Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Gilded Death

It was nearing ten in the morning that Wednesday when I stepped off the bus and entered the revolving doors of the Queen City Museum of Natural History. The museum was open but that early, it was filled only with senior citizens and a couple of school groups. I breathed in the smell of the exhibits. It was good to be home after my recent dig in Egypt. I was looking forward to getting the pieces from the temple of Khem Adam on display, as well as publishing the journal from the dig.
From across the large foyer I heard, "Athena! There you are!!" I looked up to a blur of motion and suddenly found myself wrapped in the tight grip of Cassidy Yeats, the museum's director of fine arts. Cassidy stands about 5'1" tall, and is almost elfin in appearance. This morning, her hair was a bright shade of blue found no where in nature. She was dressed in a plaid skirt with a white blouse and dark green vest. Pale white hose and buckle shoes completed the ensemble.
"I'm so glad you're back. You have to tell me how you escaped Chatterjee this time," she said, squeezing my ribcage. I remembered I had to play injured and weary traveler.
"Cassidy! I'm still a little sore from the fire," I said, and I felt the hug growing less intense. I drew a deep breath and smiled. Cassidy stepped back and looked me over. "Still no fashion sense I see."
I looked down at my khaki pants and dark blue scoop neck blouse. "What's wrong with this?" I asked.
"Never mind," she said. "We're going out for lunch!"
"Now?" I protested. "It's just now ten in the morning, I just got back from an extended dig, and I'm sure there are piles of notices and work that Director Chatterjee wants me to get on," I did my best impression, "Immmmmediately if you please."
Cassidy burst into laughter. "Oh you're so precious. But you can't POSSIBLY start on all that work without being well fortified. As to Chatterjee, you put him off for eight weeks, I don't think another few hours is going to matter. In fact, when did you tell him you'd be in?"
"Today," I said and Cassidy cut me off.
"Exactly--but you didn't say when, now did you?" She took my arm and I soon found myself in her Miata driving down to the Four Trees restaurant. "Your treat," Cassidy said. "I fly, you buy."
We spent three hours and $75 on food and drink and story telling. Cassidy listened intently as I explained about the dig and the explosion, her green eyes twinkling in rapt attention. But then she started.
"Do you have anything in black and white? I know you do, I've seen that cute little white body suit you wear sometimes. Match that with a dark jacket and slacks, you'll be fine."
"This sounds like an opening. How did you get funds for that?"
Cassidy smiled. "The art collection received a grant from the Cafazzo Foundation for the purpose of promoting new artists. I found a local named Piotr Mailun who's opening his show tonight at the museum center. You have to come Athena, its a $500 dinner and grand opening.
"Whoa there girl, that's a bit steep," I said.
"You're comped! Museum policy. And Chatterjee thought having you there might double the sales of the artists book and yours." Suddenly the reason for the morning ambush became clear.
"All right, but it's your show Cassidy. I'm just going to be along the wall."
The show opened at seven, two hours after the museum closed. I arrived early this time, dressed in my little black dress. Cassidy was a buzzing bee, directing the caterers, and making sure the final polish was added. I looked, but saw the gallery door was closed, no doubt building the anticipation for the grand opening.
To Cassidy's side I saw a large, powerfully built man. He seemed ill at ease in his coat and tee shirt combination, as if he seldom dressed up. He had a full head of thick hair and a matching mustache. Cassidy buzzed over to me and smiled. "Athena Nikos, Piotr Mailun."
"How do you do?" I said, extending my hand. Mailun looked at it and growled. "Hiya."
"All set?" asked Cassidy, perhaps sensing the tension building up. The doors were opened and the upper crust set of Queen City swarmed into the museum center, finding seats and listening to the brief remarks of both Ajay Chatterjee and Harmon Hollett, the director of the Cafazzo Foundation. Cassidy stepped to the podium, then pulled the mike free and squeezed around to the front.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you a new vision in art. Mr Mailun is a local artist, graduating from Sylvania High School five years ago. Though he's never had formal training, his art has been hailed in both New York and San Francisco. But this is his first formal showing, and we're pleased to offer it here at the Queen City Museum of Natural History. Please enjoy the artistic visions of Mr Piotr Mailun. With a dramatic flair, Cassidy swung open the gallery door and I saw a collection of bumpers, hub caps and aluminum cans in an interesting mixture of motion and stability.
"Abstract yes, but it was almost laughable to call it art. It seemed more like someone had taken the contents of a salvage yard and welded them together haphazardly. The artist flew into a rage when members of the audience began questioning his vision" The write up in the Herald-Dispatch was brutal and the projected crowds for the weekend failed to appear.
Saturday afternoon I ran into Cassidy in the employee lounge. Her head was buried in her hands. "I don't understand Athena. His art is good!"
"I'm not sure, Cassidy. Maybe the audiences here aren't into such avant-garde art."
