On many rain-soaked afternoons I find myself in a restless state of mind. Invariably I make my way to the National Gallery to view the wondrous art treasures housed within its confines. Hours feel like minutes as I stroll through the marble corridors. The framed paintings look like windows peering into strange and unseen worlds. It is no secret that the sum of my own artistic ability can rest comfortably in the confines of a thimble. This could account for the sincere admiration I feel toward anyone with courage enough to put brush to canvas. Whether painted by a master or a novice it is the use of color and the truth of emotion exuded by the work that endlessly draws my attention. One painter’s work that even the most ardent art lover will never find on display is that of Monsieur Gaetan Lafleur. I am lucky enough to possess one of his smaller paintings, which resides in a place of honor on the wall of my private study. Gossip would have it that the others are in the hands of collectors, but I know better.
* * * *
The bottle stared at him. In the candlelight the decorative label glittered brightly. The bottle itself cast shimmering green shadows over the room. The artist however saw none of this. He had been sitting in front of the blank canvas for an hour. He groped beside him until his fingers felt the familiar shape of the dried out hunk of rye bread he had been eating. There was little money left to him during the good weeks. During bad stretches all he could afford was old rye bread, that and the bottle. It was always a debate amongst outsiders just how the artist paid his rent. His mind did not wish to dwell upon the services he provided his odious landlady every week. Given what he felt and smelled during their romps he supposed it was just as well that he could not see. The bread stuck to the roof of his mouth as he chewed. He wondered if this was what saw dust tasted like. He had been through bad stretches before and he would go through them again. At first the novelty was enough. Buy a canvas painted by a blind artist. Only now it seemed that nobody wanted his paintings of flowers or trees. Sales slowed to a trickle and of late had stopped completely. He got up and opened a window. He hated it when the air in his rooms got that stale, musty odor.
When he sat back down he knew that his situation had not improved. The canvas was still blank. He could see it in his mind’s eye. It was large, white and blank like a single tooth in a giant black maw. What to paint he wondered. It would seem that no one in Paris wanted pictures of landscapes. He had once tried his hand at portraits but that was a frightful disaster. He swatted the breadcrumbs off of his legs as they fell from his mouth. His hand reached across the table and found the bottle. As soon as the vessel was uncorked the scent of licorice filled the air. It truly was vile tasting stuff, but word had it that it got the creative juices flowing. He poured himself a small cupful. He re-corked the bottle and held the cup up to his lips. It was best just to gulp it down all at once. With a quick convulsive movement the foul tasting liquor shot down his throat. He could feel the sliding warmth flowing down to his stomach. The artist picked up his brush and waited. He knew that it probably would not work right away, but you never could tell. It did not take long before Gaetan began to feel the effect of the drink. A few moments more and he had fallen dead asleep.
A loud knocking outside jarred the painter from his leaden slumber. He had a horrid taste in his mouth and his limbs almost refused to carry him to the door.
“Lafleur! Wake up!” It was Jardeau. Alfred Jardeau was always a bit too lively in the morning for Gaetan’s taste, but the man was a very reliable alarm clock and more importantly his best friend. Ever since they met at one of Gaetan’s exhibitions, the two became fast friends. Alfred was a patron of the arts on a small scale and always expressed admiration for Lafleur’s work. With much effort the painter opened the door. His friend strode past him into the room.
“Gaetan I truly don’t know what looks worse, you or this room.” Jardeau offered by way of greeting. To say that the artist’s quarters were a shambles would have been a dreadful understatement. Given the nature of his handicap this was a most unusual circumstance. He took great pains in keeping his rooms orderly, as any derivation from the norm would simply cause unnecessary confusion. The painter stifled a sickening belch that filled his mouth with a ghastly taste of licorice tinged with vomit.
“What do you mean?” The painter asked. Jardeau was incredulous.
“You jest. The place looks like the Imperial Guard was billeted here last night. Your chairs are tipped over, there are dishes and cups strewn about…ah but at least you were productive. Yes, quite productive indeed. Although I must say it is a stark departure from your usual work.” Jardeau’s voice had a thoughtful tone when he looked at the canvas. Lafleur’s head was still buzzing.
“Productive?” The artist sounded genuinely confused. The lively Jardeau howled with boisterous laughter.
“What was in that bottle of yours anyway?” He laughed some more as he began to pick up around his friend’s domicile.
“Yes. I am glad to see you painting again, but I never pegged you for this sort of stuff. Bosch would be proud.” Jardeau enjoyed dropping artists’ names now and then to make himself sound more cultured. Lafleur’s ears pricked up.
