Episode 30:The Eye of the Beholder

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a detective in vaguely-nostalgic chiaroscuro New York, a town where everyone has an angle, the deal is king, and money is god. Charlie himself is a painfully honest man, pragmatic but unwilling to play the game that defines the city. He dreams of going to San Fran, but in his heart he knows it’s the same everywhere. Charlie and his plucky (if a little weepy) secretary Alice have been hired to help Lola Fanutti (nee Meredith Baxter) recover a treasure of fabulous value. Getting her hands on whatever it is is Lola’s only hope for survival now that her husband, a notorious criminal, has been killed.

There are a lot of people interested in this treasure, and they’re willing to kill to get their hands on it. The only thing keeping Charlie alive is that he’s got a chance of finding the Blood of the Saint, and most parties seem willing to wait until he succeeds before killing him and taking it for themselves. Depending who you ask, The Blood of the Saint is either a wine, a painting, or a mysterious organization willing to kill to preserve its secrets. The painting used to belong to them, and perhaps the treasure it leads to is already in their hands as well.

None of the factions involved has any interest in whether Charlie survives or not.

Then the shooting really gets going. Meredith is killed, along with one of the most powerful people in the underworld. It turns out Alice left a few things off her resume when she applied for work with Charlie, “Daughter of Mobster” and “Assassin” being conspicuously absent. Still, it seemed that she was genuinely touched when Charlie made her a partner in the firm.

Now they have the painting, The Blood of the Saint. It’s not going to take long for people to come calling.

Writing this is recreation for me, something I do when others might watch television. (Lately, I’ve been watching more television and writing this stuff less. That’s not good.) Editorial standards are low, though I must confess that just this once I did a bit of research before writing the episode. That was a few weeks ago; I’ve subsequently forgotten everything I read, except for one detail in the story of a saint.

The package sat on the table between us, unopened. Inside… not treasure, but perhaps a treasure map. If there was anything. No telling, at that, that we’d even be able to read the map if one was in there. Old Man Fanutti had hired experts to analyze the painting, and he, at least, thought they’d found something. Enough other people were convinced that he was right that a lot of people had died, including Fanutti himself.

The box was made of pale wood, battered and humble on the glossy dark-stained mahogany of the table. The only other times I’d been in a hotel room this swanky there’d been a corpse involved. Now we were entrenched in a suite on the top floor, the air cool despite the heat of the day outside. Through the door to the bedroom I could see a bed large enough to raise livestock on. My client may have died last night, but she’d left me with a large roll of spending money and no way to return it.

Alice was all for blowing town, heading west, Portland, maybe. I understood, but while that might buy us some time, it would be time spent looking over our shoulders, always wondering where the bullet was going to come from. There was no escape, no side exit we could slip out of and cease to matter to these people. There were exactly two ways this story could end: with us in control of the treasure or with us joining Fanutti at the bottom of the river, feeding the eels. Whatever was in the box was simultaneously meal ticket and death warrant.

“You gonna open it?” Alice asked me. Her hands were tight in her lap and her back was erect, her mouth tight and tense, bruises still visible on her face. She preferred low-calibre, high-velocity rounds when shooting people.

“Think I’ll have a drink first,” I said. I reached for the single-malt, poured myself a healthy snort in a highball.

Alice frowned. “That stuff’s going to kill you if you keep drinking it like that,” she said.

“I should be so lucky,” I muttered, and took a sip, inhaled the fumes and for a moment forgot all my problems. Money can buy happiness. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t tasted the good booze.

After a moment she laughed, the same bitter hopeless laugh that echoes up and down death row as the gallows is being constructed in the yard. “Pour one for me, would you?” she asked. I did. “When this is over, we should just go somewhere and get tight,” she said. “Tell each other our secrets.”

“Yeah,” I said. She had a lot more secrets than I did, apparently.

She smiled. “You’re thinking that you don’t have any secrets, aren’t you?”

I smiled in return. “Something like that.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Charlie. That’s all you are. One big secret.”

After that there wasn’t much to talk about. We fell into an odd sort of peace, a thousand miles apart but thinking about the same thing, looking anywhere but at each other. The Box waited with the patient apathy that only the inanimate can have. They say that primitive cultures believe that there is a spirit in everything, that the whole world is a big zoo of rock spirits and tree spirits and watermelon spirits and on and on. People are just the most active spirits of the bunch. I’m not sure how that makes them primitive, but I think they’d stop believing it if they met some of the people I know. Not a spirit in the bunch.

