Bernard Onken, author of Blame Rudolf, has published crime stories in Switchblade, Mondays are Murder, Shotgun Honey, and Near to the Knuckle among others. He’s a writer and editor based in New York.
The 5:38 Northeast Regional rumbled and rocked as Redmond made his way from the quiet car to the café. Slightly off balance, he passed a guy who was sitting alone, slumped in a window seat. At first he’d taken the row for empty. Then the jolt of recognition. The face was in profile, the guy’s eyeglasses turned to the passing scenery. It was Peter Scanlon. That pill-shaped head, capped with black baize. Scanlon. After what — 20 years?
Redmond went on to the café, where he paid cash for a sauvignon. He took the cup and bottle in a cardboard holder and started back through the cars. At Scanlon’s row he stopped in the aisle. Scanlon’s head turned, frowning across the untaken seat at his side. His face as smooth as a stone idol’s. Redmond said, “You went to Big Orange?”
Redmond went on to the café, where he paid cash for a sauvignon. He took the cup and bottle in a cardboard holder and started back through the cars.
The hard hazelnut eyes showed interest. “Sure.”
Redmond let out a little hoot. “You’re Peter Scanlon!”
Scanlon was mystified. “Give me a name?”
Redmond said his own name and there was a short pause. Old memories surfacing, maybe streaming dark weeds. Scanlon looked a touch unsure, but he said, “Hey! Been a long time, ish.”
Redmond grinned. “I always see people I think I know and it’s not them. The roaming eye, you understand?”
Scanlon stared up at him. “So you’re . . . are you in Connecticut now?”
“I’m in the city.”
“Both of us, then. Sure.” A pause. “Where’s your seat?”
“I just came from the lounge. You down for moving to a table?”
“Well yeah, if you want. I get off at New London.”
“New London, the same.”
“You’re not going to Foxwoods?”
“Where I’m headed.”
When Scanlon stood, Redmond took in his pink sports knit and bulldog-patterned Bermuda shorts. A look Scanlon was a little underfed for, but Redmond wasn’t surprised. Scanlon needed to own some kind of image. In college he invariably wore a black leather jacket and T-shirts sharpied NO VALUES or I 🖕 NY or I’M A MESS. Playing it for rebellious kicks, goofing at keggers and the campus bars. Sometimes Scanlon would mock Redmond’s iffy hygiene and scarecrow clothes. They were never exactly friends.
Today Redmond wore midnight Italian slacks and a blazer from Bergdorf’s, anthracite silk. Suede loafers, no socks. He led Scanlon back to the café and set down the cup holder at a vacant table. They slid into opposite seats.
Redmond checked the woodland passing outside the window, hearing Scanlon say, “What do you do for fun?” His eyes shifted back to Scanlon’s blank face. “I enjoy my profession.” He screwed the cap off his split of plonk and poured some into the plastic cup. “Buy you one?”
“I actually stopped. Nothing for eight years.” Aha. So Scanlon was dried out, maybe powered down from the old days. Headed to the Indian casino, solo.
“Sorry to hear,” Redmond said. “But eight years . . . eight years is serious.”
Scanlon didn’t reply.
Redmond took a sip and said, “Anyway, you’re only missing the worst finish ever. Vineyards de Lysol.” He shuddered, setting the cup down. “And so you do what? In the city.”
“Right now I’m a content contributor for chatbots. AI.”
“Like when some site asks to chat? People use that?”
“These are snippets.”
“Ahum. And maybe this trip is for . . . fun?”
“Absolutely. I’m freelance anyway, got sick of the last jay oh bee. How ’bout you?”
“Yeah, the business you said you enjoy.”
“Oh. I’m in art.”
“Really, art?” The hazelnut eyes searched him. “How’d you get into that?”
Redmond leaned back, cup in hand. “Peter, the truth is it got into me.” He sipped thoughtfully. “First, way back, I started out in packing and shipping, this was for museums. Don’t even imagine Old Masters or Ming jade or anything. It was like carry this pile of rocks out to the truck.
After a while, on one hire I got sent to Africa. That was a chance to see quite a lot. Some objects are only available in certain places. I was able to come back and hook collectors up with — let’s say, match their tastes. I started dealing with this local Mr. Tass, about as tall as this table and he knew the whole Congo basin.
