Jasper Peacock greeted me at the front door of his Hampshire County estate, gripping a holstered black pistol on his hip. I veered back, my pulse surging. Although I was aware of Jasper’s bizarre, artistic fame, the last thing I expected was an armed painter for this interview. We had agreed to meet this chilly autumn afternoon to discuss Jasper’s legendary painting Rabbles, a pointed figure of distorted light in a devil’s mask. Collectors considered Rabbles to be Jasper’s muse, which, if true, I considered to be a tantalizing, if peculiar, source of inspiration.
We said our hellos and Jasper gestured me into the massive foyer looming with mahogany chests with monstrous claw feet. I stifled a shiver, leaving the leafless trees in gray light behind me as the door slammed with a stunning echo.
In the parlor, indignant deer heads hung on the wall between glass cabinets of rifles. “Ah, you’re a hunter,” I said, my voice suddenly gone weak. I calmed myself. “Nothing about that in your biography.”
“My little secret, Mr. Samm. Killing is the highest thrill. Don’t you agree?”
For a man accused of murdering his wife and set free by a hung jury—her body never found—I was puzzled by his brisk candor. I gave a respectful nod. “I’m sure you’re right.” His little smirk, though, baited me to ask the obvious question local newspapers had speculated about. I had it on good authority that Jasper Peacock welcomed talk about his wife’s murder and the trial. “So,” I sucked in a breath and went for it, “did you kill your wife?”
Unabashed, Jasper laughed. I think he liked my audacity. “Mr. Samm, why don’t you ask her? Do you believe in ghosts?”
I assumed it was a rhetorical question and gave him a shrug.
“I fully believe in ghosts,” Jasper said. Then he leaned in and whispered. “You see, when you believe in them, they won’t harm you. Have a seat.”
I’d persisted for six months with flattery and petitions to get this appointment; every request went unanswered. Then I tried a humble and earnest appeal: ‘Mr. Peacock, when I view Rabbles, I feel both love and fear in the same moment. You make me see things I don’t want to, all dark and marvelous. Please, may I explore this paradox with you for my readers?’ Twenty-four hours later, he agreed.
With each step, the parlor floorboards cried out as I passed china-filled cabinets, and walls of bookcases accenting odd pieces of sculpture. The room wore a leafy-green wallpaper painted with yellow bees. I sat on an old silk settee trimmed in green fringe and tassels on a carpet of colorless cabbage roses. Ugh! With some effort I found space between the mounds of lace and ribbon pillows. Fighting a twinge of nausea—must have been that beer binge last night—I set my pen on my notepad. Jasper forbade all electronic devices during the interview, including my cell phone.
On an end table, I noticed several copies of our magazine Beyond Art, a sign that Jasper was keen on the publication. My editor had made it clear this interview was my last chance to redeem myself—and my employment. Conrad’s Stalinist-like cuts, slashes, and rewrites practically made me bleed. My ‘scraps of information,’ disengaged voice and faulty style didn’t made the grade. Hell, I knew I was no Tom Wolfe in a white suit, even though we both grew up in Richmond, Virginia, hated art critics, and had fathers who were farm magazine editors. This day, I was determined to get a gold nugget about this painter’s inspiration. I already had the lead theme: Myself As Muse. Nobody had a higher, more self-adoring opinion of himself than Jasper Peacock.
“Mr. Samm.” He pronounced my name acutely. “Are you of the mind that the murdered haunts its murderer?”
Not the direction I’d wanted for my Q and A. I brought up a smile. “I don’t know. Aren’t ghosts just unfinished business? More like elements of a man’s guilty conscience, I’d say.”
Jasper raised an eyebrow.
“I didn’t come here today to talk about ghosts.”
“Of course you didn’t, Mr. Samm.”
“Please, call me Ben. May I call you Jasper?”
He turned away to poke at the dying flames in the fireplace that had no screen. The ashes spread out like an apron on the floor—an astringent but sweet odor, like sage. I think it was sage. My Elinor used to burn sage at midnight to purify our stuffy apartment.
“Once upon a midnight dreary,” Jasper purred while stirring the flames up for a ridiculously long time. “I love Poe.” He turned slowly. His stare was so riveting that I found myself caught like a fish on a hook. My breath vanished. I made a horrible display of clearing my throat.
“Do you hunt, Mr. Samm?”
