On Midwinter Night, Briar's agent calls to say that he hasn't been into the gallery for months. As always, it's sensible Persis to the rescue.
She finds Briar in his studio--filthy, half-deranged and painting with a genius he has never possessed before.
Investigation draws Persis into a world of crushing beauty and lingering darkness and a bargain to save her brother that may cost both of them their futures.
The sign hung on the front door with the Open side facing inward, turning its Closed back to any holiday shoppers still out in the falling temperature and increasingly icy sleet of a late Seattle evening. Inside, I made a last round of Lost Treasures, checking lights, alarm, register.
I considered shutting off the overhead stereo system with its endless, almost subliminal round of Christmas music, decided to let it run like a bulwark against the longest night of the year. I crossed the shop floor, weaving between shelves and tables loaded with bric-a-brac, each piece with a tiny hand-written price tag. The only really valuable items stayed in a locked, glass-fronted cabinet equipped with its own alarm. Those arrived from a private delivery company in specially packed crates and boxes shipped by the store’s owner from exotic places all over the world.
My phone played the jingling melody assigned to Gracia, the owner of the gallery that showed Briar’s work. I debated whether to answer. My back hurt, and my feet ached from standing all day and waiting on Christmas shoppers looking for one-of-a-kind gifts for difficult relatives.
But if Gracia was calling me, then Briar was acting up or acting out or whatever you called it when artists went creative and childlike and threw self-destructive tantrums.
I rummaged the phone out of my purse and sat down on a vanity chair beside a coffee table with a checkerboard top. “Hi Gracia,” I said.
“Persis? It’s Gracia,” she said automatically.
“What’s Briar done now?” I asked.
“Now? I don’t know about now. Where is he?” Gracia’s squeaky voice was cute in person, but over the phone, it went in my ear and right through my head out the other side.
I moved the phone a little further from my ear. “At home or in his studio. He doesn’t go anywhere else.”
“I’ve been calling him for three days,” Gracia declared. “I leave messages, but he doesn’t pick up. I went to his studio and his apartment. He didn’t answer when I knocked.” Gracia had to be really worried to gather up the nerve to go to Briar’s apartment.
Icy sleet pelted the sidewalk beyond the shop’s eaves. “That’s not so long.”
“The last time he talked to me, he said hewas working, but he hasn’t brought in anything new in months, and we have a show in six weeks.”
“I thought he just had a show.”
“That was three months ago. We need more stock.”
My brother made a good living off his paintings. “I haven’t heard from him either. He probably forgot to refill his prescription and lost track.”
Gracia confirmed the last suspicion. “He’s lost weight. I tried to ask if he was all right, but he didn’t really answer.”
“ I’ll find him and make him call you.”
Briar had a tiny apartment in a subdivided Victorian southeast of downtown. I climbed the stairs and bruised my knuckles on the door. My brother didn’t answer, but I carried keys to both his apartment and studio for occasions like this. The heat hadn’t been turned on, and the temperature must have been around fifty degrees. The overhead light didn’t respond to the switch, but a tiny plug-in night light in the kitchen showed the electricity hadn’t been cut off again. The overhead bulb had burned out, and Briar hadn’t bothered to change it.
I picked my way around furniture toward the floor lamp, picking dirty clothes off the floor as I went and heaping them on the couch. The lamp worked. Stacks of canvases leaned against the walls in every room, even in the kitchen where dirty dishes filled the sink. Raman wrappers, instant soup cups and the used plastic containers from frozen dinners overflowed the trash and covered the countertops. Briar could afford to eat human food, but when he forgot to refill his meds, he didn’t have the patience to make toast much less scramble an egg.
The bathtub was full of canvasses. I opened the medicine cabinet over the sink. The pharmacy bottles were there, three empties, one half full. I discarded the empties, shoving them down into the overflowing wastebasket, and poured the remaining tablets into my palm, counting. I checked the date on the bottle. Briar hadn’t forgotten to refill. He’d stopped taking his meds eight weeks ago. He hadn’t been home in days, maybe weeks. I put the bottle in my pocket.
