What was the lost painting, and why must it be found?

More chapters from Night Side of Dark

A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark

Episode 39

Ascher Bitterman shivered slightly as a night chill crept inside the darkened room. He eyed Lincoln suspiciously, trying without luck to probe beyond a face that did not reflect either curiosity or a suggestion of distrust. The eyes were marble and as cold as the streets outside. The man assimilated facts without fear. He digested the truths as he understood them and discarded everything else. He had been hurt so many times in the past that Lincoln no longer felt pain, not internally anyway. He was the kind of operative who could kill easily and would die hard. Life around him was black or white. He had thrown the grays away a long time ago. Grays were the color of indecision.

Indecision robs a man of his God-given instincts.

The voice was never far from his conscience.

And always it was harsh.

It causes him to move a second too slow.

Always it was brittle.

A second too slow is a second lost.

He almost saw the face, a flicker of film in a movie house.

A second lost is a second that belongs only to the dead.

Fade to black.

The image was gone.

Bitterman opened a bottle of wine for himself, and turned again toward Lincoln. He set the bottle on the floor beside him, folded his hands across his chest, and asked, with a certain measure of reverence, “Have you ever heard of the Night Side of Dark?”

Lincoln shook his head.

“It’s a painting,” Bitterman said. “Art critics have called it a painting of mythical proportions although no one among them has ever seen it, and nobody can even prove it exists.”

“Maybe it doesn’t.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Bitterman said. “But the art world has never been known for chasing myths.”

“We all chase what we believe in.”

“The auction houses are different.”

“None of us are different,” Lincoln said, his voice barely audible. “We just have different regrets.”

“And you?” Lincoln wondered.

“I’m not a patron of the arts.”

“But you have regrets.”

“I do. I’m just not sure what they are,” Lincoln answered. He leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath, placed his hands behind his head, and said, “Tell me about the painting that may or may not exist.”

Bitterman nodded.

Dunaway Walker leaned forward in his chair, his hands fidgeting with a note pad on top of the desk. He reached for a pencil. The light in the lamp flickered beside him. His eyes were fixated on the tattooed man. His breathing had become quite shallow. He had no idea what he might hear. He did not want to miss a single word.

Celia lay back on the bed and placed a pillow across her face.

Men searched for freedom.

Men searched for peace.

No one spent time looking for a painting unless, of course, the Germans held it in their possession, and someone was required to die in order for a piece of art to exchange hands.

Then she would be interested.

Now she only wanted to sleep.

“For centuries,” Bitterman said, “the painting was thought to be nothing more than a legend passed down by members of a curious religious sect that roamed the deserts around Jerusalem shortly after the resurrection that is told about in the Christian Bible. The painting depicted the darkness of an unspeakable night so black, so ominous, that it appeared to have lost its soul. The night was illuminated only by a bolt of lightning, and barely visible in the darkness was a wooden door – perhaps it is a gate – at the far side of narrow bridge crossing the abyss of an endless night. Only the gold hinges separate the lights from the darks in the painting. It fades into the backdrop of a stormy sky.

“Some believe it represents the ending of one life and the beginning of another, a portal through which death departs and the living returns, or the living departs and death returns. I have no idea. It sounds a little esoteric to me. But the artist, so the legend goes, was struck blind after he witnessed the sight of Christ hanging on the cross. The last thing he saw before his sight left him was the ghost of this man the Romans called Jesus take his first steps across the bridge and toward the doorway of the netherworld, toward a gate with gold hinges. He painted the scene from a memory lodged in his mind, and he painted it on a tapestry woven from the remnants of a burial shroud.”

“The shroud of Christ?”

Bitterman smiled apologetically and shrugged. “That is what the early day Christians believed. According to one of their early scrolls, none of which have ever been authenticated, the red on the tapestry is not paint at all. It is the drops of blood that fell from the cross. It was collected it in a small earthen jar.”

“By the artist?”

“Or someone who gave the blood to the artist.”

“Or sold it.”

Bitterman shrugged again. “You are more skeptical than I am,” he said, “and I have a right to be skeptical. I’m Jewish. You aren’t, and you don’t.” His laughter was deep and hollow. “All that the art world knows, I’m afraid, is what scholars have gleaned from legend or rumor or some fragments of a Dead Sea Scroll that was tucked away in a desert cavern. And that, Mister Lincoln, is why you are sitting with me, the Captain, and the lady in a dark hotel room in a town still touched from time to time with war.”

“I presume that someone wants the painting found,” Lincoln said.

“I understand that you are quite good at finding people and things that don’t want to be found.”

His words hung in a cold silence.

Lincoln closed his eyes for a moment and searched the splintered corners of his memory. They were empty.

“I don’t find things,” he said softly. “I am programmed to kill things.”

“Then you are the perfect choice,” Bitterman said.

Lincoln stared at him blankly.

Maybe he was.

Maybe he wasn’t.

He lived his life in the unknown.

He had not yet managed to escape it.

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.

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