Author's Intro (skip it if you like, or come back to it at the end)
This story is part of a planned series which I am currently eking away at. By 'series', I mean there will be at least 26 sequential 'episodes', or separate 'novels'. Each novel will detail one of my main character's individual cases as a 'private-eye'; there will also be an over-arcing plot line, which will gradual develop throughout the separate instalments.
This is a kind of stand-alone episode (I started writing it for a short-story comp, then went way over the word limit :P ). It falls in the middle of the overall 'Eye / L. Ash' cannon - I'm still writing the first 'novel' - so the characters and premise haven't been properly established yet. This serves as a kind of 'pilot episode' for the whole series; it lets me get a feel for what the overall narrative style will be like.
The concept for 'Eye / L. Ash' was very much inspired by a BBC documentary called 'Fake or Fortune?', where they investigate the history of potentially-valuable paintings. I'm fascinated by art's interpretative qualities. It's so easy to misinterpret what a picture is about. For example, if the artist used a shade of yellow which they thought was like an autumn leaf, but a million people who looked at it thought it was the colour of spring sunshine, whose interpretation is 'correct'?
Watching Fake or Fortune made me wonder what it would be like if a person could look at a painting, and see exactly what the artist thought as they were painting it - to know at a glance who a portrait is of, what feeling a colour is meant to invoke, what time period a layer of varnish dates from. With that basic idea in mind, I developed the character of Laurence Eustace Asher, aka 'Lasher', and the world that he inhabits.
This story is currently rated 'K'; I don't think there is anything to worry about here, though other parts of 'Eye / L. Ash' may need a stronger rating.
The final thing I need to explain is the series' title. I had intended it to be 'Eye / L. Ash' as one word, like 'eyelash', without all the spaces in it. But for some reason, FictionPress deletes it every time I save it like that, probably because the grammar is 'incorrect'. I really needed the title to appear at the top of the story, so I typed it as you see it. Please try to imagine all the ugly spaces out of it.
Now, if you are still with me, without further ado - enjoy!
~ W. J.
Eye / L. Ash: The Eye of the Beholder
Laurence Eustace Asher – better known as 'Lasher' by his many, varied acquaintances – leaned forward in his chair, fixing an attentive gaze upon the figure who sat opposite him.
His sight had a remarkable intensity to it. His eyes were a startlingly vivid shade of blue, bright and clear as water.
Well, water that surged with ripples, perhaps.
Each iris bore upon it a peculiar pattern of lines, radiating outward from the pupil. These strange markings were small and slight, yet quite plainly visible. They were neat and evenly spaced, circling the iris in a series of concentric strokes. The zigzagging pattern in which they were arrayed was somehow reminiscent of a row of stitches…
"Perhaps, Miss Carmody," he said, "you could be a little more specific as to what it is, exactly, you are asking of me?"
The woman who sat across from him wore a dress of peacock-blue taffeta, trimmed with a profusion of lilac plush. A small felt hat in a similar shade of azure, adorned with a modest bit of tawny-brown fluff, was poised upon her luxuriant chestnut hair. It looked rather like a dainty little blue wren sitting upon the glossy tresses, though it was perched at the exact angle that current fashions dictated.
She wasn't quite ostentatiously dressed; her apparent good taste prevented her from appearing too grossly extravagant for such a humble setting as Lasher's office. Littered as it was with stained brushes, crumpled paint-tubes, besplattered rags and palettes caked with pigment, it was, admittedly, very easy to overdress the part. In the midst of the cluttered room, she looked much like a pretty, preening little bird, housed in a rather ramshackle nest. There was a certain amount of attractiveness in the round, regular features of her face; just as she had exhibited an admirable grace as she had deftly lowered herself into the chair Lash had drawn for her, the motion accompanied by a soft sigh of billowing fabric. Yet for all her apparent charm, it was a very deliberate, fawning sort of beauty that she managed to exude; the type that betrays a woman who is anxious to be beautiful, rather than naturally being so.
A silk rosette, sewn by the clever hand of a seamstress, can only ever dream of becoming a wild rose.
Such was how Lasher's private thoughts ran; luckily for him, the lady wasn't privy to them. She favoured him with a coy smile.
