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by Lori R. Lopez

Windows were black, concealed from light,
no masterpieces on display to passersby.
The gallery seemed an enigma sheltered from
casual observers, marked Private, catering to the
tastes of the few: the morbid and bizarre; a network
of fiends, social deviates; a moody artist perched
on his stool in the rear; certainly not decent folk!

I encountered him due to my official position
as Fire Inspector for the Thirteenth District.
“I’ve heard reports there are chemical odors,
unpleasant smells. I must inspect the premises
to ensure compliance with fire-safety rules.”
He peered at me in silence, unblinking,
through a mere crack. I inserted a loafer.

The dark gaze lowered, assessing my shoe.
At last he spoke, in a hoarse whispery tone:
“Have you a warrant or permit? Show it to me.”
The words were quick, abrupt, a command.
“No. You see, I don’t require one.”
Again showing my badge. “When I have
sufficient reason to believe there are violations.”

He blinked at that. “And you do?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.” Clearing my throat.
“The codes are vital to ensure the city
does not burn down.”
He stared at me, lips compressed, a tight thin line;
parallel wisps of mustache beneath his nose.
“I do not care for bureaucracy.” The door creaked.

He vanished like a magician. Minus the smoke.
I stepped into a gloomy display room.
“Did they shut off your lights?” My voice
bounced on walls crowded with dim geometric
shapes. How was I to inspect the place?
Ah. Pulling out a cylinder, I snapped on my
flashlight. A trifle flustered. Cheeks warm.

Where did he go? The beam led me to
the rear, his workshop. He had returned
to his seat, hunched over a table, ignoring
my presence. A candle burned. “Fine. I’ll just
snoop around. Don’t mind me.” Nervous,
I laughed. We shared one thing in common.
Neither of us wanted me there.

Swallowing a lump of apprehension,
I examined the chamber from corner to corner,
scrutinizing cans and bottles on shelves;
rummaging paints, brushes, tubes and jars;
stacks of wood panels, sketch paper, canvases.
Poking a bin of used rags, a basket of clean,
I sniffed the air and frowned.

“Do you smoke, Mister Bayard?”
I could cite no specific hazards, no sign of
carelessness, and grasped at straws.
“There are flammable substances here,
so it would be a factor in my conclusions.”
His sulky voice: “Then the answer is no.”
“Good!” I moved to the exhibit space.

What an odd day. And it only grew stranger.
Each painting was an anomaly, surreal or
abstract, divided into puzzle-like sections.
Oils thick and muddy, subdued, a murky style.
Yet the flesh in the portraits looked
very lifelike. “Remarkable!” Under my breath.
I stepped closer to study a face.

The segmented features almost cried out.
Though distorted, a gruesome expression
appeared utterly genuine. Locked in a silent
eternal scream. Trapped in the frame.
Disturbing. A shake of my head. I must focus
on the task
. But suddenly I desired to leave,
a strong impulse, deep in my gut. Instinct.

I whirled at a sound, a furtive tread...
He had lurked behind me. Confronting the
macabre slender man, emitting an audible
gasp, I renounced my post and fled the grim
salon in terror. I could not forget that moment
of absolute fear. It compelled me to leave town,
abandon my job and belongings, a coward.

But I am alive and knew if I did not disappear,
I would have “disappeared” against my will,
to be immortalized. There was something evil
in that gallery of unkind art. The images were real,
crafted out of suffering, constructed from painful
slabs of flesh and paint mixed with blood.
Witnessing his butchery, I had to run or become it.

Copyright © 2017 by Lori R. Lopez

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