The clatter that resounded from the staircase snapped Fred to action. He flattened himself against the wall and approached the stairs cautiously. Pencils lay scattered on the steps. One of them rolled over to his feet.
Right. Someone’s going to kill me with a blunt pencil, he thought drily. The possibility of getting stabbed with it, however, dawned on him. Fred looked up at the figure on the stairs. She descended slowly, stooping once in a while to pick her things from the floor. The woman muttered to herself the entire time until she saw him.
“Hi.” She smiled tentatively at him. “Would you mind retrieving my pencil by your foot?” she asked.
Fred did more than she asked. He helped gather her belongings and reached her halfway on the dimly lighted staircase.
“Thanks,” she said, depositing the handful of pencils in a case.
At closer inspection, the woman’s brown hair was messily tied in a bun, her shirt a little too big, and…sunglasses indoors?
“Those are prescriptive,” she said.
“These are prescription sunglasses.” The woman tapped the sunglasses’ frame. “I don’t mean to be rude by not taking it off, but I wouldn’t be able to see properly. I broke my contact lenses, you see,” she added sheepishly.
The woman paused. Fred felt her eyes on his face. She frowned and said, “Do I know you?”
“We haven’t met,” he said, not unkindly.
“You look familiar.”
“You might have seen me on the news before,” Fred replied. Inwardly, he grimaced. Although true, the words sounded like he was bragging.
She didn’t react and seemed to wait for an explanation.
“The truth is I’m on vacation and I’d appreciate it if you don’t tell anyone about meeting me here.”
“What meeting?” She cocked an eyebrow at him, a slow smile spread on her face. “Come along, stranger. This place gives me the creeps.”
Relieved, Fred followed her back to the surface. Every step towards the surface eased the tension within him ever since he arrived in the columbarium.
The woman turned to him when they reached the landing. “Good day to you, sir,” she said, smiling.
“Good day.” Fred nodded and headed for the exit.
“Bye.” She waved at him.
Fred tentatively raised his hand and went outside.
Inside the car, he shook his head bemusedly. The image of the woman waving cheerfully at him was still fresh on his mind. Tony, his chauffeur, studied him in the rear view mirror. He didn’t want to risk asking what had happened only to be put back in his place. Simply put, Fred had been in a weird mood when they left the hotel this morning. Hopefully, things would be brighter later in the day. Tony could see that his passenger was more relaxed after returning from the old chapel.
The said passenger caught his assessing gaze and said, “Tony.”
Again with the sir, Fred thought exasperatedly. “Do you have a place you want to visit?”
“There is, sir,” Tony said hesitantly. “But it doesn’t open ‘til the afternoon.”
“Where is this?” Fred gazed out the window.
The soft purr of the engine filled the silence between them while Tony debated on how to answer back. He stepped on the break when the traffic light turned red.
“It’s a small gallery at Governor’s Square,” Tony said. “A friend got to exhibit her paintings exclusively for this week.”
From the tone of his voice, Tony was proud of the painter. Fred visited galleries when he had time to spare. For now, he had a lot of it in his hands. “Is she good?” he asked.
“I’m not a pro when it comes to art.”
The traffic light switched to green. The car followed the vehicle in front take left. They were circling the park. Fred wondered if Tony was doing it on purpose or not.
“What’s your opinion?” Fred persisted. If the paintings were good, it would solve one of his problems. He could buy a painting and give it to his mom as peace offering. Surely, it was enough to make her forget that he ruined her matchmaking schemes.
“Her work is really nice. I heard the agent say that the paintings sell pretty well.”
“Here’s the plan.” Fred rubbed his chin. “Be my tour guide for the next two hours. We’ll eat lunch at Governor’s Square. Then, we can both visit your friend’s exhibit.” He kept his expression open to let his chauffeur feel comfortable in making the decision.
“Umm, okay,” Tony answered, not wanting to sound too eager. Deep inside he was excited to see the art exhibit. He could just imagine his friend’s surprise when she sees him with the famous Dr. Fred Williams.
Fred, however, could see beneath Tony’s nonchalance but made no comment. Being an on-call doctor had its disadvantages. He couldn’t bear to return in the hotel. Having nothing to do would just push him to check his emails and messages. Worse, he might ring a few of his patients to check on them. Fred had concocted a cure for eye disease and prescribed it to a select few. So far, none had given any negative feedback, but it was too soon to celebrate.
He needed to distract himself. Sightseeing and viewing art could just be the perfect solution. What Fred didn’t know was how unfortunately right he could be.
The art gallery was deceptively tiny in the outside. The poster at the entrance announced its featured theme Lost in the Woods by the artist Francesca Barbarossa. Fred followed an excited Tony past the sliding glass doors.