Leaving his apartment, I drove to the studio. My brother rented space at the top of a flooring store on First Avenue. I spotted the light at the window before I got out of the car. Letting myself in the alley door, I climbed four flights to the top and let myself in without knocking. If he hadn’t been taking his meds, he wouldn’t respond to a knock anyway.
I inhaled the orange-peel tang of artist’s turpentine and saw Briar’s legs in paint-stained jeans behind the canvas on the easel. He had his back to the window, the canvas between himself and the door.
“Briar,” I said.
The legs didn’t move, but I heard the sound of his brush as he pulled more paint from his pallet.
“Briar, Gracia’s been trying to call you for days. You’ve got a show coming up.”
Like his apartment, the studio was furnished in stacks of paintings. Hundreds of canvasses leaned against walls or lay in racks to dry. Between here and the apartment, there could have been over a thousand. I went to the nearest stack by the wall. Briar grouped them by size, but apart from that, he had no organizing system. I looked at the first two canvasses in the pile. Typical Briar—pretty landscapes, portraits, scenes of children playing, couples boating, still-lifes, animal and bird studies. The kind of art people wanted to hang on their walls.
His latest work would be in the drying rack. I pulled out a tray to look at the painting there. Children played in a park with the outline of a city in the background, but it was like nothing I had seen Briar do before. Where his usual pictures were, I would never say it aloud, pedestrian, this had a quality I couldn’t define except that despite its relatively small size, it would overpower any space in which it hung. Even in Gracia’s gallery, it would draw the eye to itself from anywhere in the room.
Then it occurred to me that the children in the little playground weren’t playing. They were stalking an old man I hadn’t noticed at first glance because he sat on a bench in the lower left quarter with his head bent over a newspaper. I couldn’t see his face, but something in the hunch of his shoulders made the corners of my mouth draw down in distaste. I shook the illusion out of my head, and the children were playing tag again around a nice old man who had brought his grandchildren to the park.
I replaced the tray and pulled out the next, a still-life of oblong red fruit heaped in a carved wooden bowl, the colors powerful and subtle. I thought for a moment I smelled something sweet. A single fruit lay beside the bowl on a rough wooden table. The fruit had been sliced open, as red inside as out. A silver knife with a red-stained blade lay beside it. Red juice ran down the wooden table and dripped off the edge like a runnel of blood, and as I studied it, the meat of the fruit looked increasingly fleshy, the hollow where the pit belonged looking more and more like the inner chamber of a heart, and I swallowed a twinge of nausea just as the fruit pulsed with a heartbeat. Then I blinked and saw only an extraordinarily lifelike and tempting bowl of fruit executed with a sure mastery I had never seen from Briar.
I opened two more trays and found more like the first, a waterfront scene and a child’s portrait, both done with the same authority as the others. The child, a beaming, round-cheeked boy, seemed less and less human the longer I looked, though I couldn’t set my finger to the reason.
In the other one, I recognized the beach at Lincoln Park, children playing with a dog, people strolling or watching the children, waves rolling softly toward the shore. In the distance, a ferry, brilliant green and white, returned from the island with its wake behind it. It wasn’t simply a neat, pleasant scene. Its subtlety went deeper than prettiness.
I waited, dreading. Gradually, the shadows of trees and benches grew darker, blacker, and they twisted, leaning toward the people in the scene, poised only a moment away from snuffing out every living thing on the canvas. I shoved the tray back in its place.
I should have been delighted by my brother’s leap of brilliance. He had certainly put in the hours, painting ten to twelve hours a day unless someone forced him out of the studio, but this felt wrong. Artists didn’t jump from journeyman to master overnight. Then there was that weird effect as if another picture lay under the paint on the surface. I had never seen anything like that in his work before.
Shaking off the eerie sensations, I circled the easel to stand beside my brother and look at the new painting. The seascape forming on the canvas was as good as anything he had done before, as good as the paintings in the racks. As I studied the sand and sea, I felt the floor give way under my feet, and I dropped into quicksand. I twitched with alarm and gasped myself out of the spell, grasping at Briar’s arm for balance.