"But you liked it, didn't you?"
"It was...interesting." Cassidy began sobbing.
"I knew it, you thought it was ugly too!"
"I didn't say that, but I'm not much into abstracts. I like classical forms, I think it goes with the title of archaeologist."
Cassidy snuffled and looked up at me. "Are you sure?"
"Yes Cassidy, I'm sure."
Sunday afternoons I try to enjoy a few pleasures--a walk, football on the television, reading the Sunday Herald-Dispatch. This particular Sunday though, had been filled with church (and the monthly potluck--yum) then some time visiting my parent's graves and a long walk. I heard the score of the Cobras game; another heartbreaking loss in the last minute as Rick Pettingill fumbled on the goalline, allowing Hub City to recover and score. So it wasn't until late that I climbed into bed and read the paper.
I flashed through the news, noting things that might need White Owl, then scanned the comics, the fine arts and the endless supply of ads and coupons. Finally, I skimmed through the ads until I found this one.
Local artist seeks Superheroine to pose for commission
No nudity. $500 an hour for charity of choice.
Contact Mailun @ Studio on Fox and Broome.
Offer expires in six days.
I folded the paper and scratched Daisy between her ears. She purred loudly and adjusted her chin for further attention down low. While I petted the cat, I contemplated the offer. I was almost certain it had to be a trap. Still, until I had further information, I was reserving the final judgement.
I spent a few hours at the computer, studying everything I could find in the public record about Piotr Mailun. He seemed to be a relatively clean artist. But he was known for the abstracts he made, not statuary. This seemed to be a new venture for him. The google views of his art were not always flattering, but I could see the raw passion and vision of his art. He had talent; he just wasn't very good at expressing it.
I pulled the back door on the police files, and studied the record there to see that Mailun had never even so much as had a ticket for loitering. I nodded in approval, knowing my estimation of the man had gone up at that point.
Daisy mreowed, and I realized she needed some cat food. Looking up, I saw it was late. I put a can of food out for the cat, then slipped into the NuSilk, feeling an urge for an on site investigation first. I swept out of the apartment's balcony and into the dark night sky.
Fox and Broome is an insignificant corner near the rail yards and closed slaughterhouses in the west end of town. The buildings are old and dilapidated, but still serviceable and rents are cheap. I looked up the street and saw a large dark sedan stopping at a street corner, under the light. From the shadows, a man stepped up with a large handful of cash. He stepped up to the car and the passenger door opened. A man in a dark suit stepped from the car and walked to the rear of the car, where he opened the trunk. From my vantage point I could see the gleam of black gunmetal on the pistols.
I dove into the corner and caught the buyer by his jacket collar. With a strong swing I threw him into the lamp post, where he crumpled, unconscious to the ground. The seller called out "Holy..." and ran for the door. I heard the motor race and the car began to accelerate.
"Not so fast," I said, grabbing the back bumper of the car and digging in. My muscles screamed as I lifted, and the wheels spun uselessly off the ground. A bullet shot out the back of the car--passing by with a deadly speed.
"Well if that's the way you feel," I said dropping the car. The high acceleration sent the Caddy careening down Broome to the wall at the end of the short block. The car crashed and I flew up, to drag the unconscious salesmen from their airbags and bring them back to their buyer. I bent the torn lamp post around the men and smiled. It had been a good night so far.
Mailun seemed to inhabit a two story building, with an upper level given for residence and a lower level with a deep garage where his studio stood. The back of the building was given over to what looked like a junkyard. I stood watch for a good thirty minutes, ensuring there was no more criminal activity going on. It seemed safe and quiet.
I found a tall window on the side of the building, and noticing the light was still on, I slipped through. "Knock Knock!" I called out.
Mailun looked out from under a welding mask and smiled. "White Owl! I wasn't sure you would see my ad, but I'm so glad you came! I just came into a big inheritance, and can well afford to pay you." He may have looked unkempt, but he was polite and soft spoken, and I felt more at ease around him.
"I've done my research Mr Mailun, and I know you're an abstract artist, not a sculptor as such."
"It's true," he agreed. "I can't sculpt humans at all, I do much better with pieces of junk in new forms. But I had a commission come in from a fan of yours. They wanted a life sized sculpture of you."
"And how did you propose to fulfill that?" I asked, curious.
"Are you familiar with life masks?" he began. I nodded and Mailun continued, "Well I want to make a casting of you. Basically I'll pour a modeling compound over you, then after it begins to harden, I crack the shell, and let you out. I'll press the two halves together and have a perfect image to pour full of plaster, making a perfect life-sized sculpture of you. Once the plaster hardens, then my sponsor will have his perfect image."
"I'll be honest Mr Mailun, I have my doubts. The mobiles are really neat, but this seems so...well, out of your realm."
