He just couldn’t get it in gear that morning.
Del let the pen drop from his hand, leaned back in his chair and sighed. His gaze scanned the award case against the opposite wall. When had he acquired that? When had he stopped adding meaningless citations and honors to its shelves? Top agent, top manager, regional sales leader. He had boxes full of them. Who cared?
Maybe they meant something to him once; now he realized they gave out such awards like a can of beans. Who used to say that: can of beans? A guy who had started in the business with him and quit to see the world. Where’d he end up: Tibet? That was a long time ago.
Del had done well in the insurance industry, especially well with this particular company. He had become their best risk assessment officer. Del laughed, a rueful, dry chuckle that died in his throat.
The guy who played it safe his whole life, never took a chance or a gamble that wasn’t already a sure thing. He, of all people, had become an expert on risk.
His musings were interrupted by a knock. David poked his head around the office door.
“Del, you got a tux? You must; you’ve been to enough awards dinners.”
“Good morning, Dave. What now?”
“The boss wants you to attend a gallery opening. Wait until you hear whose.”
“Gallery? You mean an art gallery? I don’t know anything about art, Dave. Isn’t that why they brought in that girl … what’s her name … Shondra, or Shantelle? You know, the one who dresses like she wears old draperies.”
“This is big. We’ve been asked to insure the works of Arturo Felch.”
“Who the hell is Arturo Felch?”
“Who … You’re kidding?”
Del shrugged and adjusted his glasses.
“Well, he’s the new big thing.”
“Sorry, I must have missed the last few new big things … and a few before that.”
“He’s an artist.”
“So I gathered.”
“No, he’s more than that; he’s a portraitist.”
“He showed up out of nowhere and now he’s in demand by all the big names.”
“You know, celebrities, even politicians and statesmen.”
“Oh, you mean he’s the latest flash in the pan, the latest fad. It’s not wise to insure fads … they depreciate overnight when people tire of them.”
“Del, I don’t think this guy is going to go out of style any time soon. See, his paintings … well, they say, his paintings … well, they change.”
“He paints a portrait, see? Then the painting, well, it changes. I mean, you can tell it’s the same person who was painted in the first place, but … it changes.”
“What? Like Dorian Gray in reverse?”
“Gray …? Is that the character in that smutty book all the housewives went nuts over a while back?”
Del sighed. “No, Dave. Not that book.”
“Yeah … well … anyway, this guy Felch, everyone wants their portrait painted by him, lots of Hollywood types, especially since that young actor killed himself.”
“Young guy … he’d been on a TV show, hadn’t quite become a name yet, but he was the boy-toy of Margaret Devane.”
“Jesus, I didn’t know she was still alive.”
“Yeah, well she’s alive all right, still seducing boy actors.”
“So, what happened? This kid wake up one day and realized he was having sex with an octogenarian?”
“Huh? No, the cops found a note after he pitched himself off the roof of a building. You telling me you haven’t heard of any of this?”
“I’ve no interest in celebrities or so-called celebrity news.”
“Well, anyway, Devane arranged to have this kid’s portrait painted by Felch. The kid thought he could see his future in the portrait, and Devane told the cops that the picture did change … somehow.”
Del shook his head. “Sounds dubious. Maybe he thought it changed while he was under the influence of something.”
“A lot of other celebrities have had Felch do their portraits. They say they consult them before they make a career move.”
“They say they can tell by how they change if they should take a role, that sort of thing. But some of them, they’re scared shitless by them; they’ve put their portraits into deep storage, don’t ever want to see them again. But that sort of news just stirs up the frenzy. Everyone wants this guy to paint their portrait.”
“Sounds like a scam. Does the guy have any real talent?”
“Critics say he does … never mind the spooky stuff.”
“And I’m supposed to put a dollar amount on this guy’s paintings?”
“The ones he possesses. Lots of his subjects gave them back, on account of they were spooked by them. His agent arranged to set up a gallery. Everyone wants to see them.”
“When is this event?”
“Tomorrow night. The boss wants you to go with your wife.”
“Edith? She hasn’t gone with me to anything for a long time … no interest. Can’t say I blame her.”
“Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I’ve seen your better half.”
“My better half? Why do people say things like that?”
“Better half … just one half of the same old worn coin.”
“Gee, sorry, Del. I was just saying, Shel and I haven’t seen Edith since you two came over the house last Labor Day … no, come to think of it, it was Labor Day three years ago.”
“Yeah, well … I guess we’re not … party people.”
“Uh-huh. Well, boss wants you to bring her. You know how he likes to project that family-friendly company bullshit.”
“Don’t let anyone hear you say that.”
“Aw, I figure I can trust you, Del. Talk to you later.”
“Yeah, okay. Thanks for the warning.”
David slipped out the door as Del leaned back as far as his chair could recline. He thought of Edith.
She was a safe bet too. Prim … the perfect company man’s wife. There were no bachelors in the upper executive ranks, so she was an essential accessory if he wanted to rise in the ranks.
