Murder by Numbers
By Michael Howard
"Art is meant to disturb."
The knock at the office door was unexpected and startling. Much of the coffee in the Styrofoam cup Edward Sloan had been raising to his lips was now running down the front of his shirt and forming a puddle on his desk. It was a quarter of ten in the evening and he had assumed that everyone else on this floor had left hours ago. After moving his notes for Sunday's column to a dry corner of his desk, he looked up at the vague figure silhouetted in the window but the frosted glass made recognition impossible. Sloan wiped up the coffee with a thick wad of tissue and buttoned his sweater until the dark stain no longer showed.
"Come in," he called, somehow managing an indifferent tone.
A tall, slender young man entered the room and closed the door behind him. There was a battered and scuffed portfolio case tucked under his arm. He had unruly black hair and a week old beard. A more charitable observer than Edward Sloan might have said that he was casually dressed.
"Hello, Neil. You haven't changed a bit."
Neil Strayker apparently thought that was meant as a compliment. "Thank you, Mr. Sloan," he said, with a crooked half-smile. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
"A welcome diversion, I assure you." Sloan gestured toward a chair in the corner. "Sit down. Explain this sudden mysterious reappearance. The last time I saw you was two years ago at the opening of your show at the art institute." He paused, then continued in a quieter tone, "Say, there aren't any hard feelings between us, are there?"
Neil gave him an amused look. "I don't see why there should be. You're an art critic. You were just doing your job. You gave an evaluation based on your experience and education. I'm sure that personal feelings weren't involved in your judgment. And oh, by the way, that was three years ago."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that you're not one to hold a grudge. No reason why our professional differences should make us enemies."
"That's absolutely right. In fact, I came here to ask a favor of you."
Sloan raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"It's no big deal, I just want you to hold something of mine. A painting."
"That sounds reasonable enough." He pointed to the portfolio case the man had set down by his chair. "Is that it right there?"
"That's it. It shouldn't be too long before I can send for it."
"You're going somewhere?"
"Boston. I know a philosophy major who moved up there. I'm hoping that she'll put me up for a while."
"I thought you had been sharing a place with Ray Pinkham. By the way, where has Raymond been the last two weeks? I haven't seen him around town."
"Yeah, well, he's also going somewhere."
"It's too late in the year for skiing, and he just got back from Florida. Where could he be heading off to?"
"Attica, most likely, but of course the judge won't say until after the trial."
Sloan was well aware of Neil's unusual sense of humor, but he seemed serious enough now. He asked in a sardonic tone, "What's the matter? Did his scale break?"
Neil gave a quick grin. "No, Mr. Sloan. That's not it. But I'm sure he wishes it was something as minor as that."
"Then what could he have possibly done to be arrested?"
Neil studied the older man's face for a moment before answering calmly, "Murder."
"I can't believe that. Are we talking about the same person?"
"He had been semi-serious about this particular girl for over a year now," Neil explained. "I'm sure that you've seen the two of them together before."
"Oh, right. Blonde hair, cheerleader type?"
"That's the one," said Neil.
There was a lengthy silence as Sloan considered this bit of news. He did not, of course, have the slightest compassion for the man himself. He had always hated Ray Pinkham. They were too much alike. Still, he would never have thought him capable of murder. The very idea of that young artist physically harming anyone was inconceivable to Sloan. When no solution to the puzzle presented itself, he turned his attention to determining how quickly those three paintings of Raymond's he had purchased last year would increase in value.
"So, Mr. Sloan, can you hold on to my painting for a while?"
"Oh, sure. Say, this is a tough break for you too, isn't it?"
"For me? I don't follow you."
"Well, you've lost your benefactor. I mean, let's be frank. You never could have supported yourself all these years. Not with those… how shall I say… unsympathetic reviews." Sloan continued on, seeming not to notice the sudden angry expression that showed for a moment on the face of his visitor. "I don't think I ever really decided what his motivation was. Now it's possible that he was just atoning for some wicked deed in his past, but that doesn't sound like the Ray Pinkham we both know so well. No, more likely he wanted you around as a living reminder that he had made it. That he was a success in the art world. Whenever he needed an ego boost, all he had to do was compare his career with yours. Yes, that seems much more in keeping with our Raymond." His smile melted away quickly. "Of course, all my theorizing is irrelevant now."
Neil started to rise from the chair. "I really should be leaving. Have to get up awfully early tomorrow morning. In case the subject ever comes up at one of your dinner parties, that's the best way to hitch a ride."
"Wait a minute. What about the painting?"
"Sorry. That was impolite of me. I didn't thank you for –"
"Not that. What I mean is, you didn't tell me anything about it. Am I allowed to look at it?"
"Sure, if you really want to. There's not a lot to say about this painting, except that it's different. Different from anything I've done in the past, that is. An entirely new field for me. One of your criticisms of my work was that I didn't take it seriously enough. This time, I think I was very serious."
Frowning, Sloan asked, "Isn't it finished?"
Choosing his words carefully Neil said, "Let's just say that I am not yet completely certain how it will turn out."
"Well, let's have a look at it."
Neil shook his head as he spoke. "I really am in a hurry. Besides," he added, only half-joking, "if you don't like it, you may not want to hold it for me."
"What makes you think I won't like it?"
"All right. I'll look at it later."
They exchanged hasty goodbyes and the young man left. Before opening the portfolio case, Sloan consulted a folder on his computer containing everything he had written on Neil Strayker. Certain key phrases caught his eye as he skimmed through the articles: "Contemptuous of the established traditions," "Anti-Art," "Complains of the crass commercialism and pretentiousness of art today." That was all true, of course, but it ignored one crucial factor. Neil had the potential, the raw talent to become one of the most important figures in the field. His skill and his technique were equal to anyone in the last twenty years in either painting or sculpture. Sloan remembered the replica of the Venus de Milo Neil had done. It was identical in every way to the original except that this one had arms that made certain obscene gestures.