I got into brokering, lined up some side commissions.” Redmond paused to gaze out the window. The train passed boulders painted with strange symbols, then an olive-green river snaking away through wilderness. “Develop a specialty. That’s important.”
“Huh. So now you have a . . . shop?”
“Just my home’s old music room. Off West End Ave. Yourself?”
“Wife’s gone and I have the apartment. Sunnyside.”
“Gone? When’s she coming back?”
“How ’bout not ever.”
Redmond’s lips curled. “I hear you, I hear you. So this now’s the freedom ride?”
Scanlon nodded. “There’s plenty of freedom. Never been out this way so I thought—”
“You’re uncoupled. Relieved.”
“It is kind of a relief, I gotta tell you.” A neat little grin had appeared. Redmond remembered it from school. He emptied the split into his cup. Thinking he could take Scanlon to Eris. But he’d have to finesse it. No tugging.
“So why’re you on this train?” Scanlon said, seeming more relaxed.
“A work run. To look at a piece. Mine’s a niche market, right? We used to say primitive. But now, today, I’m in a whole different zone. There’s a curator out here who came into this holding from Colonial America.”
Redmond studied him. “There’s other things, too.”
“Like this world I’m part of has what you’d call, I don’t know, extras? Incentives?”
“Financial, you’re saying.”
“Not that. Let me just lay this out. Beyond a certain . . . level . . . what’s acceptable gets left behind. Or wait.” Redmond waved a hand back and forth. “Start over. What if whatever we see on the surface is meaningless. It has zero human meaning. You might not agree at all, but just suppose. Now. What if surface reality can be exchanged for a kind of unreality? Full of codes and mysteries. That finally mean something.”
“Huh?” Scanlon said. His mouth opened and drew shut, like a goldfish’s. Glub.
“I know how it sounds. But don’t think it’s just fantasy. We’re talking about a tradition among the inner art circles. A higher experience. When I go for one of these buys it’s a package.”
“It’s a package.”
“Call it a hospitality package.”
“Of an alternate way of living. This is a formula that’s been perpetuated, for higher . . . stimulus. Everyone participates.”
Glub glub. “I don’t . . . ?”
“Say for example the assistants.”
“This is what happens. How can I put it?” Redmond brought his hands together in a loosely obscene gesture. “Exquisite acts. It’s considered a gift.”
Scanlon’s eyes lost focus. Thoughts were cycling. Foxwoods, snippets. Exquisite acts. “Assistants,” he said.
“Right. New York gallery assistants. Twenty-three-year-olds in flocked velvet.”
Scanlon’s mouth dropped again.
“And this curator. She looks like Yvonne De Carlo.”
“I know, that’s . . .”
This time Scanlon chuckled. No tugging!
The intercom broke in. “Stamford, station stop is Stamford.” They slowed to a halt at a concrete platform. Redmond pushed his empty cup into the cardboard holder. “Peter, I have to jump on my phone and check a few items.”
As if he hadn’t heard, Scanlon shook his head, bemused. When Redmond stood, Scanlon looked up at him. “How ’bout your number?” he said.
“Let’s find each other at the stop.”
Redmond moved back through the cars. He reclaimed his seat, sighed and shut his eyes. The wheels’ thumpbump thumpbump was calming, like the beat of a mechanical heart. Outside the window the sky had turned platinum.
When the train pulled in to New London it was full night. Redmond exited onto the platform. Rain was drumming on the track bed. At the railroad crossing red lights were flashing and bells were pounding. Scanlon was standing at the platform’s edge, a backpack over his shoulder, looking into the darkness. Redmond went up behind him, chanting, “Oh, the bells, bells, bells!”
Scanlon swung halfway around. “What?” Not amused.
“What a tale their terror tells.” Redmond smiled through the darkness. “Kidding, man. Listen, you don’t have to cab it. I’ll drive you out. Just one pit stop on the way.”
“Peter.” Mock pleading. “Come meet some people. You used to be a real wild child.”
“Firewater did that.”
“This’ll prove I’m not full of . . . odd stories. The ride’s over this way.”