Lately he had begun to think of her as a cardboard cutout: humorless, sexless. Not that it mattered. He accepted that that’s what he had settled for. And his assessment of her was not so much a criticism, but an acknowledgement that he too was colorless, lacking in personality; he could not imagine ever turning a woman’s head. They were perfectly matched.
She had settled for him too and in exchange he gave her a comfortable and secure, if drab, life. Unlike most women, she had no internal clock nagging at her; she didn’t crave motherhood. In fact, Del thought her the least nurturing woman he’d ever known, exceeding even his mother in her indifference to him. Their courtship, such as it was, and his proposal was more like a negotiation. He could think of only three times she had displayed any affection; he did not count the perfunctory sex that they had long since done without.
But lately he had begun to wonder, and tried to drop subtle hints to her about perhaps letting her rusty-red hair down rather than always bound up in a tight bun atop her head. Or perhaps wear something less stiff and severe.
She either didn’t pick up on any of his hints, or maybe she just ignored them. After all, she couldn’t be expected to acquiesce to what for her would be a change in their contract. The night before he got up and stood outside her room and briefly contemplated sliding into her bed beside her.
Then he wondered if she might wake up screaming. He went back to bed … his bed. But he didn’t sleep. Instead his mind swirled with regret for his cardboard life.
Amy stepped through his door and nearly bumped into him as he fumbled for his keys.
“Oh, sorry, Del,” she said.
“That’s okay, Amy.”
The housewife from next door seemed a very young and insecure bride. Her voice was high and strained and she constantly tugged at her red-blonde tresses. He recognized himself in her husband, a good-looking young guy, very driven and ambitious. Amy didn’t work, apparently had no outside interests and, so far, no kids to occupy her life.
It was practically an accident that she and Edith had become, if not friends, then at least conversation companions.
“I have to go make dinner for Chet,” she said. “Kinda let the time slip by talking to Edith.”
“What do you girls have to talk about?”
“Oh … nothing much … really.”
“Hmm, I guess I can believe that.”
He didn’t mean it as a put-down and he momentarily regretted his remark. But Amy seemed not to react, except with a nervous smile and a high-pitched “Bye.”
“Yeah, see you later, Amy.”
He entered the house to find Edith gathering some cups and saucers off the coffee table. She didn’t greet him other than with a quick glance.
“Busy day?” Del inquired.
“That girl can talk your ears off.”
“If she annoys you, why don’t you send her on her way.”
“She’s harmless enough. Some of her notions amuse me.”
“Oh? Such as?”
“Nothing you’d be interested in. Just girl chat.”
“Hmm. What’s for dinner?”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t sure when you’d be home; I thought you’d be later.”
“I guess I’ll toss something into the microwave.”
He followed her into the kitchen and let his gaze trace the contours of her figure … practically a straight line, except for the bulge above her hips where her sweater bunched. She wore what his mother would have called sensible shoes.
As she lifted the cups into the sink he said, “We have to go out tomorrow night.”
“Where?” she said, her voice flat.
“An art gallery opening. I’m supposed to assess the collection.”
“Why do you need me to be there?”
He almost said it would be nice, but he choked that back.
She turned, adjusted her glasses and gazed straight at him expecting an answer.
“The boss wants us to be there. You know how he likes us all to fit into his idea of happy corporate marriage.”
She frowned. “Well, I’ll have to see what I can wear.”
“It’ll be sort of a dress-up affair.”
Her frown turned into a sneer.
“Well, I’ll just have to see,” she said and turned her back to him.
He plucked a frozen dinner from the fridge, poked the keypad on the microwave and tossed it in. She walked past him as he turned and stepped back into the living room. He watched her go upstairs, then set himself onto the couch, head hung back, eyes closed.
He didn’t see her again for the rest of the night.
The valet winced as Edith stepped out of the car. Del winced at the valet’s wince.
She had chosen a dark blue suit with matching pillbox hat, the sort that hadn’t been in style for forty years, and black shoes with thick, stubby heels. Del could easily imagine she was on her way to apply for a job as a nanny. As usual, her hair was tied in a tight bun beneath the pillbox.
Del scanned the crowd kept behind a police security line outside the gallery as VIPs were escorted inside. He took Edith’s arm and led her into the building. Del’s eyes darted from one attractive woman to another, dressed in short party dresses or flowing gowns. Others were dressed as chic bohemians baring midriffs or with their breasts, unfettered by bras, barely concealed beneath halter tops or tees.
Del turned in the direction of his boss’s voice.
“Well, Saunders …” Mr. Greadley stopped abruptly, the drink in his hand sloshing a bit over the rim of the glass. Greadley’s wife stood beside him, her face frozen in an artificial grin.
Greadley surveyed Edith with a dubious glance before he forced a grin. “Ah, um … Edith, isn’t it?”
Edith nodded, her lips curling into as much of a smile as was necessary.
“Well, good to see you again. You know my wife, Arlena.”
The women exchanged nods, then Greadley curled his arm around Del’s shoulders and leaned into his ear.
“Good God, Saunders, I thought you’d brought your mother.”
Del’s cheeks heated.
“Oh, dear, I had hoped … well, here he comes.”
