by: German William Cabassa Barber ((Header art is by the incredibly talented Gyuri Lohmuller.))
Nine crimes of passion, and the confirmation that revenge is a dish best served ice cold….
It all started when I received an envelope by mail. It had no return address on it, and I usually wouldn’t open anything without knowing who sent it. But something here struck my curiosity. Being a well-known artist, I receive many strange things by mail. Woman’s underwear for example, from my female admirers. Once I even received a human ear from a psychotic friend of mine who thought it might inspire me. There was red staining on the envelope, I should have known to avoid opening that one. No regrets, though. It’s too late for that.
This particular envelope contained a cell phone in it. An iPhone 5 Black Diamond Edition. I inspected the extravagant cell phone suspiciously, and when I found the nerve I powered it on. The first thing I did was check the contacts and text messages. Both fields were empty. It must be a new cell phone, I thought. Confounded, I put my Oliver Peoples Victory sunglasses on and walked inside my apartment. The moment I breached the doorway, the strange phone rang. The call was from a private number. I decided to play the game and answered confidently. The voice on the other end was strangely familiar, yet I was unable to place it.
“Hello Mr. Rodriguez. You don’t know me, but I am one of your biggest admirers. Allow me to get straight to the point. I have a job for you, and as you can tell from the cellphone in your hand, a token of my appreciation, money is no object,” he explained, calmly and elegantly.
Who are you, Al Capone?” I asked, mockingly.
He laughed in earnest.
“As I said, I am your biggest fan. You can call me Number One if you wish.”
“Then, thank you for the cellphone Number One.”
“Stephen Leopold Rodriguez, I am interested in hiring you. And while you might find the request and my desire for anonymity unusual, I assure you that you will be generously compensated. I would like to requisition you to paint nine portraits for me, of nine different woman whom I will provide you with photos of.”
”What’s the catch?” I asked, growing agitated and in no mood for games.
“No catch. These nine women are the woman I have loved most deeply throughout my life, my muses if you will, and it would mean a great deal to me to have them immortalized by you.”
“Married woman, are they?” I guessed.
“A few of them I suppose. But that is none of your concern. If you do accept the job, you can name your price, and this fee will be paid in cash the instant you finish the final painting. I will even provide everything you will need, so you will invest nothing more than your time and talent. What do you say?”
“Okay, Number One, how about ten million dollars?” I asked, believing this to be far too much.
“Only ten million Rodriguez? Well, I was expecting a little bit more, but that will work just fine with me.
“Ok.” I felt stupid. I should have asked for more. Much more.
“Do you have a pen to write down some instructions?” he asked, pleased with himself.
“Yeah. I’m ready”
“Then listen carefully to where you will be going tomorrow morning…”
I heard his voice in my dreams that night, haunting me. I tossed and turned, barely catching a wink of sleep. I should have taken my pills, I thought. Happiness, and rest, comes in pills these days.
I followed the directions I had been given and I was surprised to find myself arriving at a strangely familiar mansion outside the city. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I had been here before, and that the mansion belonged to Daedalus Bloom, one of the greatest collectors of art in the city, a billionaire who had dedicated his life to the arts and lived lavishly surrounded by his countless collectables like a god amongst men. He has returned to town, I thought. In the driveway sat a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO Racer. I wonder why he made such an effort to conceal his identity on the phone, when it would be so obvious to me the moment I arrived at his home? Was he playing some kind of game with me? Suddenly, while deep in thought, a metal gate opened allowing me entry.
“Have it your way,” I muttered aloud, as I walked through the ostentatious doorway.
The foyer of the mansion reminded me of a museum. It was like walking into The Louvre or The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the center of the room sat two chairs and a table with an envelope on it and a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru, Cote de Nuits. Alongside the table and the chairs, stood nine easels in golden frames, with paints and brushes neatly arranged beneath them.
I picked up the envelope and held it nervously in my hands. Before I ripped it open, I took a moment to contemplate how people can make the same mistake twice. Maybe it was ignorance, in that they never fully understood that they indeed made a mistake. Think of all the psychopaths that roam the night, searching for a victim. They say they are following an impulse, a natural necessity to prey upon the weak and the innocent. They are not aware of their guilt because they often do not believe what they are doing is wrong. So then, should humans be made to pay for actions that come from deep within them? Is guilt, a man-made construct? Or should we, the ones who claim sanity, who know right from wrong, be obligated to tear the wicked from the opium trance that they walk the world in. Shaking free from these recurring questions, and the fear of making a mistake I have made before, I tore the envelope open.
As expected, the envelope contained nine pictures of beautiful woman. Each picture had a name written upon the back of it: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania. As I was scanning the images, my new phone rang to life.
It was him.
“When you finish them, I’ll know,” he stated coldly. “Believe me. And then I will call you and let you know where your money can be found. Any questions?”
“When do I eat?” I asked earnestly.
“Check the refrigerator. Help yourself to some caviar or whatever you would like.”
“Will do,” I said and hung up the phone. There was work to be done.
….The creative process is the nearest thing to real magic normal humans will ever experience. It is impossible to know exactly where the ideas come from, even if you devote your whole life to it, as Plato did. Just as impossible is understanding how a masterpiece of art is conceived. How light, shadows, and colors merge to create a form, one that your brain recognizes as something real and extraordinary. When you look at a mirror for the first time in life, there is a moment in which your brain deciphers that it is you. However, when you look a portrait of yourself, for some reason that happens as well. It is a moment that distorts reality: oil, wood, liquid colors reflect your likeness, and like a photograph, it makes you forever young in an instant….
I finished the last portrait in the dark of the night. I was not sure how long I had been here. Two dozen days. Possibly a month. I checked the completed canvases over with care. Then I looked at my cell phone, and as promised, it rang.