I set my glass down next to the box and rested my hand on the rough wood. “Guess we’ve put this off as long as we can,” I said. I turned the box over, awkward with my arm in a sling. It was nailed shut and the seams were sealed with wax. I hefted the screwdriver we’d picked up on the way over and attacked a seam. The box slid away from me, scratching the tabletop.

“Let me help,” Alice said, and took hold of the box, bracing it better than I could with my bum wing. I attacked the seam again and soon the top pulled free with a groan. Inside something flat was suspended on wood blocks, wrapped in red silk. Alice lifted the parcel out and removed the silk. Finally, there it was, the Blood of the Saint, in a small but ornately-carved frame.

I had joked that I would decorate my apartment in San Fran with the painting, but after one glance I decided against it. The picture might have been art, but it wasn’t pretty. It was small, less than a foot either direction, painted with the tiniest brush imaginable. There, reproduced in detail that transcended life, was the image of a young woman weeping in agony, while a man stood before her, knife in one hand, great iron tongs in the other. The tongs still held the woman’s severed tongue. Other men held her, on their faces a mixture of revulsion and fear. The man who held the knife wore a look of smug triumph. All the people in the picture wore those flowing robes the renaissance people liked to paint so much. There was a lot of blood, but none had got on the guy with the knife and tongs.

“I wonder what saint that is,” Alice said.

“Meredith told me Fanutti stole the painting to see it out of the frame,” I said. “There’s supposed to be something important on the edges.”

Alice flipped the painting over and scowled. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Oils aren’t usually framed with a backing,” she said. She fiddled with the metal bits holding the painting in the frame and everything slid neatly onto the table: The backing, the painting, and four sheets of paper, three written with a neat hand, the other filled with diagrams.

“Bingo,” I said. I should have been happy, I suppose. On those pages was likely the answer to all this, an end to the running, an end to the killing, but it was impossible to ignore what had happened to Saint Whoever. I had no aspirations to rise in the church the way she had.

Alice picked up a sheet and scowled. “Catalan, I think,” she said, “but I can read most of it.”

I sat across the table from a woman who had three things: The key to all the wealth and power she could imagine, a gun, and a guy who could ruin everything for her. I hoped she didn’t do the math the same way I did, but I was just fooling myself. She was much smarter than I was.

Alice scanned the pages for a few minutes then set them back on the table. She rubbed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Can’t concentrate,” she said.

“You look beat,” I said.

“You don’t look that great yourself,” she said, though her eyes were shut, her head rocked back. She sighed and stood. “I think I’ll take a nap. I have a feeling we’re going to be busy later.” She stopped by my chair and turned her back to me. “Can you unzip me?”

I stood and did my chivalric duty, careful not to make any contact with her skin. I looked straight ahead over her shoulder and found her watching me in a mirror. She smiled, a little sadly, I thought. “Thanks,” she said.

I had to say something. “What would your long-suffering grandmother say if she knew you were in a hotel room with a man?”

“She’d probably be happy I was with a man at all,” Alice said. “If she existed.” Alice walked into the bedroom and closed the door without looking back. The strap of her brassiere was black, I noticed, and hooked in the back. Her skin was pale.

I picked up the pages and took a shot at deciphering them. There were some familiar words, but the letters started swimming in front of my eyes and I decided Alice had the right idea. I stretched out on the sofa and put my hat over my eyes. I adjusted the sofa pillow under my head and was very nearly asleep when the knock came at the door.

I’d known it wouldn’t take long for people to find us, but I’d hoped for a little more time than that. I tried to be encouraged that whoever it was had bothered knocking.

Tune in next time for: Final Offer!

One thought on “Episode 30:The Eye of the Beholder

  1. Now that I’ve posted this episode, I have a feeling that I used the “wealth, me, and a gun” bit before. It’s a pretty direct ripoff of a Chandler line anyway, so maybe that’s why it feels so familiar, but I wonder if maybe I should read the previous episodes some time.

    On the other hand, I’m pretty happy with Charlie’s takes on theology.

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