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The Darkest Night - Part Four

Not all tales can be found in books, but all myths are born of truth.

The package arrived at his home on a Monday morning, 10:42 am to be exact. George remembered this because that was the day his assistant, Clarissa, was late to arrive. She had called to apologise, there had been a smash-up on the freeway and while the four vehicle pile-up had not been her fault, he would have docked her pay if she had been remiss in informing him. In fact, he found himself trying to justify doing so anyway – he hated tardiness, along with a fair amount of other things that left unchecked, could ruin his day, as well as his business.

When the doorbell rang, he ignored it, hoping that whoever it was would go away and come back once Clarissa had arrived and was able to deal with the menial tasks he paid her ridiculous amounts of money to do. After the fourth ring, he did the only thing he could think of doing – he dialled her number.

“How far away are you?” He asked as soon as her phone had stopped ringing.

“I erm... I’m terribly sorry, Mr Hart, they have just cleared up the worst of it... another twenty minutes at the least...” she explained in a nervous rush.

“Well, that is very inconvenient. There is someone at the door.” He did not attempt masking his annoyance.

“Ignore them? We are not expecting anyone, so if it’s important, they will be back. I should be there by then...” her voice trailed off with a hint of uncertainty.

“That is the plan, Ms Dumont; that is the plan.” He paused for effect, as he often did. “I shall see you in nineteen minutes then.”

On the sixth ring, he decided that Clarissa would indeed have to forfeit a substantial portion of her salary since he was by then on a dedicated course toward the incessantly ringing doorbell. He looked up at the hall clock as it ticked its obvious disapproval of the unexpected ruckus – it was 10:42 am. Cussing was as beneath George Hart as answering the door, but if he had been a cussing man, the persistent person on the other side of the door would have been painted a verbal rainbow of the most obscene shades imaginable. George threw open the door with little ceremony – his face displaying the discourteous picture his mouth could not utter – to find a pudgy little finger belonging to the clipboard wielding pudgy little man on his front porch halfway to ringing the bell yet again.

“May I help you?” If his expression had not conveyed his obvious displeasure at the intrusion, then his clipped tone certainly should have.

“Delivery for George Hart.” His monotone did not offer any clue as to whether or not he had noticed either tone or expression.

“Young man, judging from the fervour with which you’ve repeatedly rung my bell, I shall presume this package to be of grave importance to the very survival of my race.” The derisive stare he visited upon the indifferent young man left no doubt that he considered himself to be of a superior race.

“Sign here...” the young man said, shoving the clipboard toward George and pointing with a slightly chewed up ballpoint pen, “...and here.”

“Hang on a second...” He leant back inside the doorway, confident in the knowledge that Clarissa kept stationery at hand for exactly those occasions.

“Look mister, my pen works just fine.”

“I don’t doubt its ability to work, young man; it’s where it’s been that concerns me.” He continued to rummage through the foyer desk drawers. “Ah... there we go... where do I sign?”

“Here and here...” The courier pointed out boredly with his worn pen.

“Hmm...” George Hart signed his name in both places and then paused to read the waybill with a furrowed brow. “It says here ‘Fragile Cargo – Handle with Care’ – pray tell, what am I signing for?”

“It’s in the van, I’ll go get it.”

“Mind you, if it moves or breathes or needs to be fed or watered, I am not accepting it,” he called after the sluggishly moving courier. “Especially not if it’ll ruin the carpets,” he mumbles absently.

George’s curiosity was piqued the instant he laid eyes on the large cylindrical package.

~*~

The sound of screeching tyres echoed through the underground garage as Clarissa pulled into her parking space. She had always been a cautious driver until she started working for George Hart, the country’s leading art appraiser and curator of one of the largest privately owned galleries in the city. She had learned most of what she knew about the art world from her boss, far more than she had been taught in the four years she studied art at the local university. Whilst she held no fancy titles in his employ, the pay was more than generous, so she found herself tolerating his eccentricities, even if he at times pushed her patience to their limits.

She was late today. She hated being late, there were always repercussions that were hard to anticipate, yet were predictable only in that they were a certainty. So she rushed from her car, arms piled with work she had taken home the previous night and entered through the kitchen. She glanced at the hall clock as she passed it, the seconds ticking by louder than usual, as if in admonition of her lateness. It was 11:02 am – two minutes late for his teatime.

~*~

George looked at the clock as he heard the rattle of keys somewhere toward the back of the house. She had arrived – at long last. It was two minutes into his teatime and she had only just arrived. He would now have to reschedule most of his plans for the day, a prospect that did not sit well with George Hart.

His mind drifted back to the strange package that had arrived earlier in the morning, he could not be sure why, but something about it perplexed him. It was not unusual for pieces to be delivered directly to his home, but it was always done with prior arrangement and with detailed paperwork attached. There was something about the piece that unsettled him, something he could not yet put a label to. The one thing George hated second of all was being clueless and confused.