Del followed Greadley’s gaze toward the man approaching them. He was short, maybe five-feet-two. He wore a silk jacket, or rather it seemed to wear him. Pants of the same material flowed and flapped with each step. His head was crowned by a fedora with an exaggerated brim. A red, frilly feather stabbed into its band. Yes, he looked like an artist.
Greadley sputtered a greeting, “Ah, Mr. Felch … let me introduce …”
But the man stepped right past the Greadleys and Del; he took Edith’s hand.
“Madame … you must pose for me.”
Edith retreated a half-step and had all the appearance of a mouse confronted by a large cat.
Del attempted to intervene, but Felch held out his arm as if to bar him from approaching his wife.
“You must say yes,” Felch said. A smile curled his lips beneath a dull white moustache.
“I don’t even know …”
“Edith,” Del stepped to his wife’s side. “This is Mr. Felch, the artist of all these wondrous works.”
Edith scanned the walls and the dozen portraits in that one room. She recognized most of the faces as actors and actresses.
“They … They’re all … nude.”
“All the better to bare the essence … the soul of the subject,” said Felch, grinning now.
“But …. I couldn’t. You can’t be serious.”
Greadley’s hand clapped over Del’s shoulder and squeezed it hard.
“What an honor,” Greadley said. “Why … uh … Edith, do you know how many people …. very important people are clamoring for Mr. Felch to paint them? You just couldn’t refuse an opportunity like this.”
He dug his fingers into Del’s shoulder again. “Can’t she, eh, Saunders?”
Del nodded and shrugged out of Greadley’s grasp.
“Uh, Edith, I think … well, it’s an extraordinary offer.”
“You want me to do this?”
Before he could answer, Felch’s voice boomed, “You must want to do this, Madame. I promise the paint will find your true nature and reveal it to you. There is something … I don’t know … I sense a challenge … so many layers to peel away.”
Del leaned into his wife and whispered. “It’s Greadley … It’s … well, you know.”
Edith nodded. “Very well. Will I have to be nude?”
Mrs. Greadley blushed, but reached and patted Edith’s arm.
“My dear, I am so envious.”
“Splendid,” Greadley declared. “Then it’s settled. What a generous gesture, Mr. Felch”
Felch cut him off with a flick of his hand and gazed at Edith. “Be prepared for revelations.”
Then he looked toward Del. “You, sir, mind what you wish for.”
“Well, gentlemen,” Greadley said, herding Felch and Del together, “shall we talk business?”
“My agent takes care of such matters,” Felch said. “I’ll introduce you. Meanwhile, I wish to get to know my subject.”
He held out his arm to Edith, who hesitated a moment before taking it. Felch guided her through the gallery without another word to Greadley or Del.
“You know what he wants me to do,” Edith said on the way home. “He wants me to sit nude in front of him for perhaps a week or more.”
Del marked time as he waited for a light to change. “Look, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
“It’s a little late for that; I already told him I would. Besides, Mr. Greadley wants it … wants us to go along with it.”
The light changed. Del accelerated. “I’ll tell him you changed your mind.”
“What? You can’t be serious.”
“Just because he’s my boss? Look, I’ve been thinking a lot lately … money … promotions. What have we got to show for it besides a house that looks like a display in a furniture store?”
“Speak for yourself; I like my house.”
“There’s no life in that damned house.”
“Well … for heaven’s sake, Del, what life have you ever brought to it? God knows I didn’t marry you because you were a lothario.”
“I know why you married me.”
“Then you know that I know it’s not worth upsetting the boat. And don’t you be thinking about enjoying some midlife crisis at this stage of our lives. If I have to sit naked in front of a midget for a week … well, I can stand it if he can.”
Del pulled the car into their driveway.
“It doesn’t bother you … even titillate you at all? Letting another man see you naked? That’s all this is to you … an inconvenience to be endured? Like doing the laundry or something?”
“Really, Del. Are you seriously experiencing a vicarious thrill at the thought of a man seeing me naked? My, this is something I never saw in you before.” She tittered.
“Never mind, Edith. It’s not worth talking about.”
She finally came home around 10:30 p.m. Del sat up on the couch and watched her hang up her coat. Then he rubbed his eyes and stared.
“What?” Edith said.
“You … uh … your hair’s down.”
She reached her hand toward her shoulder and slid her fingers through the fall of red tresses. “Oh, well, he wants it that way. I didn’t bother putting it up again.”
“Well … I didn’t realize you’d be so late. How long did he keep you?”
“He hardly kept me. I arrived there about noon …”
She shrugged. “Yes … why?”
“Well … It’s just a lot of time to spend …”
“Naked? Well, I wasn’t the whole time. He mostly did sketches today of my face. Really, Del.”
“I just … well, are all your sessions going to be as long?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Oh, okay. I won’t worry about it.”
Edith slanted her eyes in a gesture of exasperation and started upstairs.
The rest of the week found Del watching the clock before Edith came home. Her air was casual, unconcerned. But Del noticed, in addition to her free-flowing hair, her complexion had brightened and her lips darkened and seemed fleshier.
“Keeping yourself entertained, dear?” she said one night after she breezed through the door and tossed her coat onto a chair. She wore a loose sort of peasant blouse and a clingy skirt. Her breasts jostled unfettered within the blouse.