"I thought all artists were adept at grasping hidden meanings," she said in a girlish, lightly-teasing tone.
Lasher suspected that its coquettish quality was a calculated appeal to his male sensibilities. He was rather too conscious of it to be won by it; he merely grinned back at her, rather wryly. "For the most part, we are. However, even artists are prone to miss meanings, or to misinterpret them. It is so difficult to know the true intent of another, as it is quite impossible for one to be wholly objective."
He continued on, meditatively, warming to his theme. "When one – anyone, artist or otherwise – looks at an artwork, the message we each discern in it is little more than our own interpretation. It is by no means an accurate way of reading things; for any image, there may be an immeasurable number of alternate meanings, each as valid as the last. The only person who knows the one real truth behind any image, is he – or she – whose mind conceived it, and whose hand painted it."
Miss Elizabeth Carmody bobbed her head in a cheery show of deference. "I see. So, you wish me to state my case – or 'paint my picture' – in greater detail?"
Lasher smiled a genuine smile at this; the analogy had tickled his fancy. "Quite so, Miss Carmody."
"Please, do call me Liza."
"If I may, Miss Liza; I, in turn, am Laurie."
"Well, Laurie," Liza Carmody began, with another tactful flutter of dark lashes over hazel eyes, "I was told by Mrs Emery that you have some curious powers of observation."
"I suppose I do," Lasher replied, non-committally.
He wondered just how accurate Mrs Florence Emery's account of him had been. She may have decided, for her own amusement, that he foretold the future by painting in raven's blood, using ectoplasm as a canvas. While Lash entirely encouraged – and made his living on – the everyday use of imagination, he was rather alarmed by the way some people managed to convince themselves that what they invented was entirely true. Mrs Emery was one of those types who tended to be very suggestible, to the point that her most dubious influence was, in fact, herself.
"I understand," Miss Carmody continued, "that you didn't always have this incredible talent, but came upon it quite suddenly, not too long ago."
"That is quite true," Lash admitted. He lounged in his chair with an introspective air, fiddling with the sleeve of his coat as he did; it bore a thick daub of cadmium-yellow paint on the edge of its cuff. "It is a very useful ability which I have only recently acquired, and through less-than-desirable circumstances. I was, and currently am, studying at the Swinburne Academy of Fine Art – you may know of it, it is only a few streets from here, nearer to the Euston Road. Well, a few years ago, I was leaving my studio there late in the evening – as is my custom – and just happened to casually pass someone in the street. As it turned out, that person had a purpose that was far from casual. In short, I was the unfortunate victim of a vitriol-throwing attack."
"How terrible!" Miss Carmody exclaimed, with horrified relish.
Lash nodded in silent agreement.
For a moment, a few haggard lines were visible upon his youthful face; particularly near his eyes, around each of which faint patches of scarring had left their indelible mark. These splashes of marred skin were just barely visible; they were only obvious to Miss Carmody for a moment, as he turned his head toward the lamp and the light managed to cast its rays upon the hollows of his face. It showed as little more than a change in texture; a slight unevenness and sickly pallor of the skin, swathing the upper region of his face like a faded mask.
Then he smiled again, and his face smoothed back into its customarily boyish expression. He ran a dismissive hand through his hair, which was blond and very pale, quite truly white around the temples, though he was not yet even past his thirtieth year – a further souvenir from that painful incident.
"Luckily, the damage could be undone, thanks to the cleverness of modern science. A genius doctor from Bohemia was brought to England by a friend of mine, a professor who has close acquaintances on the University's medical board. That talented surgeon took out my ruined corneas – the clear part at the front the eye, rather like a glass pane is to the window of a house – and replaced them with new ones from an unaffected donor."
"Goodness!" Miss Carmody said, rather breathlessly, unsure of how else to respond to such an extraordinary statement.
"Ever since my sight was restored," Lash went on, matter-of-factly, as though he had explained all of this many times before, "I have been able to see things which are not plainly obvious to others. Subtle things, like the characteristic features in a person's signature; even something so imperceptible as what a photographer felt as he developed a particular plate; or, more commonly, the specific intent that has been painted into an artist's work-"
"But that is just what I need you for," Liza interrupted.
"Is that so?"