"But it works! Look!" He whistled and a beagle trotted into the room; his tail wagging excitedly. "This is Bridger, my dog," he explained. "Now take a look at this!" With a showman's flourish, he pulled a cloth from a sculpture and a full scale plaster Bridger stared back at me.
"See," said Mailun. "Bridger here posed once, and here's the mold I used." I saw a gold polymer shell, split and rejoined in Bridger's image. Holes for his nose were in place, allowing the dog to breathe while Mailun waited for the compound to harden.
"How long does it take?" I asked, realizing I was about to give consent.
"Bridger was in the mold for two hours. Unfortunately the compound takes some time to harden. But I can pay well. To the Children's Hospital, right?" I nodded.
"All right, I'll pose for you Mr Mailun. When would you like to start?"
"We can start now, if you'd like. If you'd step over here?" He led me to a clear spot on the floor, and I saw a scaffolding with several plastic buckets above. Mailun handed me two long straws (so I could breathe) and I inserted them into my nose.
"Find a pose that's comfortable White Owl," Mailun said jovially as he climbed the ladder. I stood with my hands at my side, in a relaxed pose.
"Are you ready?" he asked and I nodded. A warm, sticky plastic began pouring from above me, splashing on my boots and thighs. Despite it's warmth, the liquid chilled me and I shivered. "Stand still please," I heard from above. "You're a very lovely subject and I'd hate to mar that because you moved."
"This will take a while to harden," he reminded me.
"It's OK, I'm free the rest of the night," I said. Mailun worked quickly, and in a few minutes I was covered head to toe in a thick, gooey, glistening past. And to my shock, it was hard quickly, curing in contact with my body's heat. I panicked and then calmed myself shouting to Mailun, "YOU LIED TO ME!"
"Anything for art," came the terse reply. I tried to respond but the compound had solidified around my lips and all I could manage was a stifled MMmmpph!! I could still breathe, but Mailun took the straws from my nose and laughed. Thankfully though, the compound hadn't covered my nostrils. I pressed against the sides of the molding, but I couldn't muster the leverage to crack through the molding compound. I was hoping that Mailun was reaching for the mallet and chisel to break me free.
Instead, I could feel his footsteps around me. I could make out his words, "Stunning, absolutely exquisite. I can't believe I created this."
I heard the ringing of a delivery bell and shuddered. Who could be calling this late at night. I knew it couldn't be good news for me. "We're here to pick up our...sculpture," said a thick gravely voice. I heard another, high pitched giggle. Obviously there was more going on here than a love smitten artist.
"She is not for sale," I heard Mailun say. "She's my masterpiece and I'll never sell..." A pistol barked and I heard Mailun drop in front of me.
Gravel voice said, "Nice shootin' Ham. Now we gotta work fast, because you've let the neighborhood know."
"Aw can it Monk," came the giggler's reply. "He was tryin' to cross us, and no one crosses Boss Saint."
Saint? Since the downfall of Giovanni Cafazzo, the Saint gang had become the undisputed leader of organized crime in Queen City. I had no doubt Saint was behind the gun sale I broke up earlier. But despite the best efforts of the QCPD, they were too entrenched to be easily rousted.
The leader of the Saint mob was an unknown. I mean we knew he existed, but his identity was a complete mystery. The police profiles indicated he was someone well known in the community; but despite the best efforts of the police or myself, no one had ever gotten close.
I felt myself being tilted back and the sensation of motion. I was being hand trucked somewhere. I felt myself being set down and heard the slamming of the van doors. "I don't see why we didn't just plug her here," whined Ham. "All this expense coulda been spent on bullets."
"You dummy," growled Monk. "Killin' masks outright is bad for business--an' difficult too. Bullets generally don't work on heroes. Ya gotta be clever an' show some...what is it the boss called it? Panache! Besides, a dead heroine brings the cops and the other heroes down. But a MISSIN' one. Well, they can't PROVE we had anythin' to do with it."
The van rumbled through a dark and quiet city. Through unseeing eyes, I tried to visualize my surroundings but without some reference point, it was an exercise in futility. I was literally in the dark. But when I was wheeled off the van, I could feel the rock of water underneath me and I realized I was on a boat.
"Well done, gentlemen," said a quiet voice.
"It was nothin' boss," said Monk. My blood ran cold underneath my Owl shaped sarcophagus. Boss Saint was within inches of me. But I couldn't see him, and I railed. My arms were stiff from pressing and I KNEW the molding compound had to be breakable, I'd seen the evidence myself at Mailun's studio. In my frustration I almost missed Saint's next words.
"This woman has been a royal pain. Cast off, and when we get to Suttler's Bend, we'll be rid of White Owl forever." A cold sweat broke over my encased form. I wasn't sure from which marina we'd started, but Suttler's Bend was no more than two hours from any point in Queen City by river. I tried once more to expand and break the modeling compound, but my arms were almost leaden from the hour of pressure I had already attempted.