“New outfit? I never saw …”
“Felch gave it to me.”
“Oh. You look … I mean, it makes you look …”
“So … what have you been doing with yourself?”
She pinched his cheek, a gentle squeeze. “I just wonder if you … when you’re all alone … you know, fondle yourself.”
She giggled. “Look at you blush. It’s all right; I know you do.”
“Edith … what … what the hell is with you?”
“Oh, don’t mind me, Del. Go back to what you were doing. I’m exhausted. Going to bed. Remember to clean up after yourself.”
Del watched her ascend the stairs, his jaw hanging like a trap door.
After he heard the door to her bedroom close, he rasped, “Who does that bitch think she is?”
An unveiling was scheduled at Felch’s gallery. Del had expected it to be a private affair. It wasn’t until Greadley began talking it up to everyone in the building and encouraging them to attend did he realize it would be a public showing. Greadley had already announced Del’s bonus for securing the policy covering Felch’s art.
“You and your lovely bride, Del. Team players, the both of you. I appreciate that. I can’t wait to see what Felch has done to her … uh, I mean, well … looking after one’s husband’s career is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Why would she feel ashamed?”
“Oh, no reason of course, Del. Just a figure of speech.”
Del seethed. Was Greadley rubbing it in, reminding him he owed everything, even his wife’s body to the company. Meanwhile, he felt everyone’s eyes on him, and sensed their smirks.
That night at the gallery he saw so many familiar faces from work he began to feel nauseous. But their eyes weren’t on him; they were on Edith. Felch had presented her with an evening dress, long, silvery and slinky that caressed a newly revealed figure. Her long lightened hair fell over one bare shoulder. Her eyes sparkled without glasses. Del hardly recognized her.
Before he unveiled the life-sized portrait, Felch introduced his model.
“My dear Edie,” he called her. “My mysterious model … this work is not finished … it is in progress.”
Edie? Del gave his head a sharp shake. “Mysterious?” he muttered.
Felch tugged a silk rope and the shroud fell away. The crowd hushed.
The woman in the painting – not Edith; it couldn’t be Edith – appeared to be raising herself from a recline on a plush sofa covered haphazardly with colorful satin comforters. Her hair, bright as flame, tumbled over one shoulder. Her lips, a bold red, turned into a mischievous smile, and there was deviltry in her eyes. One leg had slid off the sofa while the other, bent at the knee pressed against the seatback so her creamy pale thighs beckoned one’s eye to the flushed, pink-orange labia. Breasts, full and pale as her legs, competed for the eyes’ attention.
Felch might just as well have added a blinking neon sign that screamed SEX!
Del became aware of dozens of exhalations and then murmurings. He looked about. Men dabbed perspiration from their foreheads with their fingers; women stood open-mouthed, licking and biting their lips.
Del turned back toward the portrait and shivered. The woman’s eyes peered right into his, and he felt in that moment that he had been given a warning … or more like an advanced notice of some reckoning.
Then he looked at Edith and shivered again as her eyes also sparkled and danced in the same way and focused on him like a cat who had cornered a mouse.
Applause shook him out of his awful reverie. The crowd pushed past him to surround Felch and Edith. For the rest of the evening he was blocked by admirers from getting near enough to his wife to even have a brief word with her.
He sat in a corner until closing. Greadley stopped to congratulate him.
“Lucky man, Saunders … very lucky man. That young wife of yours … well … honestly … I’d trade a trunk of Viagra just to get near her …” He choked back his words as his wife caught up to him.
Felch walked with Edith arm in arm.
“Mr. Saunders. Many thanks for the company of your wife these past weeks. I will have the portrait shipped to your home tomorrow.”
“But … That’s not …”
“Nonsense, it is yours. It was my pleasure.”
Felch nodded to Edith. “Good evening, Edie.” He kissed her cheek, and Del felt something unspoken had passed between them.
“Come along, Del. I’m exhausted.”
In the car Del mumbled, “Edie?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes, he began calling me that from the beginning.”
“Beginning of what?”
“My posing, of course. I like it.”
“Did your cock get hard when you saw my portrait?”
Del almost swerved onto the sidewalk. “Huh? What did you say?”
“They all did. I swear Greadley even tugged himself through his trousers. And his wife … that tubby old twat … bet she fantasized about putting her face between my tits.”
“My god, Edith.”
“Don’t call me that again.”
“But … you don’t talk like that.”
“Like what? When’s the last time we had any kind of conversation? How could you know what I talk like, Del? … Del-BERT.”
“We’ve been married thirteen years; I ought to know you don’t use language like that.”
“Exactly, Delbert … thirteen years and you don’t know I use language like that. I guess there’s lots you don’t know.”
“I told you never to call me that again.”
“What the hell has happened to you?”
She didn’t answer, but reached over and unzipped his pants. Before he could protest she had drawn his cock through his fly.
“Oh, Del, such a pasty little dick … kinda thin too.” She clucked her tongue as she slid her fingers along his length.
Del frantically tried to control the car even as he felt his fluids roiling at the base of his cock.