"Yes. There is a painting that I would like you to read for me."
This was welcome news to Lasher. His client hadn't brought a package or folio with her, not so much as an envelope; nothing that could hold even the smallest of drawings. He was glad that he would have some visual material to work with, though he wondered why he wasn't seeing it at this very moment. He usually asked his clients to bring such things along to their first consultation.
"This painting is-?"
"I can give you the address of the place where it is located."
"You do not own it, then?"
Liza's reply was far more abrupt than the light, slightly insinuating tone that she had hitherto used before him. Lasher had the pronounced suspicion that he was beginning to skirt a very delicate matter, and so decided to tread a bit more carefully.
"If you have not brought it, I suppose I shall have to make my own way to it?"
"Yes, I am afraid so. No other arrangement would be possible, under the circumstances."
"But it is otherwise quite accessible?"
"Oh, yes; I shouldn't think that you would have any trouble. They will undoubtedly allow you to see it."
Again, Lasher was glad to hear this; the more he heard, the more intrigued he was swiftly becoming.
"When I encounter the person who owns it-"
"The Penvellyn family."
"Yes, well, how should the Penvellyns regard me, when I go to visit them?"
She pondered for a moment, irresolute. "Perhaps you could, erm, give them the impression that you are a private appraiser seeking works for a new collection. Or an art historian gathering material for a book; something of the kind. I would prefer if my name were not mentioned to them at all."
Lash was unfazed by this request. The role of 'private investigator' generally required a certain amount of duplicity; so long as it did no harm to anyone, he was quite prepared to lie, if doing so would be beneficial to his client. "I quite understand. And the painting which I am to view…?"
"It is called 'The Old House at Richmond'. There will probably be a title plate somewhere around it, but I suspect you will know it when you see it. Especially if your powers are half of what Mrs Emery said they were."
"Right, that is all quite clear. If you would be so good as to provide the address-?"
"Here it is."
Liza reached into her bag – a frivolous little thing of turquoise silk, edged with beaded black fringe – and handed him a card. It was, he realized, his own. Printed on one side of it, in crisp black type, was the following:
L. E. Asher, 'Private Eye'
Artistic Cases & Visual Mysteries of All Kinds
Enquire at Pembroke House
5 Rawlinson Square, Bloomsbury
Prospective clients, if possible please
provide some Visual Material upon first call
Having read all this – which he himself had dictated to his friend, a former client who happened to work at Clarakin Quality Printing Press, over on Endell Street – he turned the card over and saw, written with lavender ink, in an unmistakably feminine and slightly childish-looking hand:
'The Old House at Richmond'
Penvellyn family home
32 Chesterford Gardens, Hampstead
Private enquiry, discretion much appreciated
~ Elizabeth Carmody
After carefully surveying this short epistle, Lasher stowed the card away. He was in the habit of wearing two waistcoats at a time, layered one over the top of the other; today, his innermost was a favourite one of pinstriped navy-grey twill, with a diagonal hem and narrow lapels. It had a hidden pocket sewn into its lining, just perfect for slipping small items into. Given how bits of paper in his near vicinity tended to end up coated in paint, paste or pastel-dust, it was best that he put important documents away in a safe, unsoilable place.
"And what exactly is it, Miss Liza, that I should be trying to 'read' from this painting?"
This was the crucial question; yet, as he had expected, he didn't receive an immediate, definite answer.
Miss Carmody deliberated. She looked down at her own slender feet, distractedly digging the toe of her right shoe into the heavy weave of the paint-mottled floor rug. "It is… something of a personal matter…" she began, haltingly.
"With art, it always is," Lash answered, trying to put her at ease so that she might divulge something more helpful.
She looked to have been somewhat reassured by these words, though she still remained rather more cryptic than he would have liked.
"I just want to know… what that person felt, when they were painting it. What, or… or whom they thought of, I suppose. Otherwise, anything at all that you may happen to learn…"
"I am sure there will be plenty for me to glean from it," Lash assured her. "You would be surprised at just how eloquent an image can be, for myself especially. 'Worth a thousand words', and all that."