“Bosch?” He had heard a great deal about this man. Canvasses that fairly dripped with evil. Demons, phantoms and other horrors all painted at the height of their malevolence. Jardeau examined the canvas more closely. The artist always valued his friend’s opinion of his work.
“Hmmm…I truly did not think that this appealed to you. I mean your color palette is usually much more verdant with a nice pastoral air to your work, but this…” Jardeau paused, “this is such a dark motif, especially your use of the layers of red against black.” He sounded like an aspiring critic. The artist jogged his memory but did not remember much of anything about the previous night, much less painting anything.
“Do you like it?” It was all he could ask as his head throbbed. Jardeau considered the work for a moment and took a step back.
“I must admit it is strangely compelling. Like watching a public execution.” Jardeau snickered. Lafleur cringed. There was already so much horror in the world, why should his brush add anything to it? His friend’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
"You know this sort of thing is all the rage just now. I’d be willing to bet that you could get a few bits of gold for this. In the meantime let’s get this place back into order. We can’t have your pigments getting confused, although you will need more red and black before you resume your work."
The painter, with completed canvas in hand grabbed his cane and accompanied Jardeau to the shop that he owned in the merchant quarter. Lafleur liked the tailor’s company. On occasion he was able to assist him with retrieving the different fabrics from the back room, which he could discern by touch. And besides, any extra silver in his pocket could help stave off the landlady’s advances. Jardeau proudly hung the macabre canvas in the front window of his shop. It did not take long before the inquiries were being made by patrons as to who the artist was, were there any more works like this, and most important to both men, what were they asking for it? The tailor spent as much time hawking for Lafleur’s art as he did altering garments that day. He could not remember when he last saw his friend in such a pleased state of mind.
That night however, Gaetan was anything but pleased. He found himself once again sitting before an empty canvas. He had assured his friend that he would be able to reproduce the horrible painting, but now he was not so sure. He had hoped for something more than the crusty rye bread for dinner but he had to buy paint. At least he had enough for a purchase from the watering hole as well. He choked down the crumbly bread and uncorked the bottle. It worked once before, so why not now? The licorice flavored brew rolled down his throat. Gaetan suppressed a shudder. He hated the taste, but if this was the price to be paid for the spark of creation, then so be it.
“Wake up Lafleur!” A loud knocking reverberated in Gaetan’s head as he struggled to rouse himself. The knocking continued. Jardeau’s voice hammered it’s way into the painter’s consciousness.
“One moment please.” Came the beleaguered response as Lafleur stumbled over a misplaced chair before getting to the door. The latch was unhooked and as soon as the door had cracked open a bit, Jardeau barged into the painter’s domicile.
“Tell me you heard nothing last night.” The tailor blustered. Lafleur was still trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head.
“What are you talking about?” The painter quietly asked. His friend’s voice was ever mirthful.
“Your dear landlady was murdered last night. O calamity most foul, for whoever now will be the recipient of your weekly visitations?” Jardeau joked with his usual snicker. Gaetan frowned.
“Perhaps your wife.” The painter retorted. Jardeau howled with laughter.
“A most amusing thought. At least by putting her mouth to it’s one pleasurable use you might keep her silent for a period of time.” Alfred only half-joked. The painter chuckled in spite of the ever-mounting evidence that a hangover was in store for him this morning. The tailor peered at a finished canvas that sat in his friend’s easel.
“Ah, at least you have an alibi for when the constable come knocking.” Jardeau sounded relieved. The artist took hold of his friend’s somewhat flabby arm.
“What do you mean? What alibi?” Lafleur quickly asked. The tailor slapped his friend on the back.
“One day I will have to try that awful stuff you drink. Clearly it packs quite a punch. My dear Gaetan, if you had the time to paint this then clearly you did not have time to murder the landlady.” Jardeau sounded like he was giving a lecture in logistics. Gaetan was stunned.
“Painted what?” The painter fairly pleaded. The tailor sat his friend down.
“You really do not remember?” Jardeau inquired before he described the painting to his sightless companion.
“It really is quite frightening. The teeth especially, good God I would shudder to think that such a thing existed anywhere…even in Hell.” The tailor sounded genuinely disturbed. Lafleur began to doubt the wisdom of painting after drinking that stuff ever again.
A knock thundered on the front door. Jardeau got up and answered it. It was Inspector Rochet, the police detective.
“Good Morning gentlemen. May I have a word?” The deep rumble of the constable’s voice startled the painter more so than his sudden knock. The blind artist stood to greet his guest as best he could.