“Me? No. I feel guilty just slapping down a mosquito.” I manage an awkward laugh, keeping my eyes on him. Gosh almighty, I don’t think I’d ever seen such an ugly small man, pin-black eyes, pinched mouth, lips red as if bitten, clearly well-fed with a sagging turkey-neck unsuccessfully tucked into his shirt collar. The thick, graying temples were more sinister than distinguished. Precisely at that moment I heard odd scratching beneath my place on the sofa. The frantic pecking grew louder. I jumped up.
“Rodents, Mr. Samm. This house is a hundred years old. A Victorian monster. Been in my wife’s family forever, and always these damned rats. Slimy and gluey little bastards! I’ve tried everything to get rid of them. You’d best move away.” He withdrew his pistol.
I dashed to the desk by the window.
He fired at the sofa before I could blink.
Two large rats ran out in opposite directions. One of them found cover behind a bookcase, and the other darted frantically in circles, then headed straight into the fireplace. His tail caught fire.
Jasper fired again. At such close range, I was sure he wouldn’t miss, but he did. The rat spun, its tail and hair flaming until it ran back under the sofa.
Undaunted, Jasper turned and lunged at the bookcase, shook it wildly, books crashing everywhere, but no rat. Gun poised, he fired again.
Shocked by all this, I hardly noticed the smoke swirling behind me. That stupid rat hiding under the sofa had set the upholstery fringe on fire and the fabric was now shooting little flames.
I grabbed the sofa arm and threw it onto its back. With two pillows, I smothered the fiery fringe, the whole time Jasper kicking books in pursuit of the rat. Exasperated, he gave up and surveyed the damage. The burned rat lay on the floor, feet poked up. The sofa was an unsightly mess of black shreds and ash, still smoking.
“Well done, Mr. Samm. Good of you to take care of that. The problem with rats is that they have no fear of humans. How about a whiskey? We deserve it.”
My head pounding, my nausea more than a twinge now, I accepted the whiskey even though I’d vowed not to drink daytime. A beer binge once a week didn’t make one an alcoholic, although Elinor thought it did. That day, not too long ago, I’d hung over the toilet and saw hairy faces in the rusty water stains, I knew I had to stop.
We settled in with our glasses of iced Jim Beam and I began my interview questions about his painting Rabbles, as was my plan. Jasper had claimed to have painted it while shut up in his attic studio, reporting that during those solitary hours he had ceased to exist. And therefore able to render its award-winning genius. Of course, everyone believed this expression to be symbolic, except my editor. Conrad insisted there was far more to this idea than Jasper’s witty figure of speech. All artists have their secret creative methods—what was Jasper Peacock’s?
After a few friendly questions to make him feel safe and open, I asked him directly: “What did you learn from painting Rabbles?”
Jasper lifted his chin and gave a wild grin. “Rabbles awakened me. I exited from this world and into an inner realm. Totally real. Totally unreal. Out of space. Out of time.” He slugged the Jim Beam. “I was the path, you see.”
“The path? To …?”
“To truth. What else is there, Mr. Samm? One does not become enlightened easily. Mysteries of the unknowable. I can see you appreciate that we artists make the darkness conscious. Evil is within all of us.”
“Is Rabbles an evil painting? Many of your critics think it is. Is Rabbles your Muse?”
“Rabbles is a ghost.”
I gave him a minute to explain. He remained silent so I prompted with “and does this ghost haunt you?”
“Do you believe Rabbles haunts others?”
“Best guess would be yes.”
“Tell me about the process when you were painting Rabbles. What exactly happened during those hours? When you were brushing the paint onto the canvas, did you lose consciousness? What the hell did you mean by ceasing to exist?”
Jasper glanced to the window. A blackbird sat on a low tree branch, cawing. “If you listen closely, you can hear her voice in the caw of that crow.”
He shot his eyes back to me and focused hard on my face. From his expression, I could see that he was examining my cheekbones and nose. “Mr. Samm, how is your sex life? Are your orgasms clever performances or do you accomplish a true union with Elinor?”
I almost choked on the question. He knew about Elinor? Right, he probably checked me out and found Elinor’s silly Facebook photos and posts. But all that was over now. Jasper was fishing. I bristled at how he relished this tease into my personal life. He held his vision tight on me. Something beastly rolled inside his glare. A quivering fear hit me.
“Fear and trembling, eh, Mr. Samm? Are you fascinated by danger? I think you are. The Chinese often write danger with two brush strokes: one for danger and one for opportunity. The power in fear is so provocative, isn’t it?”