~*~

“There are not many things that are more unprofessional than tardiness, Ms Dumont.” He was bent over his desk, midst appraising a new piece for the gallery.

“I know that, Mr Hart, and I am so so...” she began in that flustered voice she used whenever she had done something to disappoint him.

“Yes, so you said thirty-eight minutes ago. Excuses and apologies will however not make you unlate. Will they, Ms Dumont?” He did not look up at her as he spoke, which she knew meant that the topic was no longer open for discussion. She put the tray down and turned to go back to the outer office. “A package arrived today... it is in the gallery, I do not know quite what to make of it. Have a look when you find the time.”

“Certainly, as soon as I’ve done the inventory on the batch that arrived yesterday.”

“Oh and Ms Dumont, the drawers on the desk in the foyer are a mess. Please see to it that it is organised.”

“It will be done before I leave here this afternoon.”

Something about her boss’ tone when he had mentioned the new package piqued her curiosity, so she headed directly to the room all items that had not yet been catalogued were kept in. And there it was – an unframed piece hung in the centre of the room. A large manila envelope was attached to the notations board at the side of the easel, the bold black letters on it quite simply spelling out ‘GEORGE HART’. For reasons unbeknown to her at the time, Clarissa found her hands trembling as she pulled out the single sheet from inside the envelope. It was a note handwritten in black ink.

Dear Mr Hart,

This piece of art has been in my family for many generations and should rightfully have remained so, for reasons I cannot disclose to you. I have guarded it all my life, as have my fathers before me, but now the time has come to entrust that task to you. For all noble intents and purposes, I should never have sent you this, but I have unfortunately reached both the end of my days, as well as the end of my bloodline. By reputation you are an honourable man, therefore I am entrusting this malevolent treasure to you in the hopes that you would become its new sentinel.

IT IS NEVER TO BE SOLD.

IT IS NEVER TO BE HUNG WHERE IT CAN BE TOUCHED BY MOONLIGHT.

My suggestion, if I may so bold, is for you to keep it locked in a vault at all times. You will discover that this piece holds many secrets that it will reveal to you in time.

I wish you well with this baleful charge, Mr Hart. May the spirits guide and protect you.

Sincerest regards,
Mercutio Grimbaldi

Clarissa’s initial unease grew as she looked at the painting. It was a picture of a three-storey Victorian style house framed against a dark sky. The house was slightly off-centre, set toward the left-hand corner of the canvas, a dark and foreboding image if ever she had seen one. Dark trees stood starkly against the backdrop of night sky and while the surrounding woods took over most of the painting, what drew her eye was a single cross at the edge of the treeline.

~*~

The salmon Clarissa had prepared for lunch was excellent, its natural flavour infused with a delicate blend of spices he did not recognise. Despite the time and effort she had clearly put into the meal, she was listlessly pushing the food around on her plate. He had never had an employee that intrigued him as much as she did, but as much as he cared about her, he was not about to blur the professional lines of their relationship by inquiring about what troubled her.

“Have you looked at the new piece yet, Ms Dumont?”

“I erm... yes. I haven’t catalogued it yet, but I have looked at it. I’m not sure what to make of it.”

“Indeed. It is a curious piece. See what you can find out about the artist, we need to appraise it.”

“But, it’s not signed. Did any other paperwork arrive with it?”

“Just the envelope,” George paused, his mind whirling with questions. “And the strange letter.”

“I was only able to find one Mercutio Grimbaldi, but there isn’t much to be found about him, aside from that he lives in Starling Glen. I will keep searching; there might be something I had missed.”

“Don’t bother, Ms Dumont. Mr Grimbaldi is not of as great importance as the artist. Send a picture of the piece to Laura, someone might recognise the style, if not, then the artist is an unknown – which begs the question of whether or not it is worth appraising.”

“The note has very clear instructions; the painting is not to be...” Her voice trembled ever so slightly, just enough for him to pick up on.

“I think that I have a fairly good command of the English language, Ms Dumont, or do you disagree?” He raised a quizzical brow at her.

“Of course you do, sir. I wasn’t trying to imply that...”

“Good. So it is safe for you to assume that I understood the letter.” He pushed his chair back, placed his napkin back on the table and rose to leave. “Lunch was delicious, as always.”

~*~

Two hours later she was no closer to finding the artist of the painting she had aptly named “Silent Night”. The picture she had sent to Laura, their in-house art researcher, had turned up nothing, but Laura had forwarded the image to other experts around the world. None of Mr Hart’s employees ever wanted to disappoint him, it was uncanny how well-oiled the cogs on his organisation was, considering that he hardly ever went in to the gallery or checked up on any of the staff there.