“They say size doesn’t matter, Delbert, but honestly, the few times you’ve put your little pee-pee in me? I didn’t feel a thing.”
“Edi … stop!”
“Not until you squirt, little boy. Tell me … you wanted to fuck that woman in the portrait, didn’t you? They all did … even the women. Did your boxers get sticky from wanting that pussy so much, knowing everyone wanted that pussy too?”
Del could only grunt and gasp as he came closer to ejaculating.
Her voice became singsong. “Del … Delbert … delly-del? Is my little man going to squirt for me? Oh, I think your dickie is just about to …”
Del launched his seed up and over the dash. He yanked the wheel and pulled to the curb as horns blared.
“Goddammit! Are you trying to get us killed?”
Edith grinned and dabbed her finger in a dollop of his cum. She smeared it on his nose.
“This is notice that your pool of goo on the dashboard? Well … That’s as close as your scum is ever going to get to me, never mind inside me. You want to fuck me, Dellie? Do it in your dreams with your fist around your pathetic dickie-do.”
She giggled. “Dickie-do, dellie-del.”
Del’s stomach twisted. He stuffed his shrinking cock into his pants and drove the rest of the way home without saying a word, or even casting a glance at his wife.
Del started out of this sleep with a fire alarm blaring in his ears. When he came to his senses he realized it was just the phone ringing. As he reached to answer the doorbell chimed.
“God, what the hell is going on?”
“Del, it’s Dave. Where the hell are you?”
“What? I … I just got up. Wait a minute, someone’s at the door.”
“Del, it’s almost noon. Greadley’s been asking for you.”
“Noon? Shit, I didn’t get to sleep until almost dawn. Must’ve missed the alarm. Ah, shit, hang on. I have to get the door.
Del wrapped himself in a robe and started downstairs. Below he heard Edith speaking to someone. Her tone was girlish, flirtatious.
Del peered down the stairs. Edith stood at the front door wrapped in a towel that barely covered the rounds of her ass. She was speaking to a deliveryman whose eyes danced as he took in her curves.
“What the …” Del rasped.
She turned, letting the towel slip just enough to give both men a view of her breasts.
“Oops,” she giggled. Then to Del, “Are you still here?”
“Uh, folks,” the blushing delivery man interrupted. “We have this package … big one … says it’s a portrait?”
“Oh, that …” Edith said. “I don’t care where you put it.”
Del hurried down the stairs. “Wait a minute. You don’t care? That painting’s worth thousands of dollars.”
“Oh, so what. I’m tired of looking at it. Tell you what, husband dear, why don’t you have this nice man put it in the garage where you can gaze at it all you want and jerk yourself off in privacy.”
Del’s gaze darted from Edith to the deliveryman, whose countenance reflected Del’s embarrassment.
Edith giggled again. “You boys work it out. I have to finish my shower.”
She stepped past Del and ascended the stairs. Halfway up she let the towel fall.
“Oh my fuckin’ …” The deliveryman caught his last words. “Oh, sorry, sir.”
Del shook his head. “Never mind, here I’ll show you to the garage.”
As the deliveryman and his partner unloaded the painting from a van, Del realized he still had the phone in his hand.
“Aw, Jesus. Dave, you still there?”
“Yeah, Del. Jesus, what’s up?”
“Nothing. Hey, Dave. Tell them I’m not coming in today.”
“Yeah, sure. Half the day’s gone anyway.”
“And do me a favor.”
“Dig out that background research you did on Felch, and anything else you found out about him.”
“Yeah, okay. Anything wrong?”
“Just checking to see if anything’s right. Talk to you later, Dave.”
Once the shippers left, Del went to the garage and tore the brown paper covering from the portrait.
He stood back and looked up at Edith’s image … or was it Edie?
Who wouldn’t want to fuck that?
The woman in the portrait was everything he fantasized about his wife, voluptuous, sensual, a lusty siren promising temptation and threatening damnation, exuding sex from her pores.
He shook himself and peered at the portrait again. It was different. Was this another copy?
Edith’s position had changed slightly, and she was holding someone’s hand, a limp, feminine hand belonging to someone just outside the frame. From the position he gleaned the other woman was sitting or perhaps lying on the floor.
“What the …?”
He heard an engine start in the driveway. He hurriedly raised the garage door in time to see Edith pull away in her car.
“Where the hell is she going?”
He returned to the house and dressed. He had no idea what he should do or where he should go. The change in appearance and demeanor that had come over his wife so quickly had thrown his thoughts into a maelstrom. He had to find a place he could think it out.
He grabbed his keys and started for his car. Amy waved to him from next door.
“Del … is Edith home?”
“Ah, no Amy. She’s gone out … Don’t know when she’ll be back.”
“Oh … okay. Have a nice day.”
As he said it a gust of wind blew up Amy’s summer dress. Del’s eyes riveted to a bare pink slash, totally shorn. Amy pushed her dress down quickly, blushed and ran inside her house.
“Cripes!” Del said, then accelerated onto the street.
