The wind masked any noise we made coming over the back wall. I dropped onto the newly mown lawn. Chitter landed beside me, his breath shallow in his narrow throat.
His face was a pale blotch between his dark knit cap and black pullover. “So far so good, Jude.”
“Yeah,” I whispered. I watched the mansion. “Nobody’s home.”
He flashed a smile in return. “Piece of cake.”
“Maybe.” But it looked that way. The antebellum house, creaking with age, had dark windows that glared at the landscape like blank eyes. A cobblestone path ran between the house and a private mausoleum: dull grey marble cloistered by a tangled overgrowth of oleander and brown honeysuckle. Carved deep into the gray lintel of the mausoleum was a single word:
A sliver of moon rode between the branches of an oak tree crouched over the crypt. The cobblestone path was partially hidden by the lattice-work of an arbor. Chitter and I moved along the path toward the house. Shadows from the morning glory and crepe myrtle growing over and through the arbor marbled our flesh and shadows.
We reached the screened-in porch and padded quietly to the back door. With a gloved hand Chitter tried the doorknob. The door opened without noise, its hinges well-oiled.
He looked at me in disbelief. “These idiots are asking for it. Nice of them to make it easy for us.”
I frowned. “Pretty odd they wouldn’t lock the door. No burglar alarms, either.” I put my black leather pouch filled with burglar tools back inside my shirt. They wouldn’t be needed here. “Let’s go.”
I followed Chitter inside. He clicked on his penlight and swept it through the cluttered kitchen. Bags of yellow onions and red potatoes were on the counter. Bright silverware lay scattered on a dining table where someone had been polishing it.
“We’ll grab that silver on the way out,” I said.
Chitter’s penlight stabbed deep into the recesses of the house and found a padlocked door beside a food pantry. I instinctively reached for my tools.
Chitter laid a restraining hand on my forearm. “Nah. Probably leads to a root cellar or something. Let’s keep going.”
We stole farther into the house and entered a foyer. A cherry wood escritoire and an ancient Zenith television set were in forgotten corners of the room. In the middle of the foyer, with settees arranged as if to pay homage, stood a polished Victrola with Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” on the platter. Beside the Victrola, stacked with care, were hundreds of old 78 records.
“These will bring a good price at any antique shop,” I observed. I turned one over in my hands. “Wow. They’re in mint condition, too.”
Chitter rummaged through the escritoire. He found papers and receipts regarding the everyday upkeep of the house, but no loose cash. He slid the drawers shut.
“Upstairs?” he suggested.
I shrugged. “Guess so.”
We ascended red carpeted stairs, our gloved hands sliding along the ormolu bannister. The bedrooms revealed nothing of importance. In the master bedroom we went through the dresser finding only pale pink blouses and burgundy skirts, neatly folded. I parted the antique satin drapes from a French window and looked over the five acre grounds–all that remained of the Skalla Plantation at the edge of the Garden District, now an historical home managed by the city of New Orleans. From my vantage point I could see the silver sheen of the Mississippi River glinting like gunmetal under the moonlight.
Chitter closed the last drawer with a note of frustration. “Damn. There’s nothing here.”
“You’re forgetting the silverware.”
His face hardened. “I didn’t come here for knives and forks.”
I knew how he felt. This old historical home should have had quite a few objets d’art we could fence. It was why we had chosen it above the other neighboring houses in the first place.
It was also why we worked so well together. Chitter was in charge of the behind-the-scenes stuff: selling what we stole, casing new opportunities. My specialty was locks, and an ability to appraise works of art on the spot–a talent gleaned from my days as an art connoisseur before I moved to this more lucrative side of the business.
Chitter’s impatient eyes ranged about the bedroom. “Jude, something doesn’t seem right about this room. Notice it?”
“I do.” I hooked a thumb over my shoulder. “There’s a connecting bath through that door. No mirrors in there, either.”
His thick eyebrows crowded together. “That’s pretty freakin’ strange, wouldn’t you say?”
I made a helpless gesture. “Takes all kinds. You know how these caretakers are when it comes to these old historical homes. You have to be a little warped to live all alone in a drafty place like this anyway.”
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had stumbled onto something unusual. But, though my suspicious were aroused, I couldn’t bring myself to take the next leap into fantasy. I mean, fairy tales were never an integral part of my life.
Chitter stripped a pillowcase off a goose-down pillow. “For the silverware,” he explained.
We moved down the hallway to a final door. We tried to open it, but this one was locked tight.
I went to work. It wasn’t much of an obstacle. An ordinary skeleton key would have sufficed. Chitter pushed the door open with his fingertips and we saw a huge ornate room with expensive walnut paneling and a fancy slate-tiled floor.
“My God,” said Chitter from doorway. “What a mother-lode.”
I edged past him and swallowed, overwhelmed. “Christ.”
The room was furnished with Louis XV furniture. And art. Hundreds of pieces of gleaming art all depicting the same woman.
She was frozen in various attitudes, timeless within the two-dimensional framework of acrylic, oil, egg-tempera, watercolor and the occasional chiaroscuro. She looked at us from a score of paintings. They were like immortal shards of glass, if you want to get poetic about it. Eternal, these objects would forever reflect her changeless beauty.
And that wasn’t all. In each corner of the room stood a life-sized bust on a marble pedestal, carved of wood, bronze, soapstone–and probably the most prized, obsidian. Not to mention the sketches. Hundreds of sketches finished in charcoal, pencil, pastels, pen and ink, blanketed the walls.
“What the hell is this?” Chitter asked. A chuckle caught in his throat. “Talk about being in love with yourself.”