The chauffeur had done his job well as a tour guide earlier. He had regaled his passenger with folklore and the history attached to the landmarks they visited. Fred had sorely missed the Mysts’ history when he was at Roucan Academy. Asian and world history was served consecutively for junior and senior years. All he knew about the Mysts were the stories he heard in the dorms and from other people. Fred was astonished to learn that his chauffeur knew more about the Mysts. He cited various facts and quoted a particular historian for each location they visited. At lunch, Fred discovered why Tony dropped out. It was a classic case of a non-conformist thrust in a traditional school setting. That and boredom. Tony had a plan though. He was saving up to study in an art college just like his artist friend.
The first few paintings displayed near the entrance were beautiful. One painting captured how the light filtered through the trees. Another artwork was a picture of a bird in flight. Fred admitted that the artist had talent. Each work seemed to come alive the longer he studied the painting.
“Too bad someone bought it already,” Tony said, looking at the same painting. A card beside it stated “Sold.” “This is one of her favorites. Usually, her patron gets to pick the best ones before an exhibit. I wonder what happened…” he trailed off.
“At least, we’ll get to view her complete collection,” Fred said. He looked around. There were already paintings he could choose from, but Fred wanted the best for his mom.
“You’re right.” Tony smiled.
The way Fred inspected the paintings was promising. It occurred to Tony that his companion’s interest extended beyond viewing the art collection. Slyly, Tony determined to save the best for last.
It took them a good hour to look at the paintings in one floor. They were on the top story when Tony began to look for a woman with messy brown hair. She always surrounded herself with her paintings in the afternoons during the exhibit. Strangely, he hadn’t had a glimpse of her yet.
They had seen her agent Mr. Thomson half an hour ago. The man took note of Fred’s chosen pieces and promised to get back to them after attending to another buyer. Mr. Thomson also answered Tony’s inquiries with “No, the artist had not yet arrived” and “She hadn’t said when she’ll be coming.”
Tony was a little disappointed that he wouldn’t get to introduce her to the doctor. He would just have to show Fred her masterpiece with good old Mr. Thomson.
“Where’s her masterpiece?” Mr. Thomson echoed Tony’s question. “Why, it’s in the basement. She wouldn’t show it to the public yet. Ms. Francesca had specifically requested that we wait for her go signal. But there are only two days left before the exhibit closes.” He gazed at his client’s young friend thoughtfully. “She’s in a very odd mood lately. Tony, is anything bothering her?”
“How odd?” Tony asked. Being an artist made her different already. How much odder could she get?
“She hasn’t shown up ever since the exhibit opened.”
“That is odd.” She never missed this type of function before, he thought. “Maybe, inspiration got in the way,” Tony said lightly.
“Perhaps.” The agent gave a small nod, still doubtful. He had been working with this particular artist for four years. Mr. Thomson hoped her behavior wasn’t a sign of troubles ahead.
“I’ll talk to her.”
“Thank you, my boy.” He patted Tony on the shoulder. Mr. Thomson excused himself again to take a business call.
Left to their own devices, Tony led the way to the basement where a small studio was reserved for the artist’s personal use.
“Wouldn’t your friend mind?” Fred asked. He had been privy with Tony’s conversation with the agent. Seeing the painting without permission seemed like he was intruding on the owner’s privacy.
“She won’t. One of the perks of being her friend is that I could let in a few of my trusted friends.” Tony was sure that it would be alright for them to see her work. She often invited him to take some of his pals to the exhibit. Technically speaking, he didn’t know where he stood with the doctor, but – he stole a glance at Fred. The man looked like the quiet type…and, probably, an art aficionado. How many paintings was he buying again? Was it five or six? He recalled the title of each work in his mind. A lot of them weren’t cheap.
Tony punched the passcode on the door lock. The door slid open with a hiss. At the center of the room, a white cloth was draped over a painting. That’s not right, he thought. She only used the white cloth to keep her unfinished work out of sight. At that moment, he had second thoughts on showing it to Fred. He might just fire me if he thinks I lied to him, Tony argued. There was no going back on his word. He lifted the cloth to reveal what was underneath.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Tony said, looking at the masterpiece appreciatively. He heard his companion’s slow tread behind him. Fred’s hand lifted and stopped short of touching the painting.
If it was wonder or shock in his eyes, Tony couldn’t decide. The artwork had that effect on the few people who had laid eyes on it. He waited for Fred to speak first, predicting the questions and comments that would soon follow.
Fred’s hand dropped. He stepped back, excused himself, and fled from the room. Tony stared at the quickly retreating figure. Frowning, he glanced at the painting for the last time and chased Fred.
Copyright © 2014-2016 Cecilia Beatriz. All rights reserved.
A/N: Haunted by the past, is Fred truly going insane?
Stay tuned. 😉
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