“You look terrible my dear old friend. You should take a shower and get some sleep,” Number One said with a measure of concern in his voice.
“I can`t. I’m done here. My wife is waiting for me.”
“You have no wife Rodriguez,” he said harshly.
“True. I mean, my future wife, or maybe even just my wife for the evening, may be waiting for me out there.” I spoke through the fog of days spent painting and drinking.
“Follow my advice, you stubborn bastard. I am worried about you. After all I am your number one fan, remember.”
“Follow my advice. Take a shower and get some sleep. You are drunk as hell. Besides, you will need your rest, for in the morning you find out once and for all who your number one fan is.”
“Ok, where do I put the…”
“My room,” he interrupted.
“Ok, and my cash?”
“In the closet. In black bags.”
I sought out the master bedroom for which I have been curious about this entire time, and it was beyond anything I had ever seen. Lavish furniture lined the majestic bedroom, yet the walls were bare. I took this as a cue to hang the portraits around the room and made my way to the closet. There were ten black bags stacked neatly, a million in each I presumed. It was then that I remembered I had my gun, which I affectionately call Molly, tucked into my back belt rung. With all of this money, it was comforting to have Molly around. After a bath, I indulged in my hard-earned bounty, emptying the cash onto the bed and leaping into it over and over again, laughing maniacally. I had never felt so alive.
Soon my body’s need for sleep overcame my exuberance and I fell into a deep slumber, and into dream. I dreamt of my grandfather. He was dressed as a Catholic priest and carried with him a silver cane. Citizen Joyce his name was, his mother being a huge fan of Orson Welles. My ghostly Catholic Grandfather spoke to me.
“You, an artist, vah! What’s an artist, hu? Tell me! Artists are the Priests of Satan. Fallen angels, that are full of vanity. They paint naked people. They sculpt naked people. They sing to women, Satan’s daughters born for temptation! Writers, sculptors, painters, singers, all fallen angels. What is an artist Steffen? What is an artist?!!!”
I was startled awake, sweating and trembling. I was not alone. I was surrounded by what appeared to be a SWAT team. Bright lights were being shined in my face. Voices were screaming at me to hold still. To put up my arms.
“Stephen Leopold Rodriguez, you are under arrest!”
“What for?” I managed, shaken to the core.
“For murder. Cuff him.”
They took Molly from the bedside table and put it in a plastic bag and they cuffed me.
“Look at the portraits,” I hear one agent say.
“I know. It’s too perfect,” said another agent.
“We found the bodies in the basement, we got him,” said another agent who had just burst in the room.
A numbness overtook my body. The room began spinning. I dropped to the floor, unconscious.
I awoke inside a cell. Before I could piece the situation together, I noticed my friend James standing outside the cell. What was he doing here?
“James, I am in a lot of trouble,” I tried to explain.
“What were you thinking Stephen. You shouldn’t have stopped taking your pills,” James said despondently.
“Wait, what pills?” I grew even more confused.
“You really don’t remember? he said frustrated.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
James removed a pill bottle from his pocket, holding it out sideways for me to read. My name was printed on the label, along with instructions to take one pill, twice daily.
“You have a dissociative personality problem. And I had to tell them, Stephen. I had to tell them about the pills. About how you took your client’s keys and cell phone when you were delivering the portraits he ordered. The one with the Ferrari. I had to tell them everything Stephen. I didn’t have a choice.”
“I had no choice. They pretty much knew everything anyways. About your obsession with painting the girls…”
James paused, holding back tears.
“What girls?” I asked, genuinely confused, trembling.
“The ones you called your muses. The nine girls you always talked about,” he said sternly while looking deep into my eyes.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I whispered. I didn’t remember them.
“I’m not surprised you have forgotten again, a side effect of your episodes.”
“This…can’t be true.” I was full of rage and frustration.
“They found the other phone from where the calls were made among your things, and your gun.”
“Molly…yes. It matches the bullets in the dead girls. I’m sorry Stephen.”
“You don’t remember, but it is true,” James insisted.
“You are my best friend. You were my protégé. You have to help me. You’ve got to know that someone set me up. You have to believe me.” Tears oozed out of my eyes, like a soul from a dying man.
“Don’t worry Stephen. I am here for you. Like you have always been for me. Like when I was a child and you broke my hand, squashing it like a grape with your father’s car, as you sped off to see another one of your fake girlfriends. I was never able to paint again after that day. But you know that already. Yeah, of course I will be here for you, I will always be here for you. Like you were for me. After all, I am your number one fan, remember.”
James’s lips began to curl into a sinister smile. He stared directly into my eyes with a glimmer of satisfaction.
“It was you? It was you that set me up. James, it was you?” I began to rattle with rage and claw through the bars.
He stepped back, his smile widening before he disappeared into the darkness as guards rushed towards the cell.
“So, that’s your story?” the journalist asked me, curiously peering through the crystal glass that was between them.
“That’s my story. And even after all these years, I need you to tell my side of things, to let the world know that I am innocent.”
“So, after all this time and all that has happened, after the trial, after the unanimous guilty verdict, the news headlines labeling you as ‘The Devil’s Paintbrush,’ to this day you insist that you are innocent?”
“I am innocent. The real psychopath is out there beyond these concrete walls. But I trust that one day he will be in here, and I out there.”
A moment of uncomfortable silence passed between us.
“May I see the self-portrait you painted,” the journalist asked.
I turned the painting so the journalist could see my latest work.
“Is that what I think it is?” the young man asked, his eyes fixated on the painting.
“Yes…and you know something, this just may be my masterpiece. A summation of all I am, and have become.
“What do you call it?” the journalist asked.
“A Portrait of the Artist as a Sinner.”