The paintings defied him to unravel their mystery.
April 12, 2014
A VG Serial: The Night Side of Dark
Life seldom begins with a whimper and hardly ever ends that way. The whimpers were almost always caught somewhere in between, lost and adrift in an unforgiving maze of time, crisis, and providence. Ambrose Lincoln and Celia walked through the iron front door of the asylum and into a lobby that was strangely silent, considering the number of inmates wandering aimlessly back and forth across the floor as the distant sound of gunfire ricocheted through the night. They were quietly mumbling to themselves, free at last, no longer under the watchful eye of anyone in authority, since no one was in charge any longer, and the only place they could go was already engulfed by fire and the cries of those fighting their way into the asylum in search of a refuge.
Bombers rumbled like thunder without the rain, and sirens wailed fitfully in the darkness. Those outside feared the asylum but knew they had a choice on this most terrible of nights, of being declared crazy or dead. Those inside had no reason to leave. There was only one difference separating the sane from the insane. The sane knew what was happening around them. For the insane, it was just another day, a little more noise. That’s all. They had simply shut the doors to their minds tightly, and the fortunate ones had forgotten where they misplaced the key.
Lincoln searched the lobby to determine where the guards would be.
The guards were gone.
So were the doctors.
One aging nurse sat in the floor, holding her head in her hands. She was small and fragile, and her hair was as gray as her complexion. Her face had been wrinkled by more worry than fear, and fingers were gnarled with arthritis. Her white uniform had been stained by hard water and harsh soap. It was almost as yellow as the dim light bulbs over head.
She was crying softly.
Celia knelt beside her.
The nurse recoiled as she saw Celia holding the handgun.
“Have you come to kill us all?” she asked? Her voice was weak.
“No,” said Celia.
“They are coming to kill us,” the nurse said. It was a whisper this time.
“Not tonight,” Celia said.
“There is still time to leave.”
“I can’t leave.”
“There is no one to stop you,” Celia said.
“If I leave,” the nurse said, drying her eyes, “who will take care of them?”
Her eyes swept across the lobby.
She saw each face.
None of them looked back or saw her.
She grieved for each of them.
They ignored her.
“They have no one,” the nurse said. “If I leave them, they will die.”
“If you stay, you may die with them,” Celia said. “You can come with us.”
The nurse slowly shook her head.
The tears had left her eyes.
The eyes had grown defiant.
Lincoln crouched beside Celia. He gingerly touched the nurse on her arm and said, “We have come to see Mister Nathan. Can you tell us where we can find him?”
“Have you come to kill him?” the nurse asked.
“Are you his family?”
“Yes,” Lincoln said.
“Mister Nathan has no family,” the nurse, her voice growing stronger. “You lied to me.”
“We have come to save him.”
“You are not German.”
“You are American.”
“How do I know I can trust you?”
A bomb exploded beyond the hedgerows.
A siren’s scream was cut short, a whimper in the darkness.
Flames crackled through the buildings across the street, their firelight spilling through the window and painting shadows on the wall around them.
A man screamed.
And one inside.
One was mocking the other.
Lincoln had no idea who was mocking who.
“Does it make any difference?” he asked.
The nurse’s shoulders sagged with painful resignation. Any traces of fight or defiance had abandoned her. She looked up at Lincoln and forced a weak smile.
“You will find Mister Nathan down the corridor on the west side of the asylum,” she said. “He will be in the seventh room. It is on the left.”
“Thank you,” Lincoln said.
The nurse reached up and grabbed the lapel of his coat. She held it loosely in her hands. Her eyes were pleading.
“He is an old man,” she said. “Please be gentle with him. And if it is time for him to go, please take him quickly. He has suffered enough.”
Lincoln patted her hand and stood. He turned and walked quickly toward the western corridor, and Celia followed. Inmates stepped aside for them, lowered their heads, and looked away. If you didn’t see anything, then nothing was there. Lincoln understood. He had been looking away for most of his life, at least the part he could remember.
He silently counted off the rooms and stopped beside the one with a number seven clearly marked on the door.
The door was open.
The room was dark.
Would Mister Nathan remember Aliza Gertner?
Had he known Orren Gertner.
Did he realize the importance of the ancient painting?
Did he even realize he possessed an ancient painting?
Could he tell them where he had hidden it?
Or had Aliza hidden it herself?
It didn’t make any difference.
Lincoln switched on the lamp beside the bed and looked down into the drawn face of the old man.
His eyes were open.
He was staring at a ceiling he no longer saw.
Sometime between morning and now, Mister Nathan had left them all. Wherever he went, he went on his own terms. He had beaten the ditches.
If he knew the secret of the painting, he had taken it with him.
Lincoln and Celia checked the obvious places.
Beneath the mattress.
Inside the drawers.
On the shelves above the little closet.
Had anything been taped beneath the table?
Or the old straight-backed chair?
Lincoln stepped back and surveyed the room.
Nathan had obviously been a man who appreciated fine art, even if it was old and cheap and faded by years of neglect. Four paintings, framed and placed behind glass, had been hung on the wall above his bed. An old man didn’t have any reason to look at them much anymore. He had probably forgotten them. Years of pain could do that to a man. Years of pain and fear.
The artwork was obviously second-hand imitations of the originals.
A Blue Nude by Picasso.
A Starry Night by Van Gogh.
A Sailboat by Monet.
An Open Window by Matisse.
There was nothing unusual about either of them. Lincoln had seen the prints before, generally hanging in a back street neighborhood cabaret or in the house of some poor fool who wanted to impress the other poor fools in his life.
He stared at each painting.
He studied them closely.
The paintings looked back at him in profane and profound silence as though they possessed the world’s greatest secret, would not tell, and defied him to unravel their mystery.
Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on Saturday and Sunday.
Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.