"Get her out of my sight," I heard Boss Saint say. "Take White Owl up on deck. She should have a last look at her beloved Queen City, don't you think?"
"But, Boss?" asked Monk. "She can't see nothin. How is that gonna help?"
"It means I won't have to look at her you moron!" shouted Boss Saint.
I felt myself being tipped back and carried, awkwardly, up the gangway to the deck. I was set down, and heard Monk and Ham talking. "She's gonna get what she deserves, Monk."
"I don't think so, Ham," said Monk. "She may be gettin' what she deserves from the boss, but I owe her a few bruises from the time she took down the counterfeiting operation."
I remembered that night. Captain Winslow and his special crimes unit had needed a bit of extra backup, and I provided a silent air cover. I remembered one large bruiser trying to escape through a secret exit, and managed to nail him with one punch from above. If that was Monk, he may have indeed felt a need for retribution.
"Sheesh, it's freezin' up here," said Ham. "I'm goin' below until we get to Suttler's bend. You comin'?"
"I want to finish a cigarette. You know how the boss feels about that."
It grew silent around me, then I heard Monk's voice hissing in my ear. "He's gone little lady, we're all alone. And I was the laughing stock of the gang for weeks. They couldn't believe a little girl like you could take down Monk. So I owe you this."
I heard a heard thump against the front of the case, where my stomach rested. And I felt a jarring from the boot connecting with my ribcage. But the compound was solid and held. I heard Monk grunt in satisfaction, then felt one last jarring at my left arm, right about where I'd been stressing with my elbow. I pressed once more and winced in pain. Apparently Monk's foot had bruised my elbow.
But if his foot could cause bruising, then maybe...I moved my arm in the confined space and slammed the elbow back into the casing. The sparks up my arm nearly caused me to black out, but I heard the sound of crumbling. The casing COULD be broken. Hope sang in my heart and I ignored the pain, driving my elbow into the compound again.
Beneath my feet, I felt the change in the rumble of the motor, then silence as the boat drew to a stop. I had moments to act, or I was going to be submerged beneath the depths of the muddy Ohio. I tried to apply pressure to the side once more, to force open any opening I may have made. But I felt myself being lifted.
"On three..." said Ham. "One...Two...Three.." I felt the forward motion, then a splash and the sound changed around me. The case bobbed up once and I managed to break through the case at the elbow. But it didn't go unnoticed. As the golden sarcophagus bubbled under the water I heard the "SPIANG" of bullets ripping into the water. The casing sank into the river and I felt the water oozing through my newly made crack, expanding the hole and sinking me that much faster. But with my arm free, I was able to dig into my tool bag. I short second later, I had my rebreather in my mouth and the first gulps of pure oxygen reinvigorated my stressed muscles.
I flexed harder, able now to move a bit more freely and the modeling compound shattered. With powerful strokes I broke the surface of the water and drew a deep breath. With a swift eye, I took in the river scene. Three boats were still traveling slowly downriver, and I had no clue as to which one I had been on, except one. Monk.
I broke from the water and into the air. I closed in on the three boats, then heard a yelp. From the middle boat a body plunged into the river. I heard a cry for help and had to alter my course. A head bobbed up in the water and I recognized it as Monk.
"I should let him drown," I thought. But I sighed. Neither wisdom nor my Christian values would allow me to do that. I banked back and grabbed Monk's flailing arms. His bulk added dead weight to my flight, slowing me down. And I wasn't too happy with the way he leered at my appearance in a skintight watersoaked costume. I landed on the bank, about a half mile in and dropped Monk unceremoniously into a streetlamp. My zip cuffs pulled his wrists tight on either side and kept him in one place until Winslow showed up. It was a long wait, because my cell phone had gotten wet as well.
But Monk never revealed who Saint was, dying on the way to the jail--a victim of a time released poison. Winslow charged Monk with the murder of Mailun, with an earwitness account, and marked that case closed, even though we both knew better.
"Sometimes you just can't win them all Owl," was all Winslow said. I nodded sadly, knowing Mailun had died for no reason other than his art.
Cassidy was somber the next morning, her black skirt and vest brightened only by a deep purple satin blouse. "He's gone Athena!" she wailed. "He was going to be the biggest and best thing we'd promoted in the art galleries, and he's gone!"
I took her in my arms and comforted her. "I know, Cass. But he'll be remembered, though." She stifled a sob and pulled back.
"I did get a call from the Guggenheim today, though Athena. They want Piotr's works there, and offered a sizable check for purchase. It will go a long way to setting up an estate for him, and a scholarship at his high school."
"Then some good did come from it, just at a tragic cost." I said. "C'mon, Cassidy, let me buy you some coffee."

The End.