I followed his gaze to the pistol within quick reach on the end table. My whole body tightened up. I thought: just walk out; get fired, so what? Be a goof for a while. “I’m fine,” I said. “Let’s move on.”
Best to talk about a subject pleasing to him. At the murder trial Jasper had testified about a portrait of his wife that he treasured, but crime investigators never located it. The case of the missing, or hidden portrait, only added to the conflicting testimony on Jasper’s culpability in her death. “Tell me about when you painted your wife’s portrait. You were in your attic studio, correct?”
That got a smile from him. “Yes. I loved those hours painting Casandra. It was a nude, you know. Exquisite. I let no one view it.”
“Were you drinking when you painted her?”
“Never drink when I paint. One must maintain a clear perception of the narrative. Otherwise the mystery cannot emerge into the light. Agree?”
I nodded. “What mystery emerged when you painted Rabbles?”
Jasper leaned forward, ready to answer, then sat back. “When I hold the paintbrush between my fingers, I feel it intensely. A real energy, hot and cold at the same time.” He paused. “What’s remarkable is that the paintbrush feels my flesh as well. It feels my bones and my nerves. And, I think it feels my thoughts.”
“Is that so?”
“Don’t believe me, Mr. Samm?”
“Oh, it’s not that. I just don’t get why you think that’s true.”
“You’re being polite. I am telling you this is true because I experienced it first-hand. Pardon the pun.”
“Pardoned. If I held your paintbrush, would it feel me, or you?”
“You, of course. The brush becomes the tool. That is, if you were genuine in honoring the supernatural powers in your art. Honoring the inner realm.” He waved his palm. I could have sworn the air rocked.
“Inner realm. Hm. Okay. And how does that phenomenon happen? What mechanism is operating?”
Jasper put his head back, scanning the windows and daylight. “All right. I’ll tell you the secret. The supernatural is rich, full of infinite causes. Mystery of the unknowing. Listen carefully. It is the ghost in the painter who touches the ghost in the image.”
I repeated his words in my mind. “Hell of a mystery there.”
“Mystery has its own mystery. Do you believe my secret, Mr. Samm?”
“No freaking way, Mr. Peacock.”
“If you’re a scientist who says this or that cannot be done according to physical laws, then you wouldn’t believe me. But you’re not a scientist, are you, Mr. Samm? You’re a second-rate writer, attracted to fear, and suffering a deep loneliness for your lost love. Elinor is gone, is she not? Just like my Casandra?”
“This interview isn’t about me.” I wanted to slap him down. I kept my voice steady. True, I had lost Elinor, but not like he had lost Casandra—Elinor was not murdered or dead. Casandra Peacock had been hidden for years inside Jasper’s private life in their Hampshire estate, a virtual recluse. He kept her entirely outside his fame and culturati—a Rapunzel in the tower, waiting for her prince to rescue her.
“So, Mr. Samm, Elinor just up and abandoned you for another man, did she?”
I sighed at the cliché. Maybe it was the Jim Beam, but I answered him. “Hedge fund trader.”
“Ah-ha, wealth and prestige are irresistible temptations. But you’re quite good-looking yourself. You work out, yes? Virile and skilled in bed, no doubt. That didn’t hold her desires? Bah! Time erodes all beauty and strength. Anyone can see a kind soul shining from your chiseled face. You have remarkable cheekbones. The jaw is classic.”
I shifted among the pillows; cast my vision to my shoes. Damn. My ankles revealed one navy and one black sock. Should have worn boots. At least my white tie was clean and my blazer a tailored fit. But Jasper had already spied my wardrobe disgrace.
“So,” Jasper said, with a dramatic cross of his legs, showing off expensive boots. “Your Elinor found her Prince Charming and he stole her away, carrying her off to his castle. Happens to the best of us.”
“Is that what Casandra did? Was she leaving you?”
Jasper sucked in a breath. “I believe she wanted to escape me.”
“And you stopped her?”
“Not me, no. Rabbles.”
I put my pen down. “Rabbles stopped her? You’re not saying Rabbles murdered your wife.”
He looked down at his hands spread open on his lap. Quickly, he closed them into fists. “I don’t know. I suppose if stealing were akin to murder, then possibly.”
Possibly? Sometimes I think madness is justified if good art is created in the process. I didn’t think Jasper was a madman. I did wonder, though, if all his talk of the inner realm and ghosts in painted images wasn’t driving him there.
