed myself sleeping last night to see if I was sleepwalking.”
“Have you made that determination?”
“I haven’t had a chance to watch it.”
Pincher requisitioned the evidence with another flourish of his cape, postulating, “This may settle the question of time, as well as provide you with an alibi. You have no objections to us borrowing this?”
Aloysius’ nod went wobbly.
The detective’s friendlier tone took on a sudden note of severity. “We are not taking you into custody at this time, Mr. Gauge. Our concern here, given what you have told us about your sleepwalking, is you cannot account for your movements last night. I am giving you the benefit of a doubt until a preponderance of evidence leads me to think otherwise.” He circled the table with stiff formality, adding, “I do have one last request to make of you: that you not leave town without telling us.”
The resident did not endorse the recommendation.
“I bid you good evening, sir. Good evening.”
Pincher gesticulated testily at those around him, and stepped briskly into the next room, with cape fluttering behind him; the officers in the kitchen followed at his heels. When the tenant turned to view the stampede, the inspector was nowhere to be seen. Several policemen were preparing to leave, but the theatrical man had vanished. Within seconds all the company and their equipment were packed up and gone.
Aloysius rose to close the front door, half-expecting to see a straggler making for it in a dash, but the house was empty. He ran upstairs to find the bedroom intact. If investigators went through his drawers and wastebaskets, they punctiliously replaced the contents as they found them.
The resident gravitated to his studio to sulk.
This part of the house, like the bedroom, initially showed no evidence of disruption, yet on peering at the shelf where the mysterious suitcase had lain, he was dumbfounded to see it removed; all the stray schematics in the floor were likewise missing. It seemed improbable the police would seize the suitcase and its contents as evidence of anything, and doubly improbable they would simply take them after the detective made a point of asking to borrow the videotape.
This invasion upset him, and Pincher’s unsolicited critique of his art was especially galling. It was in these rare moments when someone bothered to have an opinion of his work that Aloysius rose to its defense.
His latest painted monster was based on a fragmented female torso, and its presentation might conceivably alarm anyone suspicious of the painter’s character. As depicted the right arm of the torso bowed outward along the ribcage to reveal a large disembodied eye in the gap. Torn skin at the crease of the buttocks opened to expose a snarling mouth running to the shoulder blades, where, nestled in black, purplish lips, a flayed body gave the creature its form. Muscles glistened in glazes of perylene red and manganese blue, and taken together they made the human trunk resemble a bloated tongue cradled between large wet teeth. The painting was unusually illustrative for the usually abstruse artist, and tied into a recurrent oral fixation in his dreams. As with glue in his mouth, or crumbling teeth in his gums, the portrayal was a desire he could neither ingest nor articulate.
Typically his representations of the female body were more totemistic assemblage than whole individuals, which left women in art school to initially label him a misogynist. This painting would also be open to that unimaginative charge, but Aloysius’ aims truly originated from a different impulse. Perception was a barrier in his tumultuous work, though it was the female body, particularly, that stood between him and what lay beyond perception. As symbol or object it kept him shackled to the representational world of things: to the very realm that gave expression to all his anxieties and phobias. He could just endure to paint it flying apart at the seams.
After forty minutes of pacing and venting, Aloysius turned to his studio door to leave. In haste he almost missed a piece of paper stuck behind a utility cabinet. It was a stray schematic from the suitcase, and was proof he did not invent seeing them. He un-snagged the drawing and examined it carefully.
To his surprise, it was a diagram of a box similar to the one in the hall painting. He had no idea if the blueprint was the inspiration for the artwork, or whether the box had been built, but the schematic provided no clear purpose for the contraption. Cryptic instructions hinted at some practical use: To restart, reset breaker.
The coincidence of the black box showing up on a random drawing highlighted the painting’s continuing enigma, as well as the enigma of its creator.
Creaking rose on the steps outside the studio, sending an alarmed Aloysius to the switch plate—it was likely old timbers of the house. Jumpy, the resident decided to go on campus and research his haunted house’s architect. He passed quickly through the kitchen, though faltered at the refrigerator door. At first he thought it was a joke, but the words I Love You were written in pencil in the lower left hand corner of Brae’s drawing. Had Aloysius failed to notice the faint inscription? Had the inquisitive detective failed to mention it? Both possibilities seemed unlikely.
The uneven letters were exaggerated on the upstroke, where a person strained on tiptoe to maintain contact with the paper. Equally unnerving, the fine lines were made with a hard-tipped pencil, not unlike the HB pencil used in his journal sitting on the kitchen table. Was it possible someone else was in the house? Was it possible someone could hide well enough in a secret place to evade detection, even from the police?
The anxious man spoke his hope aloud. “Brae…? Are you here?”
The dark house did not answer.
Aloysius grabbed his jacket and set off for campus.
Chapter Twelve/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.