He drove to a little sliver of a park where the river met the bay. He’d driven past it countless times on the way to work. It was just a lonely row of covered benches facing the water. He couldn’t remember ever seeing a single soul make use of it, and for all he knew it had been forgotten and abandoned by the city.
He sat on the center bench and breathed in the aroma of brackish water. He spotted a beer bottle in some weeds. It could have been there hours, or years.
He pushed his hand back over his forehead and exhaled slowly.
What the hell had become of his life? Felch had warned him to be careful what he wished for. Had he wished for this? So he had begun to yearn for more than an arrangement; he wanted a genuine marriage. Now his wife was behaving like … what? He recalled her sneer, the look in her eyes, both contemptuous and predatory. Telling him he’d never fuck her again … what the hell was that about?
Maybe she was getting back at him for being complacent. What sort of real woman would consent to spend her life with him, unless there was something else in it for her? Security, money, comfort … sex not required. Yes, whatever was happening, it was on his shoulders too, but what to do about it?
His thoughts abruptly shifted to Amy and her bare, pink pussy. She never struck him as the sort of girl who would forgo panties, much less shave her nethers. Then what the hell did he really know about her? His dick was hardening.
His thoughts shifted to the woman in the painting. He refused to believe the painting could influence his wife’s behavior, that it was at the root of her personality change. No, he suspected Felch was behind this, but how and why? All that time in his presence, being posed, being naked.
He lost track of the hours until deepening shadows made him aware that afternoon was fading into twilight. He stood, sighed and walked back to his car.
Home again, he hadn’t quite closed the front door when he detected a high squeal from upstairs. A woman was moaning, then the moaning gave way to urgent panting, then another squeal.
Del took the steps two at a time and followed the sounds to Edith’s bedroom. He hesitated a moment at the threshold, then stepped inside and froze.
Edith held Amy on her lap. Both women were naked, facing Del. Amy’s legs splayed over Edith’s so Del could see each woman’s pussy, flushed and flaring. Amy’s glistened.
Edith peered around Amy’s upper arm and smirked at Del. Her arms crossed below Amy’s sternum, her hands lifting and squeezing Amy’s breasts.
Amy had thrown her head back, apparently unaware of Del’s presence. Edith’s hands released their prizes and slid down Amy’s ribs to the junction of her thighs where she worked Amy’s clit with two sets of fingers.
The girl squirmed and cried, but was held fast by the older woman.
“Enjoying the view, hubby dear?” Edith’s smirk widened into a broad grin.
Amy’s moan climbed several octaves and evaporated as a high-pitched shriek. She looked at Del, but her eyes were unfocused.
“Edith,” Del sputtered.
“I guess you didn’t know about our little neighbor’s lesbo proclivities. Look at this little slut squirm.”
Amy had begun to kick and grab hold of her own tits.
“God, bitch, you need to orgasm … really, really badly. Come … right here for my husband. Jesus … listen to her squeal … come piggy-piggy-piggy …”
Amy finally noticed Del, her eyes brimmed over and she threw her head back.
Del stood with his mouth gaping as the young woman’s eyes rolled back until he could see just the whites. A tremor ran through her body and her arms jerked like a spastic’s. Her shriek rattled his eardrums. Her body twitched, slid off of Edith’s thighs and spilled onto the floor.
Edith retained hold of Amy’s limp hand and rested a foot on her hip. The young woman lay like a rag doll.
“You want to fuck the little pig, Delbert?” Edith asked as she tossed Amy’s hand away like a used tissue.
“Fuck … fuck?”
“She’s utterly incapable of putting up any resistance, I guarantee that. You shouldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
“Jesus … I … are you mad?”
“Mad? Don’t think so. Well, suit yourself.”
Amy had begun to sob. “Please, Del, don’t tell Chet … please don’t tell …”
“Oh, stop your whining, you stupid cow,” Edith said, pushing Amy away with her foot. She stood. “Don’t waste any guilt tears over your husband. I spent most of the day fucking him in a cheesy motel he selected. And I’ll be fucking him fairly regularly … until I get tired of him.”
Amy curled herself into a comma. “That’s not true.”
“Yes, little airhead, it’s true. But don’t you cry; I promise to play with you too. Now, why don’t you practice your blowjob skills on my husband here. Chet says you’re severely deficient in that department … can’t suck a dick without scraping his delicate skin. Practice on Delbert, he won’t mind if you chew on it.”
Edith strolled past Del leaving a weeping Amy curled on the floor. Del covered the girl with a comforter.
“Amy, c’mon, you need to clean yourself up.”
“Del, please …”
“I won’t say a thing, Amy. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
“She made me, Del. I couldn’t help myself. I feel so dirty.”
“I know … I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Why is she so cruel?”
“I don’t know, Amy.”
He helped her up and guided her to the bathroom. He helped the shaking girl into the shower and left to confront Edith.
He bounded down the stairs and found the front door ajar. Edith was gone.
She came in the door just as he was leaving for work.
“Where the hell were you all night?”
“I don’t explain things to you anymore, Delbert. But it might be fun to tell.”
“Never mind, then.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll tell you. See, Chet left me feeling … unsatisfied. Like a lot of men his age, he thinks he’s God’s gift to women. The potential is there … with a little training.”