Further searches did, however, produce a tiny sliver of hope. Clarissa came across someone named Drago Grimbaldi and considering that it was not a common name in their country, she assumed that there had to be a link between the two men. Drago Grimbaldi had come over from Italy in the mid-1600’s and was instrumental in ridding the Northern countryside of witch-hunters. The King had little power over matters of law and God – which happened to be one and the same at the time – so persecution without a just trial of anyone suspected of witchcraft was rife. A secret order existed within the Northern borders of the country, one that stood for justice and equality for all – its leader a man from a foreign land named Drago Grimbaldi. As it was told, Grimbaldi led the resistance movement and fought long and hard for freedom, eventually earning it only for the North, but their courageous victory stirred other uprisings all over the country, eventually resulting in the ousting of both king and church. Drago Grimbaldi was later nominated for president, but declined, stating that he was merely a simple soldier fighting for his children’s right to freedom, not a politician. He had two young sons and a teenage daughter at the time, but there was no mention of a wife.

“This has to be it, maybe he is an ancestor… has to be…” she mumbled as she continued to search, but nothing new could be found. “Hmm… maybe… maybe not… let’s see here…”

“Shall I assume that your mumblings mean that you have found something, Ms Dumont?”

Clarissa practically jumped from her chair at the sound of his voice in her ear. He was leaning in so close she felt his breath on her neck, his aftershave invading her senses. She hated when he snuck up on her that way, something he did far more frequently than she was comfortable with.

“You startled me,” she gasped her heart racing. “I erm… I don’t know. I found a Grimbaldi, but he isn’t our Grimbaldi, likely an ancestor.” She noted the brief annoyance flitting across his face, and added, “I know, I wasn’t supposed to be searching for the man in the letter, but it might be the only way of learning more about the artist. I have sent the picture to Laura and she hasn’t found anything yet. They are all on it, though; I will let you know once we have something.”

He was going through the pictures she had taken of the painting, puzzlement creasing his brow. “Are these the ones you took earlier?”

“Yes. The ones I forwarded to Laura.” He continued to study the photographs, his expression one of deep confusion. George Hart was hardly ever confused, even when he was, he never allowed anyone to know it. “Is there something wrong, sir?”

He did not reply, merely grabbed the photographs and walked out of the room.

~*~

Something was off with the photographs. He noticed it the moment he looked at them. Earlier that morning, before his assistant had arrived, he had studied the painting, trying to find lines or strokes he recognised in the unsigned picture. Even during his most modest moments he was always aware of his eye for detail, it was what made him the best in his field.

“Not possible.” He put the photograph down and took one step back from the painting, eyes narrowed as he studied every line as if for the first time – for it felt like the first time all over again. Although the changes were subtle, he immediately noticed the altered shades surrounding the house.

“What is the matter?” So engrossed had he been that he hadn’t heard her enter the room. He turned to look at her, but his mind was adrift, no longer seeing anything but the subtle nuances of the portrait before them. “Mr Hart? Are you okay?”

“Look at it and tell me what you see, Ms Dumont. Don’t look at the photographs, just the painting.”

“Okay. I don’t know what I’m meant to see, but… whoa! That’s not right. That’s impo...”

“Impossible. Yes, that is what I said as well.” Her face was ashen as if she had seen a ghost, but she was trying desperately to hide her unease. “Do you see these lines on the horizon? In your pictures, they are tinged a deep pink, as if the sun had barely awoken. Now it is a pale blue. And when I first observed it, there were wisps of smoke curling from the chimney, now there are none.”

She was still silent. Her eyes had not left the painting since he had asked her to look at it.

“Ms Dumont? Are you still with us?”

“How’s that possible? Is that possible?”

~*~

Icy fingers caressed their way down Clarissa’s spine as she turned the corner and the house came into view. There was no need for her to recheck the directions, even in the dark she could tell that she was at the right address. Everything about the place looked exactly as in the painting, except that it felt far more sinister than the image of it captured on canvas. The closer she drew to the house, the more her heart sank, for the boarded up windows could only mean one thing – the house was abandoned.

What if she drove all this way for nothing? What if there was no way for her to get the answers she so desperately sought?

Two days after the painting had arrived; George Hart summoned one of his closest friends – Everett Morris – to the house for his expert opinion. They spent the entire day going back and forth, taking pictures of the painting and examining it in detail, an exercise that only served to perplex them even further than they had been at the onset. At 8:46 pm that evening, when Clarissa finally left for the day, both men were still huddled over George’s desk, so deep in conversation they did not even hear her greet them.

When she arrived for work the following morning, Everett’s car was still parked in the parking garage. The alarm on the house had not been activated for the night. The supper she had prepared for the two men and left in the oven was untouched. The desk in George’s office was strewn with photographs of the painting, as well as pages of hastily scribbled tabulations. Clarissa could not explain why panic rattled her bones as she entered the gallery and found the painting gone. All the new pieces were still as she had left them, all except ‘Silent Night’. She could also not explain why, after finding that the painting was not missing, merely moved to the observatory, her unease grew inexplicably.

And that was how Clarissa Dumont came to be sitting in her car, observing the creepy three storey house on the outskirts of Starling Glen, six days after the mysterious disappearance of her employer, George Hart and his good friend, Everett Morris.
This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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