“Please come in.” Gaetan said. The detective ducked his considerable height under the doorway arch. Rochet’s expression softened slightly when he saw that Gaetan could not see. He stroked his drooping black, moustache as he took in his host. Surely this man had not the capacity for what he witnessed at the ghastly crime scene, but if local gossip was to be believed, he certainly had a motive, and there was the strange red stains on his hands.
“I’m sorry to disturb you but I am investigating the murder of Madame DuValle. Did you hear anything last night Monsieur?” The Inspector sounded very businesslike.
“No Inspector. I was somewhat in my cups last night and after finishing the painting on the stand there I went to sleep.” Gaetan immediately replied. The detective scanned the room. He approached the painting of the demon and carefully inspected it. The maliciously colored canvas as well as Gaetan’s hands which still smelled of moist oil paint, the mostly empty liquor bottle on the table and the smell of the painter’s breath corroborated the story. The tailor’s curiosity however would not be quenched.
“What happened to her Inspector?” He asked almost matter-of-factly. The detective stopped short a moment, locked eyes with Jardeau and simply shook his head slowly. With that, he excused himself and left to question more of Gaetan’s neighbors. Jardeau whistled long and low.
“What is the world coming to? Best to be off to work. You can join me if you like. I’ll even buy breakfast. Just wash up first and see if you can get that paint off your hands.”
With the addition of the new rendering to his resume, Gaetan began to wonder if perhaps he did indeed have this sort of inspiration in his soul. He did not relish the idea that his artwork would be shocking or frightening, but if he was able to have it put some gold in his pocket then he was just going to have to get used to it. And yet, he would be damned if he could remember painting it. If Jardeau saw paint on his hands though surely he must have. The artist’s thoughts brightened with the premise of spending the whole day at his friend’s shop. After a relatively busy day an officer from the Royal Gallery arrived to inquire about the painting in the window. Words were exchanged, a price agreed upon, and the canvas was removed. Jardeau pressed a pouch full of gold into the painter’s hand.
“Here you go Gaetan. This will keep you well fed for a good long time I should think.” He sounded genuinely pleased at his friend’s good fortune. The artist felt the heft of the purse and was delighted. A smile split across his face as he felt the weight of his financial concerns being lifted from his shoulders.
“Come, let’s celebrate tonight. Dinner is on me.” The jovial tailor put his arm around Gaetan’s shoulder as he made his offer for the evening meal.
After a night of some well-deserved relief and revel, the artist excused himself, and cane in hand, tapped his way toward his home. On the way he passed by several ladies of the evening. One with a particularly pleasant voice stopped Gaetan in his tracks. He felt the purse weigh very heavily indeed on his belt as he remembered just how long it had been since he had done it of his own free will. He produced a coin from the purse and offered it to the girl. Mary-Elyse was her name. The smell of vanilla gently danced off of the girl’s skin and was easily the sweetest scent Gaetan had smelled on a woman in all his life. They talked amiably about the weather, the girl’s family, and how she had to take on the oldest profession by way of a desperate need for money when her parents died. When Gaetan asked what she looked like, she told him (truthfully) that she had blonde hair and green eyes as they walked arm in arm and soon arrived at the painter’s flat.
Upon entering Gaetan’s rooms, Mary-Elyse was immediately struck by the number of paints and canvasses that were present.
“You’re an artist?” She inquired. The painter nodded.
“But you’re blind.” She sounded doubtful. He laughed in spite of the blatant pronouncement of his handicap.
“Ah, you noticed. Yes. As far as I know I’m the only blind painter of any talent in all Paris.” LaFleur answered proudly. One particular canvas caught the girl’s attention.
“It looks like you are starting something new.” Mary-Elyse said as she further explored the flat. Gaetan’s mind hiccupped for a moment.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“This picture here. It looks like you’ve just begun. There’s just a plain black canvas.” She said as she led him over to his easel.
The painter grew suddenly fearful. She had brought him to the easel where the finished painting that the police inspector saw this morning had stood. What was going on here? First pictures appeared without his knowledge and now they fade without any aid as well? His fingers found a bottle on the table and he opened it. He raised it to his mouth and immediately put it back down. The smell was overpowering. He had grabbed a bottle of paint thinner by mistake. He groped around a bit more and found another long-necked glass vessel. He uncorked it and raised it to his nose. Licorice scent filled his nostrils. After taking a large gulp, he offered it to Mary-Elyse. She sniffed the contents and politely refused. Gaetan had another pull that emptied the bottle and without further preamble took Mary-Elyse by the hand and led her into his bedroom.