“Fuck you, Edith. Get out of my way.”
It wasn’t a hard slap, but it was firm enough to make him step back. He raised his hand to his cheek, not quite believing she had hit him.
“Don’t ever take that tone with me. Now … where was I? Oh, yes, so I had this persistent tickle in my pussy. I drove around until I came across a sleazy little place. They had a pool table. I bet myself in a game with this … well, ape I suppose. A big, big mongrel of a man. You know when you can’t even tell what race they are? A belly as big as a blimp … and ugly. I lost to him, of course, and without any ceremony he draped me over that table with my ass hanging off the edge. His cock was like an elephant’s trunk, and I swear it had a knob on it like a dog’s. No, truly, he tried to pull it out a few times and nearly dragged me off the table.”
“I don’t want to hear …”
“But you are, dear hubby. He fucked me until I passed out. When I came to my clothing was all around me, torn, shredded, and everyone … I don’t know how many, took a turn fucking me. When they were done, the bartender told me I had to blow him, or he’d call the cops and tell them I was a hooker. So, what the hell, it was the best fucking I’d had, so I figured I owed him. Lucky I didn’t get pulled over on the way home. They destroyed my clothes … see.”
Her torn tank top hung off her shoulder, showing most of her left breast. Del didn’t need to look at the rest.
“I have to go to work,” he said, flatly. He stepped around her and walked out to his car.
Before turning the ignition key he sat and thought about what she said. He immediately hated himself for the hard-on in his pants.
David, head cast back over his shoulder, entered Del’s office.
“You being followed, or something?” Del asked.
“Del … Watch out. Greadley’s on a tear.”
“Felch … He’s disappeared, but not before canceling the policy and donating all his paintings to a bunch of museums.”
“I wanted to tell you before Greadley did. That was a big damned account. You know he’s going to want to point a finger at someone.”
“I wish the hell I never heard of the prick.”
“No … Felch. But yeah, Greadley too. Do you have the research report on Felch?”
“Yeah, but you already read that, didn’t you?”
“I want to see if I missed anything.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I just found something that wasn’t in the report.”
“An art history professor at some little college in Virginia wrote some kind of paper that linked Felch to a painter by the name of … Felcher.”
“Yeah, this other guy, Felcher, maybe he was a relative or something. The prof studied their styles and came to the conclusion they’re identical, like Felch and Felcher are the same guy.”
“Well, maybe they are. Maybe he modified his name when he came to this country from … wherever the fuck he came from. He had a thick accent.”
“Russia. But here’s why they can’t possibly be the same guy.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“Felcher painted around the beginning of the last century. Like Felch, he came out of nowhere and then everyone wanted him to paint them. He was sought out by the crowned heads of Europe … you know, back when they still had crowned heads.”
“So, it’s interesting, but …”
“Wait, let me show you something. You’ve seen Felch’s stuff, now take a look at this.” Dave handed him a color photo of a painting.
“Yeah … I don’t know a thing about art, but yeah, I can see the similarity.”
“This painting is called ‘The Royal Family under a rain of gems.’ The royal family is …”
“The Romanovs … yeah, I recognized them and their kids. The last Tsar and Tsarina. My god, though, look at their faces … they all look terrified. Rain of gems? Looks like someone is throwing jewels at them.”
“Yeah, Felcher painted that six months before the Tsar abdicated in 1917. The family refused to accept it, not surprisingly. Now, the entire family was executed more than a year later, right?”
“Okay … so what?”
“Well, I read up on the massacre. See, when the family was taken into custody, the mother and the girls and some servants sewed hundreds of gemstones into their clothing. They didn’t know they were going to be executed that day, just moved, so they were wearing their coats. Next thing they know, there’s a firing squad in the room with them. The Reds open up, but the bullets start bouncing off the family because of all those stones, but some of the bullets ripped the fabric so the gems came flying out. They eventually ended up bayoneting the bunch.”
Del stared at the picture again. “My god, it’s a painting of their execution.”
“But how? Painted a year before the event … more than a year.”
“The painting predicted the future. Damn it, Dave, I’ve seen it … change.”
“Edith’s portrait. Oh my god, what the hell have we gotten ourselves into?”
Del stood away from his desk. “I have to go, Dave.”
“But … Greadley …”
“Tell him I got sick. I gotta go, Dave.”
Del nearly sideswiped a car jumping a light on the way home. When he’d pulled into the driveway he made a dash for the garage.
His heart jumped when he saw the portrait; it had changed again. Edith was standing off center, nearly out of the frame, grinning, triumphant. Then Del noticed the hand holding the gun coming into the frame at left.
“Oh, Jesus … Oh, Jesus.”
He ran into the house seeking Edith, peering into every corner. A shiver rattled his spine, as he thought at any moment he might hear a gunshot. He bounded upstairs and cautiously entered Edith’s bedroom. No one.
Stepping across the hall to his room he froze in step. Amy lay in his bed, seemingly asleep. A sheet clung to her body revealing she was naked beneath.
“Amy?” He took her hand and felt her pulse. But the girl was in a deep sleep.