She gave him a grateful smile, such as a queen may have given a faithful vassal in her service. "It is very chivalrous of you, Mr. Laurie, to take up a woman's sensitive business like this. I will be more than happy to recompense you for any effort or inconvenience that my case may-"
"I have variable rates, Miss Liza," Lasher interposed, "as the requirements of my work can alter immensely from one commission to another. Once I have fulfilled your request, I can better advise you as to the costs it has entailed, though I doubt that you will find the sum at all unreasonable. I do this job not for monetary reward, but for the enjoyment of the artistic profession itself; I am just trying to put these odd, intrinsic gifts of mine to good use. I shall require you to reimburse me for the cab fare up to Hampstead and back; after that, we shall see. If you will call on me here again tomorrow, at around the same time if it is convenient to you, I should have a full appraisal of the picture in question ready and prepared for you by then."
"As soon as that?" she asked, with apparent surprise.
"Yes. After all, it is only a matter of my going to Chesterford Gardens, looking at the painting, and making up my mind as to just what it means. Trying to tell you what I saw will probably be the most taxing part…"
"Oh, there's no need to consider my feelings, Mr. Lasher," she told him reproachfully, somewhat mistaking what he had meant. "Don't think that I expect to hear something overly sentimental or suited to romantic tastes; I shan't be disappointed if the meaning of the painting turns out to be something quite mundane." Then she murmured, more to herself than to him, "Perhaps it would be better…"
She trailed off, quickly coming back to herself and resuming her former manner; this interlude served to show him just how false it was. Lash grimaced inwardly, wondering what sort of feminine, emotionally-fraught enterprise he had been burdened with. However, he kept his thoughts to himself, politely rising to see Miss Carmody out.
"There's little to be gained from speculation at this point, Miss Liza," he said, as he shook her hand with a light, animated gesture; it was easy to imagine him wielding any of his assorted paintbrushes with equal, almost-contradictory levels of energy and delicacy. "The only way of ascertaining anything is to go to Hampstead tomorrow, preferably with as few preconceptions as possible. Once I have seen the painting, I shall give you my findings exactly as they are, without any fanciful embellishment. My professional integrity would prevent me from doing otherwise."
She clasped his hand with the lightest of pressures; perhaps she purposefully restrained her grip, in order to better emulate the role of a fragile damsel. "You are a true gentleman, Mr. Laurie," she said with gushing, girlish fervour. "I shall eagerly anticipate our next meeting. Until then, au revoir."
Having delivered this dramatic last pronouncement, she swept through the door with queenly grace, and he gallantly bowed her out of the room.
Once she had safely quitted the house, he allowed himself a bemused smile at the pretty, posturing little performance that this new client had put on for his benefit. It had certainly been amusing; he almost had to remind himself that there was an actual case in it, which would require some very real, unrehearsed action on his part. True to his word, he would now have to go to Hampstead. He wondered just what he could expect to find there.
Surely it was nothing serious... and certainly nothing sinister...?
A slight sense of doubt was beginning to encroach upon his thoughts. It seemed straightforward enough; yet her request for secrecy niggled vaguely at the back of his mind...
At a glance, it was a shallow, inconsequential affair; something better suited to the stage, or to the pages of a yellow-backed novel. But there was, he assumed, some more serious current beneath the surface of the matter. There must be; why else would she have come to him otherwise? Surely she wouldn't want to know about a certain painting, hanging in the house of a person from whom she wished to remain unknown, purely on a whim. She had struck him as someone who had a rather capricious personality; but this only meant that the purpose of his errand must be significant indeed, if she would become so reticent when he questioned her too closely.
He frowned to himself, taking out the card she had given him and pacing the length of the room as he scrutinized it; he avoided tripping over stacks of paper or treading on paint tubes without having to look up, his ease born out of frequent practice.
Perhaps some glimmer of an answer was already in his hands, if only he could see it. His eye followed the sinuous lines of the handwriting on the card, tracing and re-tracing the curve of her signature.
It was nothing more than a name; simply and plainly written, standing out in stark, strong ink against the white background. Yet, it was entirely possible that there was something else in it for him to see… experience told him so...
Something more than mere letters and words…
He examined it minutely.
After a few long moments, a new comprehension dawned upon his face.
Yes, it seemed as though half of his answer could already be here…
If such was indeed the case, he was bound to find the other half at Hampstead.