Pelted by rain, they crossed the tracks into a waterfront parking lot. Lozenges of orange light showed on the far bank. Above the lights, on a dark bluff, a stone obelisk pierced scraps of black cloud. They walked over to where a BMW was parked.
“Whose car?” Scanlon said.
“I’m taking it back to the city,” Redmond said, unlocking the driver’s side.
He sped them along the riverfront, bypassing the town, and merged onto a highway. After 15 minutes, he took an exit that made a long curve around a stand of pines. The trees shielded a low house from the road. Redmond eased the Bimmer up in front.
“Pretty out of the way,” Scanlon said.
“Here it’s more about private viewings. You’ll see.” They climbed out into the wet wind. The moon showed as a spectral gray thumbprint on a black sky. Light from the house caught sparkles of rain nipping puddles in the drive. Red lights on the highway flashed beyond the trees.
The second they stepped onto the porch the front door opened. Into the porchlight came a woman in a smock. The sudden brightness turned her aquamarine eyes almost clear. Wisps of undone hair grazed her shoulders like black cotton. “Eris!” Redmond said. “Here we, ah, are.”
Eris rubbed the back of a wrist on her hip. “We?”
“Yes, I just ran into a long-lost friend. This is Peter. We were on the same train, did some catching up.” He took a step forward and cupped a hand by Eris’ ear. As he whispered she kept her eyes fixed on Scanlon.
She moved back from the doorway. “Come right in,” she said, her lips barely parting.
They stepped into a bare anteroom. Plastic brochure holders sat empty on a desk. An oversized canvas was hung to one side. Clouds of scarlet swirling senselessly into ruby-dark depths. A shark bite, Redmond thought, unimpressed. “Abstraction? You?”
Eris bolted the door. “Get real. It isn’t mine.”
“Then did I hear about another thing? Some series you’re working on?”
“One always hears about things.”
Redmond glanced at his companion. Peter Scanlon, lost in the night, stripped of all but his backpack and Bermudas. So strange, yet funny. “Peter,” he laughed. “Eris’ll let the others know you’re out here.”
Scanlon started to say something.
“Just be one sec,” Redmond said.
Eris had crossed the room to an open door leading to the house’s rear. “I really expected you alone,” she said. Then she was gone.
“You wouldn’t believe what I made up to get him here,” Redmond called after her. Adding, as if to himself, “Let’s see what happens.”
Scanlon’s mouth was open. His eyes seemed to fill their rimless lenses. “Lily Munster?” he said. “Are you mad?” he said. He stepped to the front door.
Eris reappeared from the back. A bright yellow stun gun hung in her right hand. In her left was a thick steel ring with chains looping down to a pair of leather cuffs. She swung the gun horizontal, her mouth clamped as she took aim. A dot of red danced on Scanlon’s backpack and stilled on his lower spine. He buckled to the floor, his glasses scattering. Eris handed the gun to Redmond. “Keep the juice up. It’s more the shock than the pain.”
The chains hissed at her side as she approached the helpless Scanlon. She knelt, parted the steel ring like a caliper, and deftly clamped it around his neck. She caught each arm to fasten the cuffs around his wrists. As if she’d done this many times before.
Redmond stepped nearer, still working the trigger. “Man, Peter,” he said. “Look at that expression. It’s like the undead.”
“Okay, cut it,” Eris said, and pulled the darts from Scanlon’s back. She stood and drew a leader chain taut, then dragged him head first over to a radiator in a corner. She ran the leader through the radiator’s legs and snapped a lock on, muttering between breaths, “If you make noise, no one will hear but me. And you mustn’t disturb me. Or I’ll come back with an adze.” Finishing, she hunkered on her heels, staring into Scanlon’s eyes. She touched a finger to his lips and stood.
Redmond hadn’t moved. She crossed the room and he handed her the gun. “You have a proposal?” she said.
“I wouldn’t come to you empty handed, Eris.”
“No. You wouldn’t.”
“So let’s take a look at the piece. Patience is a virtue.”
He followed her through the doorway to the back. “My only virtue, actually,” she said.