“Casandra is gone.” He choked back what might have been a sob and recovered himself. “What concerns me now is that all I have left of my wife is her portrait. This house and all the trimmings were her family’s possessions. But her portrait, that was mine! That is mine!”
“The portrait, yeah. News reports weren’t very clear on what happened to it. Missing or stolen, even buried in your backyard, some said.”
He seemed transfixed for a second, then snapped to attention. “Mr. Samm, how would you like to experience the paintbrush phenomenon, first-hand, as I did? Become a believer in the unknowable mysteries of life.”
“You mean touch your paintbrush?”
“I mean pursue the truth, even if the path seems illogical. Do you think that experience is worth the risk?”
“That depends. What’s the risk?”
Jasper lifted his pistol, stood, and vigorously slipped it into his holster. “Come. Let’s go upstairs to my attic studio. Consider yourself privileged. I let no one into my studio. Casandra only snuck in once.”
“Wait. What’s inside the studio?”
“The Casandra, of course.”
He was being crafty with me. I knew that. But here was my gold nugget. Risking death? Jasper was just being dramatic, tempting me with danger, romanticizing it; I knew this game. I had suspected, as others had, that The Casandra had been hidden by Jasper to conceal his guilt. Prosecutors speculated there was some blood or physical evidence of the murder on the painting. We may not own life completely, but we certainly own death when we cause it.
I followed him up three flights of stairs. Was it too late to change my mind and make excuses to leave? Deep silence moved around us like a flock of slow flying birds; lovely on the first stairwell. Then from the dim wall sconces, our shadows crossed and bumped on the second staircase. A stumbling buzz circled our ears, and I swore it was a hornet. By the third passage, I sensed I was climbing inside a Peacock landscape painting: lost in his ghost-haunted Weir Woods—mountains of darkness like tangled trees, scrub pines and brambles, all lightning-blasted. Above, a hovering angry sky flared knives of light. I loved it!
The invisible becoming visible and then invisible. That was Jasper’s esteemed talent, and I was experiencing it from the master himself. Me, Ben Samm, alive with crazy mesmerism. A Tom Wolfe, white suit, wicked grin devilment, ‘believing is seeing.’
At the third floor landing, he opened a wooden door into a room painted all white. Two standing iron lamps gave low light to an entirely vacant chamber. Not a single window. Just doors. Three white doors. Closets? Passages? I entered, walking toward the large canvas hung on an easel at far end of the room. Blank. White. Textured with lines and swirls, but no image. If nothingness could be something, this canvas held it expectantly.
I turned and crafted my sentence in a clear voice. “Not the kind of studio I expected for the illustrious Jasper Peacock. No stained floor with gobs of color-splatter, no jars of brushes or half-drawn sketches. No bright spotlights. No paints. This isn’t your studio.”
Jasper leaned against the open doorway, arms folded across his chest. “You mentioned in your email that you admired my painting of the white-tailed hornet.”
“Hollow Night. Yeah. The insect’s nest, the eelgrass. That dark fire practically throbbed with heat right off the canvas. I loved the blood-red pears. And the charred hornet manifested abnormal beauty. Rage and sweetness like I’ve never seen. Couldn’t stop looking at it. How did that painting come to you?”
“You know, Mr. Samm, that there’s no such insect as a white-tailed hornet, right?”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“Like God, I created that insect. When you create art, you create spirit. You give it your heartbeat. You infuse it with your singing blood. And sometimes, it lives beyond the canvas. Perhaps to exist forever.”
“I absolutely believe you. Where is The Casandra?”
“I’m so grateful you asked, Mr. Samm.” Jasper stepped back, “I knew you would.” He closed and locked the door.
By the time I reached the door, I could hear his footsteps descending the stairwell. “Jasper! Open this door. Jasper!” No amount of shouting or banging brought him back.
Alone in this vast attic, I surveyed my options. Those three doors, like silent pinnacles, begged me to open them. The first door had a useless black latch painted on it. At the second door, the brass knob wouldn’t turn. The third door wasn’t a door at all, just an insert of thick wood from ceiling to floor, like a barricade. I scanned the room again.
Jasper’s blank canvas appeared larger to me now. Life-size and fluid in its milky-white. What painting was this? Why was it here? Why did Jasper lock me in here with it? My heart pounding, my blood soaring, I touched the surface with my fingertips.
Warm and soft. Just like tender, female flesh. Behind me, languid air pulled me away in a slow motion. Rapid eyes. Mesmeric. A velvet head. Someone was crouching in the corner. It stretched up, cracking.