Sloan had always felt that Neil was his own worst enemy. If he could just keep the hostility and anger out of his work and learn to follow the unwritten rules of art, then he could be both highly regarded and financially successful. Much more than Ray Pinkham, who had no talent at all, except perhaps for an uncanny ability to paint things that the critics approved of. Why is it, he asked himself, that those individuals most eager to get in on the game were inevitably the worst players?
Like himself, Sloan thought bitterly.
The zipper for the portfolio case was missing. In its place, two strategically positioned safety pins held it closed. Sloan quickly removed them and lifted out the painting. It was mounted on a rectangular sheet of plywood, as he half-expected. A proper frame would have been too expensive.
The composition of the painting was simple enough: black, white, and gray vertical stripes, of identical proportions, filled the length of the canvas except in the middle where a horizontal slash of red pigment cut the picture in two.
Neil was right; it was different. The painting somehow seemed to be both abstract and nonrepresentive at the same time. An impossibility according to current artistic laws and definitions as Sloan understood them. It hinted at a physical reality; yet there did not appear to be any recognizable subject involved. There were elements of a half-dozen art categories within the picture, but it did not completely correspond with any of them.
He found the painting disturbing. It evoked peculiar feelings within him. Not consciously; there was nothing tangible for him to come to grips with. The sensation was akin to having a slumbering animal within him suddenly awaken; something slowly but patiently rising to the surface of a murky black pool, leaving the water agitated as it passed.
He returned the painting to the case, but could not find the safety pins it had come with and he did not have any of his own. Glancing at his watch, he was shocked to discover that only fifteen minutes had passed. But it was extremely unlikely that he would receive any other visitors that night so he had no choice except to go home.
Little things piled up during that drive back to the apartment. For one thing, he noticed he had a headlight out and so spent the entire trip worrying if he would be pulled over and ticketed. Also, the radio refused to hold a station, subjecting him instead to bursts of static every few seconds. And, to top it off, the road crews were tearing up the Avenue again, which forced him to make a lengthy detour.
As soon as Sloan unlocked the apartment door, he saw that she wasn't home yet. Both relieved and annoyed, he tossed the portfolio case onto the couch and poured himself a drink. Downing that as if it were colored water, he poured a taller one. The glass in one hand and the Times in the other, he sat down in the chair across from the door. No good; his eyes seemed unable to focus on anything except the clock on the wall. Cursing, he jumped up and went into the bedroom. Taking off his sweater served only to increase his anger. After changing his shirt, he returned to the front room.
His arm brushed the mantelpiece as he passed. Looking up, Sloan saw the print by Chagall that hung there on the wall. He gave a quick humorless laugh as inspiration struck. Hurrying into the den it took less than a minute to select a suitable frame. In less than ten minutes, Neil Strayker's painting was properly mounted and occupying the space above the mantelpiece. The Chagall painting was lying at the end off the hall where it had been hastily thrown. I never liked that damned thing anyway, Sloan kept repeating to himself.
He stared at the picture while he waited. Those columns of black, gray, and white really were impressive, he decided. They were so carefully and skillfully delineated that a machine might have been responsible. It was hard to believe that they were the product of brush and pigment. There was a soothing and predictable rhythm in the way they seemed to flow across the picture. But in the middle of the painting, striking his vision like a physical blow, was that violent spattering of crimson. Every time he began to feel the stability, the regularity within the picture, his eyes were drawn toward the center and the disordered, chaotic tangle of red paint. The more he stared, the more disturbing it became.
Janice Sloan returned at about 11:30. Neither of them said a word and both made a point of avoiding the other's eyes. Sloan observed that she was wearing a dress he had never seen. As she walked past him, he caught the scent of perfume even though he had never known her to wear it before.
It wasn't until she came back from the bedroom that she noticed the new painting. "What in the world is that thing? And where's my print?"
"Never mind. Edward, we have to talk. I don't like that way things have been going these last few weeks." She hesitated, and then continued rapid-fire. "I think that a divorce would be best for both of us."
"Why not? You aren't a religious person and you can certainly afford it. If you will just be reasonable for a-"
But Edward Sloan had spotted a sculptor's knife lying on the table where his wife was sitting and he decided he was tired of listening…
The first thing Detective-Sergeant Victor Jurgens noticed upon his arrival at the crime scene the next morning wasn't the murder victim lying sprawled on the floor beneath the traditional white sheet, nor was it the chief suspect, handcuffed, staring absently at the cup of coffee growing cold in her hands. No, rather it was the peculiar- looking painting that hung above the mantelpiece. It was not easily forgotten and he had just seen it two weeks ago under very similar circumstances.
The detective didn't have to wait very long before Neil arrived. Of course, he was startled at first to see the same police detective, but Jurgens set his mind at ease.
"I'm a realist. Even if I could get the D.A. to charge you with something, no Judge in the world would convict you. I do have a question, though."
"Shoot." Neil eyed the bulge under the bigger man's left armpit, and his crooked smile returned. "Ah, rather, ask away."
"How do you plan a thing like this?"
"You can't, not really," Neil explained while the detective listened with professional interest. "It's like throwing a grenade into a crowd of people. Maybe you'll get your target and maybe you won't. There are hundreds of variables you need to take into account."
"Like Janice Sloan being the daughter of a Special Forces officer for instance?"
"Exactly. Uh, by the way, she'll be exonerated won't she?"
"Most likely so."
"That's good. I didn't have anything against her anyway."
"Of course the painting will have to be destroyed," said Jurgens.
Neil shrugged his shoulders. "I guess it's just as well. I mean, in the wrong hands that thing could be dangerous."