He almost cried out when the phone rang. He grabbed it.
“Dellie-del, you’re home.”
“Damn right I’m home. What the hell have you done to Amy?”
“Oh, she’s all right … for now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“She’s nicely sedated. Now, don’t interrupt, I have something wonderful to tell you.”
“I’m going to be rich.”
“Yes, that five million dollar insurance policy your company gives you as one of its benefits?”
“What about it?”
“I plan to collect … soon. You see, Chet, who like most men hasn’t a qualm about fucking around on his wife, takes it as a personal affront to his manhood when his wife does the same. You should have seen how angry he got when I told him you had seduced his innocent little wife and made her pregnant.”
“You told him what?”
“He just left me. He has a gun; said something about killing you both.”
“Goddamn it, I’ll call the cops!”
“It won’t help, Dellie. And you know why it won’t, don’t you? Gotta go now … lots to do.”
Del heard the line click. He immediately dialed the police.
“Hello … huh? Dammit, shut up and let me tell you the emergency. This is Del Saunders, a man is coming to my house to kill me. He has a gun. My neighbor, Chet Preston. Yeah, he has a gun. He’s coming here, you imbecile!”
Someone started banging the front door with something harder than a fist.
“I know why it won’t …” Del said, his voice hushed with fear.
He bolted down the stairs and into the garage. The painting had changed again; Edith’s head was thrown back as if laughing maniacally.
“The fuck you will,” Del shouted.
Outside the door Chet bellowed, “Saunders, you fuck, I’m going to blow your fucking head off … and that little cunt.”
Del desperately looked around and spotted the hoe leaning in one corner. He grabbed the implement and swung it in a downward arc at the portrait. The corner caught on the canvas rending the fabric in a jagged tear.
Del’s ears rang to a woman’s scream.
Outside, voices were ordering Chet to drop his gun.
“Huh … what gun?”
“Drop it, asshole!”
Del waited for the gunshots, but they never came.
The detectives sat facing Del in his office. The older, heavier one laid a file on Del’s desk.
In a weary voice he said, “Mr. Saunders, the medical examiner cannot establish a cause of death for your wife. She didn’t have a mark on her, toxicology was negative. He said when he opened her up everything looked normal for a woman of her age … a healthy woman. Oh, there was the matter of finding semen in each of her orifices … from a dozen or so different men.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.”
“Uh-huh. Well, where we found her … It’s not a very nice part of town.”
Del shrugged. “Mystery to me why she was there.”
“Mr. Saunders, you called us to report that your neighbor was going to shoot you, but now you don’t want to press charges. For his part, Mr. Preston says he can’t remember why he was wandering outside your house with a gun in his hand. He’s lucky our officers didn’t shoot him.”
Del nodded. “Maybe he has a substance abuse problem.”
“Hmm. Well, then there’s the matter of our officers finding Mrs. Preston in your house, in your bed … naked and sedated.”
“That is puzzling,” Del responded.
“Mr. Saunders, I’ll admit it. We have enough clues to solve a dozen crimes here, but we got no crime. Can’t you just satisfy a tired old cop’s curiosity? What the hell were you all up to?”
“I’m at as much of a loss as you are, detective. Perhaps we should put a period to this whole … conundrum.”
“There is an insurance policy on your wife.”
“Yes, it’s a company benefit, I had one too, same amount with her as beneficiary.”
“Five million bucks.”
“Yup, lots of clues,” the detective sighed.
“Thanks for coming by, detectives.”
“Yeah … sure.”
Greadley came in as they left.
“Saunders, I’m afraid …”
“You’re firing me, aren’t you? I’m getting blamed for the Felch policy being cancelled.”
“It isn’t that, Saunders. Your wife … the way she was found … the place … nude for God’s sake. We pride ourselves on being a wholesome, family-oriented company …”
“You fucking hypocrite.”
“What? What did you …?”
“Yeah, Greadley. You said you’d give a trunk full of Viagra to do what to my wife?”
“I said no such thing.”
“You were going to ask me to make her available to you, weren’t you? You fat old lecher.”
“You … you could never …”
“Prove it? You’re right. No matter. This fucking company is cutting me a check for five mil; I’m out of here. Now, get the fuck out of my office, while it’s still mine.”
“You can’t order me …”
“Now! Go home and see to that lonely old cow you’re married to. The least you could do is rent her a girlfriend.”
Del abruptly stood. Greadley retreated.
Dave poked his head through the door.
“Jesus, Del. Talk about burning your bridges. Gonna miss ya.”
“Thanks, Dave. I’ll miss you too.”
“Whacha gonna do?”
“Take a long trip … maybe visit a lot of art museums.”
Outside the house formerly occupied by Delbert and Edith Saunders a trash truck pulled up to the curb.
One of the collectors unrolled the torn canvas and winced at the picture of the severe-looking woman with black-framed glasses and her hair in a tight bun.
“Wonder why anyone would want to paint her picture.”
“Yeah,” his partner said, “Starchy, thin-lipped looking bitch, ain’t she? No wonder they threw it out.”
© 2014 Robert Buckley. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.