That finally jarred Briar from his trance. He turned with a snarl on his lip. Then he recognized me. The snarl melted into an impatient frown. “What are you doing here?”
My twin brother looked nothing like me unless it was in his black hair, but I had inherited our Irish father’s straight hair, and Briar had our Greek mother’s curls. Briar had Mom’s Cupid’s bow lips and straight nose, too, and an olive tint to his complexion. His cheeks had hollowed since I last saw him, and he had brown circles under his dark eyes. He hadn’t shaved, and the beard that usually turned his cheeks blue-black by five-o-clock had grown out into four inches of curly mess that obscured the line of his cleft chin. His skin looked more yellow than bronze, and his hair lay tangled over his forehead and down the back of his neck. The smell wafting off him forced me back a step.
“Where have you been?” I demanded. “You look half dead, and you haven’t showered in weeks.” I waved my hand in front of my nose.
“No time.” He scrubbed his forearm over his forehead, leaving a dash of green paint on his ear from the brush still in his hand. “You wouldn’t understand. I was painting art, not this stuff...” He slashed his brush around the room at the canvasses against the walls, and I ducked to avoid getting a swipe of green paint on my blouse.
Briar never denigrated his own painting. He had more than average talent, and he had been honing his technique since we were twelve. He’d studied Fine Arts in college and graduate school, and although he obsessed over the quality of his work, he’d never seemed dissatisfied with its caliber.
He put his brush to the canvas, scowling at the line he was painting, his whole body tense as if he were fighting something that tried to pull away from him.
“When was the last time you took your meds?” I asked.
“Don’t need them,” he muttered, focused on brush and paint.
I looked around the studio. An electric water pot sat on the floor beside a box of Ramen noodles under the sink he used to wash his brushes. A scattering of empty cellophane wrappers meant he might have been eating occasionally.
I went to the sink. No cups. If Briar remembered to drink, he probably sucked it right from the tap. I washed out a bowl with my fingers, filled it, tipped two of his pills into my palm and returned to him. “Here.”
His free hand lashed out and slapped the pills from my hand. “Said I don’t need it.”
I nursed my hand against my stomach, tempted to throw the water in his face and tell him to drop dead, but if I left him alone, he’d continue to deteriorate until the manic spell dissipated and he plunged into depression. This time, the flirting cuts on his forearms might go deep enough to do real harm.
“Briar.” My voice shook. I took a deep breath and relaxed my jaws. “Briar, don’t make me call the hospital.”
He slammed the brush into its tray and turned on me with bared teeth. “Can you not see I’m busy? Even you should be able to see this is important.”
He was shaking, fists clenched, and his breath came in pants. He had obviously left his toothbrush at home.
“Fine.” I backed away, glaring right back at him. “You can stand there and starve.”
At the door, I looked back. He had returned to his painting as if I had never been there.
Back in my car, I gripped the steering wheel. If he wouldn’t take his meds, I had to call Dr. Spracklin. No, our parents first. If Briar went into a manic rage, Dad was the only one who could restrain him long enough for the doctor to get a sedative into him. The doctor would call the paramedics to get Briar admitted to Highline for evaluation. He’d get the seventy-two hour hold and get Briar back on meds, and he could talk Briar into voluntary commitment until he was level again. I dug my phone out of my pocket.
I hadn’t touched the dial button yet when the alley door opened, and Briar lurched through, awkwardly maneuvering a bundle of canvasses roughly wrapped in brown paper. I forgot to dial. A moment ago, Briar had been snapping and snarling at me for disturbing him at work. Now he was shuffling down the street with several paintings under his arm. He didn’t have a car and never carried his precious art around with him. When he wanted to transport a painting, Gracia sent professional movers to crate it for him—another special service Briar received because he was Briar, a mix of talent, helplessness and entitlement.
He wasn’t going toward the gallery. What was this? Drugs? Was he trading or selling paintings for something that affected his work, that blend of brilliance and underlying ugliness?