She took him down the hall into a room that had a heavy work table in the center. There was no overhead light. A storage cabinet stood in shadow against one wall. Eris went to it and put the yellow gun away. Catalogs and papers had been pushed to the table’s edges, leaving space for a flat acrylic case. It lay in the glare of an architect’s desk lamp. “Go ahead. Inspect,” she said.
He went over. An engraving was sealed inside the clear box. Vellum, he thought. Moderate discoloration. His eyes shifted from point to point as he took in the image. Morion-helmeted soldiers firing muskets, loinclothed native warriors blown backward. The surrounding woods a wall of bizarre flowers and writhing roots. On a waterway a canoe paddled by the dead.
In the middle ground a figure with no head or hands, clad in buckskin, risen into the air. Windmills in the distance given distorted human faces. In the farther distance a mountain formed from a hunched-over skeleton pounding a drum. He studied the roughly engraved spiral raining spears of light from an upper corner. “Well,” he said. “It’s busy.”
“Intaglio, copperplate. Likely a gloss on Brueghel’s Deadly Sins. The inscription translates ‘Swamp Fight.’”
“Barnabas van Loon the Younger. Plymouth Colony, 1637.”
“All the way back. I left it with Curtiz. He signed off.” She moved to his side and gazed at the print, head cocked. “Obscure stuff.”
“Is it really my thing?”
“What do you mean? This scene was witnessed.” She touched a fingernail to the acrylic. “Taken from life.”
Redmond stared. “Direct testament.”
“If anyone was meant for this—”
“Yes. Coded signals sent to . . . to us.” He turned to her, their faces inches apart, half in light and half in shadow. “And tell me about him? Barnabas?”
“What, like background?”
“Any facts. I’ll fill in where I can.”
“Let’s see.” She scratched her cheek. “You’re not worried about your old friend out there?”
Redmond shook his head.
“Then I’ll start with the father, known as Barnabas van Loon the Elder. A painter, post-Renaissance. This is Antwerp, the 1570s. Definitely a time of disruption, anti-this, anti-that, blah blah. Until finally, invasion. You’ve heard of the Spanish Fury? Spaniards, like these wild beasts, coming north to Flanders, pillaging? There are a few nameless Fury canvases, one of them attributed to the Elder. Raw stuff, actually, beyond depressing. I’d say his whole perspective, everything, was changed forever. By the senseless . . . .” Her eyes had darkened into blue ink. “Anyway, he took off for Prague. Kingdom of Bohemia, seat of the Holy Roman Emperor. That’s Rudolf the Second, you must be familiar.”
“Prague Castle, the court at Hradčany,” Redmond said. “I’m familiar. It was everything, all the time. And Rudolf, the poxed emperor. I know about his collection.”
“The place was a magnet for every crank in Europe,” she said. “Being a painter, the Elder wormed his way into Rudolf’s artist clique. Almost all of whom are unknown to us today. They developed the swarming compositions, the contorted figures, the paradoxes.”
“If you like. Now van Loon the Younger — your engraver here — was born around 1598. Sadly, trouble was looming for the Elder. Our Rudolf wanted formula work from his artists. Nymphets in poses pleasing old Hercules, pleasing old Vulcan. Go lurid. Be obvious.”
“Be HBO,” Redmond murmured.
“Van Loon couldn’t take it. He wanted truth and consequences and real blood. As a protest he did a ‘Harrowing of Hell.’ All these scenes of damned souls, with the Savior knocking on the door. A final statement. Then he just disappears from the record. His son, we know, remained chez Hradčany.
“The year 1600 was supposed to be millennial. The beginning of this transformation, spreading from Prague Castle out over the known world. Actually, it was almost the end. By 1620, Rudolf was dead. Van Loon the Younger was around long enough to see the court disperse. Then the political violence, war on the wind. He’s now a grown man, so he gets out of Bohemia, sets off west. He rides with a gypsy caravan, trading on things he’d picked up, avant-garde magic. He ends up in Rotterdam sketching public executions. And there hears talk of the New World.”
“Can’t beat a fresh start, eh Eris?”
“There’s no such thing as a fresh start.” Eris considered the case in its puddle of light. “Young Barnabas bought passage to New Amsterdam, the island of Manhattan. When he got to the settlement he ran with the rogue traders, the heathens, the smugglers. Many of them in cahoots with the Iroquois, swapping guns and liquor for beaver furs. Naturally they all scorned anyone in authority, meaning Walloons or Dutch West India incorporated amalgamated blah blah.