I barely heard him. I was standing before the white marble fireplace, staring at an oil on canvas portrait that was the room’s centerpiece.
The woman portrayed there stood in profile with an open decolletage and lavender powder on her face, hands and arms. If I remembered correctly, it was a cosmetic adopted by only the most brazen of women, a long time ago.
A long time ago.
“We’ll have to come back with an entire crew.” Chitter’s eyes were wide at the riches he foresaw on our horizon. “I want to hire a truck and a couple more fellows. Retain a quality fence, too. We’ll come back next week and clean this place out. Jude?”
The skin on my face was cold and tight as I stared at the gilt-framed portrait hanging over the fireplace. “Chitter, if this is authentic, what’s hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?” He looked at me as if I had lost my mind. I wasn’t sure that I had not.
“What are you babbling about?” he asked.
“This oil painting. How would it have been painted? At night, by gaslight, would be my guess. In John Singer Sargent’s fifth-floor studio on the rue Notre Dame des Champs.”
Chitter stared at me, open-mouthed.
“Around the late 1800s,” I explained.
“Wow.” He looked around with a new appreciation. “All these paintings are that old?”
“No, they’re not.” I grabbed his arm, pulled him from the oil painting toward a watercolor propped on an easel.
I pointed at it. “What’s that on her wrist?”
“What make, genius?”
He bent for a closer look; the detail was exquisite. “Looks like a jeweled electronic Boliva.” His eyes narrowed. “No, Jude. It ain’t possible.”
“Think about it,” I told him. “This room wouldn’t be a question of vanity, but of necessity. She wouldn’t cast any reflection and she can’t be photographed. This is the only way she can physically see herself, and endure what she has become. Forever changeless. Being a reclusive caretaker of an old mansion is also great cover, I would think.”
Chitter’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. “What are you getting at?”
“Whenever this lady stares at these sketches, portraits, busts, she knows she truly exists. She’s not some supernatural ghost. She knows she has substance and form.” My voice dropped low. “Despite the quiet lies of looking glasses and still ponds.”
We stared together at the portrait. I whispered, “She would view these works of art and say to herself: ‘I am substantial. I am somebody. I exist.'”
Chitter was fast losing his nerve. He urged in an unsteady voice, “Let’s get out of here. Now.”
“I think you’re right. Come on.”
We didn’t bother locking doors behind us. I raced downstairs, Chitter crowding from behind. When we reached the kitchen he realized he had the satin pillowcase clutched in one hand.
“Damn. Damn. Damn.”
“Forget it,” I said. “We’re never coming back anyway.” I started for the back door and stopped, frozen.
Chitter’s voice cracked with fear. “What’s wrong, Jude?”
I pointed at the open cellar door. His face went white when he realized that whatever had been locked inside that cellar was now free.
“Run, Chitter!” I screamed.
I banged the kitchen door open as a cold blanket of air enveloped us in that dark, cluttered kitchen. I can’t explain what it felt like other than a malevolent pressure wave emanating from the blackest recesses of the house. I heard Chitter give a muffled yelp, but I was out the door and running for my life across the lawn.
The cold shroud of air raced across the lawn, reached through me, around me, into me. I felt something inside me tug a little and break loose, snaking back into the house where Chitter was trapped.
Where there came the broken scream of an animal in pain. A human animal. Chitter.
I clambered over the security wall, skinning my face in the process. I collapsed on the other side and twisted my knee on a tree root. Grimacing, I hobbled to my car parked under the violet shadows of a cypress tree, its branches sighing in the night breeze that skipped off the Mississippi.
Fumbling for my keys I cranked the engine and drove, trying to forget that animal scream that had emanated from inside the house.
I fumbled for my phone and couldn’t find it in the dark. I pulled under the bright fluorescent lights of a Tank-N-Tummy and dug frantically in my jeans. I dropped it and had to grope around my feet. I got in my hand and I dialed with a stabbing forefinger. I pressed the phone so hard to my ear it hurt.
A voice answered after the second ring. “New Orleans Police Department.”
I swallowed, my mouth cotton-dry. I tried to speak, but nothing came out. Again, that little tug inside my chest drew tight, a windlass drawing some invisible cord between me and that antebellum mansion in the Garden District.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
I hung up and got out of the car. I lighted a cigarette. I got less smoke into my lungs than I would have liked because my hands were trembling.
“She took something from me.” My voice was small in the night.
I don’t know how she did it. Lit a psychic flame in her mind maybe and reached into me to pinch a little bit out. Call it my soul, call it anything you like. But she had it, and it couldn’t exist in two places at once.
I got back inside my car and drove to the mansion. My mind screamed at me to rethink what I was doing, but I couldn’t help myself. No matter what else happened, I needed that part of me back again. If I did not get it back I would never be complete.
With each passing moment the tension in my chest lessened. I parked at the curb and stepped out. The windows of the mansion were dark. The wind drove in dark sheets through the pecan trees.
My heart pounding, I went to the front door and rang the bell. After an interminable wait that couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, it opened. Behind her, huddled in the dark, I heard Chitter weeping in fear like a lost child. Strains of Sinatra’s ‘Witchcraft’ played scratchily in the background. The music filled the corners of the room.
“I’m back,” I told her.
The woman in black with the lavender powder on her face and arms pressed her cold hand against my cheek. She smiled.
“I know, Jude,” she said, soft.
I stepped over the threshold, and into the red darkness that awaited.
3 Replies to “Sample Story – “Portraits of Madame Skalla””
This is brilliant. It’s excellently written. Some of the writing reminds me of Hemingway’s style. More is conveyed in the setting and mood than actual events.