Slipping out of the car, I shut the door softly behind me and waited until Briar turned the corner onto the street, then I ran after him. I followed my brother for blocks. Hardy Seattle residents hurried, head down under the icy rain, most eschewing umbrellas. Half the shops were still open, their windows decorated with lights and garlands. Fragments of holiday music came and went as I passed.
Down Seneca to the avenue under the Alaskan Way Viaduct, east until we came to a narrow building squeezed in between a shop basement and an apartment building dating from the thirties. Briar turned inside.
I ran to catch up and peeked in the tall front window.
Briar stood in the middle of the small lobby or showroom or whatever it had been when the building was in use with a shorter, compact man dressed in jeans and a loose shirt.
No decorations here. No yellow light defying early nightfall, but illumination came from a faint light on the second floor where a balcony overlooked the lobby. The broken balcony railing hung over the unfurnished room below.
The paper had been torn from the two biggest paintings, and the stranger examined one, stepping back to study it, cocking his head from side to side like a bird to take it in. In doing so, he glanced at the window, and one side of his mouth seemed to curl like a conspirator’s smile directed straight at me.
I recoiled, waiting for Briar and the stranger to burst from the door and accuse me of spying on my brother. They didn’t. I glanced again, but neither man paid any attention to the window. The stranger held a smaller painting at arm’s length, turning it to catch the light from the balcony. He shook his head.
Briar said something, leaning toward the other man, who stepped back but didn’t seem intimidated. He had probably just got a whiff of my brother. Finally, the dealer—whether drugs or art or both—shrugged and took up the smaller paintings. Briar gathered the two big ones, and the two men turned away from the window. Just before they turned, however, I thought I saw the stranger look straight at the window and wink with that conspirator’s smile curling half his mouth. Then the men carried the paintings through an open, unlit doorway, and the dark swallowed them.
For my brother out at night, carrying his own paintings and showing them to a dealer, this had to be at the root of what had changed Briar and his work. I took hold of the ornate latch of the door, and it opened at a tug. I bolted inside, determined to catch up to my brother and demand an explanation, but surprise stopped me just inside.
A crowd of chattering people blocked my way, filling the bright, hot room under a branching candelabra of gilded deer antlers. The parking lanes outside under the viaduct had been empty when I opened the door. Now someone bumped me hard from behind, and a thick hand on my upper arm steadied me. I half-turned and looked up at a huge man with thick, red-gold fur on his forearms. He wore his beard in two plaits, and his hair fell to his shoulders and mingled with the brown fur that draped his neck. He smelled of blood and goat. He said something brusque in a language I didn’t know and moved me forward, away from the door, almost lifting me off my feet.
A woman in a gold-brocade surcoat and red velvet kirtle squeezed through the door behind the viking on the arm of a much-older man dressed for the same era. She chattered breathlessly and stared around her, taking in the giant without a blink. Behind them came a short girl with long blue hair, wearing a shoulderless black leather catsuit laced up the sides from her ankles to her armpits, which were also dressed in long blue hair. She noted the bizarrely-dressed crowd without surprise or apparent interest. She traveled with a pack of similar vampire goth teenagers—girls and boys in black lipstick and creative piercings, all their cheeks flushed with excitement that didn’t match their attempts to look world-weary and disinterested.
Bewildered, I saw flappers clinging to the arms of young men in boater jackets and double-breasted suits, Victorian ladies and gentlemen, people in Medieval costumes. Some others just wore hooded cloaks of black velvet or silk. I glimpsed carnival masks under some of the hoods. That explained it, I thought. They were in costume for a masquerade. If only the Viking didn’t smell so much like goat.
The crowd surged and swept me up with them, forcing me further from the door through which I had come, and I just had time to look back and see it shut out the parking lot under the viaduct. When it closed, a pair of doors stood where the original had been. Their edges met down the center of a grotesque face wearing a gaping scowl amid carved vines and leaves. I recognized the form as a variation on the pagan Green Man worshiped by the pre-Roman celts.