The next morning the artist opened his eyes and sat up. He reached over and called her name, but Mary-Elyse was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it’s just as well that she let herself out. He would hate to have to offer nothing but his old rye bread to breakfast upon. The bells of the church rang out the time. Gaetan counted along. Nine…Ten…Eleven. Eleven? He never slumbered this late. Perhaps his little romp with Mary-Elyse had exhausted him more than he thought. He groped his way to the wardrobe and not seeing the newly mangled corpse of Mary-Elyse inside, fetched himself some clothes. After getting washed and changed, the painter grabbed his cane and tapped his way to Jardeau’s shop. The tailor sprang to life when he saw his friend enter.
“My God Lafleur, you look like shit!” The greeting would have lingered close to insult if not for his friend’s jovial tone. The painter smiled as his friend shook his hand and bade him to sit down. Lafleur listened, as his friend bemoaned how he had sold nothing all day. Then the artist recounted the events of the previous evening after they had parted company. Jardeau smiled and nodded approvingly when Mary-Elyse was mentioned. Then the tailor’s brow furrowed when his friend told him of the black canvas.
“Are you sure that you did not start a new picture? Or perhaps you moved the easel’s position. By your own admission you were feeling the drink’s effects mightily.” Jardeau offered by way of explaination. The artist shook his head.
“Alfred, let me confide in you.” He timidly asked. The tailor clapped a hand on Gaetan’s shoulder.
“Of course. What is it?” He could tell his friend was very troubled. The painter sighed and recounted all of the instances of memory loss that he had been experiencing as of late. How he was afraid it was much more than the effects of drink. How he had no recollection at all of the last two paintings that were found completed in his home. He also told of how as far as he knew he did not start another black canvas. The tailor’s heart pitied his friend. Not only was he cursed with blindness, but also to be troubled of mind in this way was simply too much burden for one man.
“Very well Gaetan, I have a solution. This evening I will accompany you home. You will retrace your steps and routine of evenings past and we will stay that way, watchful through the night and shall see what transpires.” The tailor sternly pronounced. The painter smiled in relief. Perhaps with a sighted person there he could have some light shown on the whole affair.
That evening as was his routine, Gaetan stopped at his favorite tavern, bought the bottle with the green liquor inside it. Then he and Jardeau made their way back to the artist’s home. Immediately their noses both detected something foul in he air.
“Ugh, this place really does need some airing out Gaetan. Not to mention it should be cleaned within an inch of its life. Clearly you’ve left something rancid laying about.” Jardeau fanned the air in front of his nose. The painter sat down at his table and opened the bottle. His friend walked around the front room.
“So where’s this mysterious black canvas of yours?” Alfred asked.
“And people think I’m blind. It’s right on the stand there.” Gaetan retorted.
Jardeau paused and examined the canvas. It was the same demonic painting that he had observed on his last visit.
“No Lafleur. This canvas has not changed from when I saw it before.” Jardeau quietly explained. Gaetan took a long pull from the bottle and choked down some rye bread.
“Are you sure?” The artist asked. His friend put a reassuring tone into his voice.
“There is no doubt. There are only two canvasses here, the completed one and a blank white one. No black. Perhaps it is as I suspected and the black canvas was moved. Let’s look inside.” The tailor flung wide the bedroom door. He gasped in horror as he saw the walls of the chamber covered in dried blood. The rotten smell was doubly strong in this room. He knelt down and saw nothing under the bed. Jardeau saw the closed wardrobe on the opposite side of the room and crept towards it. As he got closer the squalid stench was invading his nostrils with increasing ferocity. Something truly awful must have been behind the door. The tailor reached out with trembling fingers and grasped the door handle and braced himself.
“Be careful of the rats Alfred!” Gaetan called from the other room. Jardeau nearly jumped out of his skin at the sudden sound of his friend’s half-joking warning. Given the dull note in the painter’s speech it seemed the drink was taking its usual effect. When his heartbeat had begun to return to a state of normalcy, the tailor once again faced the wardrobe. Alfred steeled up his courage, grabbed the door and pulled it toward him. The door creaked open and the frightened tailor locked eyes with the disemboweled remains of Mary-Elyse, which had spilled its contents onto the floor of the cabinet. Jardeau’s eyes swam before him. Perhaps his friend was a murderer after all, was the last thing that filled his mind as he fainted.