There she stood, hushed and motionless, with long, palsied hands. Mad flakes of colors floated around her. Everything blurred and waved—I could barely see the woman.
“Will you come to me?” she said, her voice like rustling tissue paper.
My chest tightened and I coughed fitfully to recover.
“I’m so grateful you are here.”
With every word, she drew out another of my breaths. Even my thoughts felt pulled out of me.
“The path is open.” She moved closer.
My heart stalled; my body shifted downward.
“A kiss will do. Just one kiss will seal it. You are so handsome. So muscular. Invulnerable. May I kiss your face?”
I began to rock, fighting to inhale a clean breath. Soon, I would collapse under her desire.
“Permit me this voyage back. Please?”
Another heartbeat lost. Another breath she stole from my lungs. How demure she was now. Glassy, like blue water. Drowsy and graceful. A beauty, with her lips upon mine. Sweet as sage.
I grew suddenly numb when an undertow took hold, some wicked thrust. A cleavage split my head. I fought the pressures to hold myself together. This was no fantasy. No masquerade of events. I embraced her so the undertow could not drag her away. I kissed her again and again, holding her tight. We carried one breath. My blood spoke, calling her into my mind.
I believed, this is a waterfall and we are falling through it. This is a tunnel and we are climbing out of it. This is thunder and we are tumbling over it. This woman and I, inside and outside and nowhere.
We rolled with the rhythm, drifting in, drifting down into white, nubby fabric.
Sunlight broke through the attic studio with its three doors flung open to three dormer windows. I sat up just as Jasper entered the studio. He helped me to my feet, brushed off my blazer. A tear escaped to his cheek, and it was then that I saw he was filled with emotion. Quickly, he turned me around to face the far end of the studio. “There she is,” he said, his voice breaking.
The canvas was no longer a white blank texture. The Casandra hung on the easel in full painted glory, borders laden with flowers and fruit. Colors luxuriant, they nearly moved forward to touch me. And the woman inside the image radiated. She was mild-eyed and melancholy, dressed in slow-dropping veils over curving breasts and ripe thighs. Her dewy clefts drew my eye and held me there. All I could think of was the marble Venus de’ Medici. And with that thought, Casandra’s body flushed like a sunset. I couldn’t stop looking at her. I couldn’t move.
“You are her prince after all, Mr. Samm.”
His words stung. I was no prince. I didn’t know what to think. What reality did I experience here? I don’t know—such a little phrase and yet it held everything.
Jasper closed his eyes in a gratified sigh. He opened them with gentleness on me. “Every day brings new choices. ‘Dark and marvelous’ you said. Is it a surprise I chose you for this?”
I didn’t want to answer. How could I account for these events? I couldn’t. Then, as if by Jasper’s calculated design, a cold gleam flashed from the inner side of the door at the dormer window. Another painting hung there.
Rabbles stood in all his painted splendor. The devil’s mask burst, fell to the bottom of the painting and settled in pieces at the forefront.
Jasper lifted his right hand, palm up to the rolling air.
Rabble’s pointed figure of light released a hawking cry—a voice I was sure came from my own throat. His body twisted into a chiseled, muscular structure, trimmed and tailored. High cheekbones, clenched classic jaw, eyes wide open. Heat shot from my heart. Who was that specter inside Jasper Peacock’s painting? I shuddered. Myself a mystery, now staring back at me. All dark and marvelous.
Paula Cappa is the recipient of a Chanticleer Book Award and American Book Fest’s Best Books Award Finalist for her novel Greylock. She also earned the prestigious Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Readers’ Favorite International Bronze Medal for Supernatural Suspense, and is a Gothic Readers Book Club Award Winner in Outstanding Fiction. She is the author of Greylock, The Dazzling Darkness, and Night Sea Journey—print editions published by Crispin Books, Milwaukee WI. Night Sea Journey was featured as an on-air reading at Riverwest Radio, Fearless Reader Radio in Wisconsin. Cappa’s short fiction has appeared in Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, Whistling Shade Literary Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sirens Call Ezine, Every Day Fiction, Fiction365, Twilight Times Ezine, and in anthologies Journals of Horror: Found Fiction, Mystery Time, and Human Writes Literary Journal. She is a freelance copy editor and writes a short story blog, Reading Fiction, at paulacappa.wordpress.com. Paula Cappa is Co-Chair of the Pound Ridge Authors Society in Pound Ridge, NY.