The Viking’s hand fell away, and he moved on ahead of me, head and shoulders above most of the crowd. I tried to turn around and go back, but either the press of bodies pinned me in place, or something else prevented me because no matter how I tried to brace my heels against the flow of the crowd, I continued to glide forward with them deeper into the inexplicably large and bright building.
I tugged the sleeve of the woman in the Medieval dress. “Excuse me. Is there another way out?”
She snapped, “Álynnest,” and jerked her arm free.
I blinked at the almost-familiar word, then recognized it as Medieval English. Let go. Now that I listened, I realized most of the crowd spoke languages other than modern English. I wasn’t fluent enough in anything to understand what was happening to me, but I recognized smatterings of Germanic, Frankish, what must have been original Latin from the period when it had been a living language. Modern languages—Swedish, Russian, Mandarin.
Now I shoved in earnest, frantic to get out of the press and get my bearings. I stepped on the medieval woman’s kirtle and ignored her exclamation in Old English. I tried to reach the Goth girl. She and her friends would understand me, and they seemed to know where they were and what was happening, but pushing across the current caused something like a backflow or an eddy that trapped me long enough for the Goth teenagers to disappear ahead of me.
The crowd pushed me toward the high opening through which Briar and the other man had disappeared back when the lobby had been small and dark and empty. The arch seemed much further away than it had been when I saw it through the window. Bigger, too, I thought, when the mouth of the corridor took me in.
The crowd attenuated. No longer pushed and jostled elbow to elbow with strangers, I tried to stop and turn, but however I tried to change direction, I continued to walk forward. I could now work my way sideways toward the outside of the procession until I reached the verge and had a little room to breathe as I was pulled along. Now that I had space to think, I put aside the question of languages and the inexplicable alteration of the building. I could sort that out later. Briar had gone this way, and there would be an exit somewhere.
I passed a plinth against the wall on which stood a lacquered urn painted with human figures in gold around its circumference. Further on, a small painting hung on the wall, a portrait of an Elizabethan woman with a high, shaved forehead. Nothing like Briar’s work. So I had stumbled into a gallery. Briar must be showing some of his paintings here, cheating on Gracia after everything she had done to promote him in her gallery and on the internet. Without her, he’d be living at home with Mom and Dad, painting in their garage, too feckless to sell his own work.
Swags of greenery and holly draped the walls, and more art appeared out of the dark and faded behind. Statuary large and small, metal and stone and glass. I recognized the Greek and Roman styles, then something much older and stranger. The statues retained the brilliant paints their creators had given them, the colors unmarred by time. Tapestries hung on the wall along with masks and fans and fabrics hand-woven and embroidered, all as good as any museum had to offer and so much better, if I could judge accurately.
Paintings on canvas, leather or wood, on sheets of ivory too big to come from any creature I could imagine. I identified pieces from long before the Common Era up to the present moment. A section of the wall became stone, painted with hieroglyphs that didn’t contain any of the symbols or stylized figures of the Egyptians. The lines broke into staves, and I realized I was looking at a poem, unreadable to anyone for ten thousand years or more. As I looked, however, the hieroglyphs began to make sense, and as the first line formed into meaning, I jerked my head aside.
There were no tags to identify the artists, but I had studied enough to know Matisse and Vermeer, Picasso and Chagall, all from the original hands, I was sure of it, but every piece unknown to the art world, and each one far beyond the known work of the creators, pieces of mastery that beggared everything that came before them, and as I paused to look, before the corridor swept me downstream, I saw that each one had the same quality that imbued Briar’s new works—the eerie implication of something underneath the paint.
I wondered if the others saw it. If so, they made no effort to look away from the objects on display. Some studied the artwork in open fascination, clutching their companions, chattering in breathless voices. Others put on expressions of mere casual interest to convey that they had visited the gallery too often to be impressed, but they breathed high and hard with excitement, and their half-lidded eyes glittered.
As I studied a Cole landscape that began to look more and more like a desolated hellscape, I felt a chill breath on the back of my neck, and a low voice said, “Do you like it?”
End of Part 1.
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