He did not know how long he lay on the floor. When he came to, the room before him was unchanged. The gruesome contents of the wardrobe still stared at him. The tailor choked back the vomit rising in his throat and struggled to his feet. Jardeau unsteadily teetered into the front room and saw his friend passed out on the floor still clutching the empty bottle. Just as he was about to wake his friend and question him a furious knock sounded at the door.
“Open up Monsieur Lafleur!” It was inspector Rochet! Jardeau’s mind began to spin. What was he doing here? He looked around the room quickly. He would surely haul Gaetan away. The knocking resounded with even greater fervor.
“In the name of the Emperor open this door!” The Inspector thundered. Well that settled it, either he opened the door or Rochet would break it down. Given the man’s huge stature the tailor had no doubt it could be easily done. With an unsteady grasp Jardeau unlatched the door. The detective wasted no time barging his way in. His dark brown eyes locked immediately on the tailor.
“Where is your friend? The artist?” The constable fairly growled the question. Jardeau’s guts turned to water.
“W-what do you want with him?” He stammered. The constable thrust forward a huge, meaty hand and grabbed the tailor’s shirt.
“It seems that a street woman’s friends have reported her missing and your friend was the last person she was seen with. Couple that with the landlady and I would say your friend has a great deal to answer for.” Rochet scanned the room and saw the drunken, snoring painter huddled on the floor. The smile of satisfaction that spread across his thickly featured face turned to a grimace of disgust when he saw the bedroom. Inspector Rochet dragged the frightened tailor behind him. He strode into the bedroom and seeing the extent of the bloody walls tossed Jardeau to the ground.
“A new décor trend?” The investigator flung open the door to the wardrobe and saw the gruesome resident within.
“Tell me, how would Monsieur Lafleur explain that?” Just as the detective was about to wake Gaetan to question him a strange sound filled the flat. It sounded like cloth tearing. The tailor cried out in horror as he watched the demon painted in the portrait began to peel itself off of the surface of the canvas. With considerable effort the creature stood himself on Gaetan’s chair and stretched it’s sinuous limbs and leathery wings, leaving behind only a plain black canvas.
“Mon Dieu.” The detective whispered under his breath. The demon flashed a toothy grin at the two men and let out a sniveling, childlike chuckle. Quick as a flash the impish thing flew onto the artist’s back and began to claw at him like a cat preparing to curl up to rest. Rochet rushed into the room and smacked the creature across the jaw with a lead blackjack he had pulled from his pocket. The demon went tumbling across the room. With a hideous snarl etched on its features, the thing faced down the burly detective. The creature roared at the policeman and sprang toward him. Jardeau grabbed a chair and did his best to fend the thing off, but he was not a trained man and had little success at avoiding the demon’s attacks. What he did accomplish was he gave the detective the distraction that was needed to deliver another clubbing blow. This one was to the creature’s wing. With a hiss of pain, the imp snatched the chair from Jardeau’s grip and crashed it over the detective’s head. Its yellow eyes glittered with malice as he leapt at the tailor’s throat. Jardeau screamed in pain as the creature’s feet clawed at his mid-section.
Aided by the racket going on and the searing pain in his back, Gaetan Lafleur began to rouse himself out of his stupor. As his mind cleared he heard his friend screaming his name and something about a demon crawling out of his painting?
“Alfred? What’s happening?” The painter hurriedly asked. There was a crashing sound as his friend struggled to reply.
“Gaetan! The creature from the painting! Help me!” Jardeau pleaded. The blind artist rose and through the tumult of sound was able to home in on the alien noise of the creature’s flapping wings. He frantically groped around looking for anything to be used as a weapon. His fingers closed on the neck of a bottle. He took another step before he tripped over the unconscious policeman. Gaetan cursed to himself as he fell. From the ground he lunged toward the flapping sound and shattered the bottle on the demon’s back. The creature immediately howled in agony as it’s scaly skin began to bubble and melt. It writhed and clawed helplessly at the horrible burning in its back. A minute more and the creature was reduced to a sizzling puddle of slime that now covered the panting Jardeau.
“Are you alright Alfred?” Gaetan asked as he knelt over his stricken friend. The tailor feebly clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“Never better. I told you that stuff you drank was murder.” His thought was stopped short when he saw the liquor bottle in its entirety lying next to him.
“Wait a moment, what did you hit him with?” Alfred asked. The artist held out the bloody hand that grasped the remaining, broken fragments of the bottle. The tailor howled in laughter when he saw the label. He read it to his friend. It said, “Paint Thinner.”
Word Count - 4758