Jacob’s studio was a maze of one-foot square canvases stacked seven feet high, piled on chairs, hanging from walls and even a few nailed to the ceiling. The artist was a small, wiry man who wore black horn-rimmed glasses and paint splattered blue coveralls over a greyed white T-shirt.
Cassandra stared in amazement. “This is quite a collection,” she said. The familiar tincture of oil and turpentine penetrated her nose and there was something else in the tepid, still air she couldn’t quite name.
Business had been slow for Cassandra’s gallery. She hadn’t signed a new artist in more than a year. Many painters had gone independent and were selling through the internet or renting space from the newer co-ops for a fraction of the cost. For some artists the self-sell was still a challenge. Jacob was one of those: a near shut-in who painted obsessively and hated to barter himself.
“My latest piece,” he said. He gestured to a painting hanging over a dirty green couch. Ochre and orange and some flecks of green were splattered across the canvas. Red lines, punctuated by splotches of dark blue, vanished at the edge of the frame as though into an unseen horizon.
“Like it?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” she said.
Jacob lifted the painting off the wall and handed it to her. As she tilted it in her hands the image on the canvas came to life. Eyes like the hot coals of a dying fire flared at her. Crimson hair boiled and floated like steam. Gaunt cheeks carved a thin, haggard face. She could smell boiling breath blazing from the twisted grimace. The face seemed to look right at her and then it opened its mouth to scream.
She dropped the painting.
Jacob was fast. He snatched the canvas before it crashed to the floor.
“Sorry,” she said.
He shrugged. “I’ve got more.” He replaced the painting on the wall and it seemed to sigh when Jacob turned from it.
“I’ve not seen colors like that before,” she said.
He smiled. “Artistic secret,” he said. “Would you like to see another?”
She said, “I think I’ve seen enough.”
The kitchen seemed to be where he worked and was the only room in the apartment not filled with paintings. Sunlight cast a parallelogram on the white linoleum. One tile seemed brighter than the others. A small vinyl-topped table was pushed against one wall. Jacob motioned for Cassandra to sit while he made coffee.
She pulled a stack of papers from her bag. “Have you ever had a gallery contract?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Well, the deal I’m prepared to offer you is standard,” she lied. “It’s a thirty-five, sixty-five split.” She hoped he’d sign the papers without even reading them.
“That’s not a lot for you.”
“I get the sixty-five.”
He whistled. “That’s not a lot for me.”
She smiled, waited. She was wearing a white top and a black bra and she watched his gaze venture constantly to her cleavage.
“You’re lovely,” he said.
“Have you ever been painted?”
“Not that I know of but the offer has been made.”
He nodded. A pack of cigarettes appeared on the table between them. He lit one and offered it to her. She shook her head. He blew smoke out the corner of his mouth and away from her face. “The thing is, I don’t paint to sell,” he said.
“Of course,” she said. “All artists should work for themselves first. Selling comes later—if you’re lucky.”
Smoke fell out of him like breath. “I’m just not interested in selling my work.”
She leaned back in her chair. He was smart. She knew what he wanted: a bigger cut. She was prepared for that but she wasn’t ready to show her cards. “Why did you invite me to come see your work?” she said.
He touched her hand. It was warm and sticky. His black nails were bitten back to the quick. Sweltering heat rose off the table. Sweat dripped down her back.
“I’d like to use you in one of my paintings,” he said.
She smiled. “That’s very kind.”
He rubbed his thumb along the back of her hand while puffing on his cigarette with the other. He watched her eyes.
She shifted uncomfortably. “Can I be honest with you?” she said.
“By all means.”
“I’m desperate. I’ve got a gallery full of art I can’t sell because the artist is terrible. I’d like to put his stuff in back and put your stuff front and center, right in the front window. Your work is amazing and I want the world to see it.”
“If I let you paint me will you sell your work in my gallery?” she said.
He patted her hand. “You don’t even have to move.”
He crushed out his cigarette and leaned back in his chair. His unibrow rose and fell as his eyes scanned her.
“I’m going to tell you a secret,” he said.
“The painting in the other room, the one you liked?”
“The color is blood.”
He planted his chair on the ground and pushed her backwards. Her chair tilted onto its rear legs. She twirled her arms to regain balance and stop the momentum of the fall. It was no use. The chair hit the tipping point and fell backwards. Two small metal spikes popped out of the missing tile. One penetrated the base of her brain and she felt nothing anymore.
Jacob took a shallow baking pan from the stove and gently placed her head into it. As the blood dribbled he nodded approvingly.
“You’ll look good in my ossuary,” he said.
J.L. Smith lives in Shiprock, New Mexico. He spends his days chasing his daughter through the desert and his nights recovering. His short fiction has appeared in “Halfway Down the Stairs” and “The Cynic Online Magazine.”