In time Barnabas found himself non grata. Kicked out of the fort. He crossed into Connecticut, pretty much right where we’re standing. There were some middleman jobs for the Indians. He kept working on art. Looking for his primeval vision now. Getting back to the alternate reality he grew up in. Hatching these weird symbolic creatures. Obsessed with mystical properties in nature. Evil plants and herbs, whatever. Of course this all got the wrong kind of attention from the Plymouth Pilgrims. Then came the Pequot War, 1636. That’s where we come to ‘Swamp Fight.’”
“Where’s the print been all this time since?”
“Anyway, after the war there were van Loon rumors all over the colony. Stuff following him from Rudolf’s time, stuff he kept on doing. Secret traditions, carried on in the wild. He’d already been banished.” Eris was still gazing at the case. “So they caught him, and hanged him. Quietly, in Providence.”
For a moment the room was still. Down the hall came a low rapping.
“And wiped out every trace?” he said.
She turned her face to him, one eye in shadow, the other glittering. “You’re looking at all that’s left of Barnabas van Loon the Younger.”
Redmond studied the print. “He didn’t get hanged for nothing. There’s no talent.”
“Of course he didn’t have talent.”
“But still, I—“
“You’re the first one I contacted.”
“And the, ah, appraisal?”
“Oh.” His pulse was jumping. “I really can’t put my hands on three . . .”
“Three firm, Redmond. Something that early, that singular . . .”
“I’m aware, I’m aware. But I brought you a model.”
“A living model.” Watching her, he spoke quickly. “You have feelers all over the place. Maybe someone who needs to incorporate a . . . a live element, into a piece.”
“He’s not a friend. He’s nobody. No connections. One point five plus the model.”
“I’m not actually sure who’d be needing that kind of thing.”
Redmond sagged a little. “Are we going to haggle?”
“It’s not that . . .”
“Well, there’s a possible.”
Now rapid thuds came from the front. They both looked toward the room’s open door.
“Should I ask?”
“Oh, there’s a prospect. Actually, I’m in contact with these war reenactors. I don’t know much about it, but they want more than just simulation. They’re into realistic detail, live action and all that jazz.”
Redmond smiled. “You really get them, don’t you?” Her face showed nothing. “I mean, did you ever think it would go as far as — reenactments?”
She gave it thought. “What do you mean ‘far’?”
“Any means for an effect.”
“Everyone wants to escape. Look what the petroleum companies do.”
He laughed, unsure. “Petroleum companies?”
“That make petroleum paints. That violate everything. What’s left anymore?”
He shook his head. “I used to be a lot more naive. I didn’t know the market.”
“Of course. No one out there knows anything, even now.”
“Still. To have a few of the answers.”
“Answers? Emperor Rudolf thought he’d remake the world. To suit his Bohemian self. But now we’re the ones living it.”
“And if we’re all crazy?”
“Blame him. Blame Rudolf.” She paused. “It’s getting late.”
“And as far as we’re—”
“I’m thinking. The one point five excludes consignment?”
“Fine then. Done.”
Instead of answering she went around the table to the storage cabinet, unlatched it and took out a hand tool. He saw a leather grip and a carbon-black head with a curved blade. All of a sudden the thudding in front got louder. “Time to dig out a canoe,” she said. She left the room. Redmond picked up the acrylic case and went into the hall. The house’s rear door was at the far end. He walked down, twisted the lock and drew it open.
Minutes later the Bimmer was plowing through rain, Redmond driving in silence. Reenactors. Yeah, right. She was covering herself. Could Scanlon’s trail somehow lead back to them? Say maybe someone files a missing person in Queens. Lonely, or make that despondent, man in his forties — whereabouts unknown. Send out a bulletin? Comb the tristate? How ’bout not ever.
He tried to picture what she’d really do with . . . Peter. Recently there’d been talk of Eris’ action art, living beings encased in some kind of latex. An oily sheath, a statement. Anti-petroleum. Beautiful, but whew. These gallerists could be insanely dark. Redmond patted the case on the seat beside him. Was it his problem?
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