You Will Welcome Deathbywantsomefun1951©
Some may remember sitting in a dark room, watching Rod Serling's "Night Gallery." Each episode began with an unusual painting, about which Mr. Serling would deliver a brief monolog, perhaps something like this:
"Consider, if you will, one of the most well-known and oft-copied works of a man named Henry, scholar, man of the cloth, and self-taught painter of the different and disturbing. Like many artists, Henry sketched sometimes before he mixed his pigments. The subject of our tale is a simple pencil drawing, perhaps a preliminary study for our friend Henry's "The Nightmare" series of paintings.
"Carl Singleton is a would-be art dealer. He will tell you about his find himself."
Not many people showed up for the widow Collins' sale that cold September day. The house was slated for demolition to allow a new highway to be built. Apparently, her fight with the state to keep the place took too much out of the old woman. They found her in the parlor, hanging from a noose. Her suicide note was taped to an over-turned chair. The rats were well-fed by old Mrs. Collins.
As the owner of "Carl's Curiosities," I sometimes act as "dollar man" at estates sales and auctions. I'm the guy who pays a dollar for any lot the auctioneer can't sell for more. There's a lot of trash, but sometimes there will be vintage costume jewelry, antique dishes or photos, or clothing I can put together to sell as costumes. Often, I'll get stuff I can use around my apartment and store, like hardware and garbage bags. Fifty dollars' worth of auction rejects usually includes at least that much in useable household or office supplies plus items I can sell for a tidy profit.
The sign outside says, "Antiquities, Oddities, and Art From Around the Globe." Some of my inventory fits that description, but a lot of it's junk. The store is basically an indoor flea market.
Some things the auction crew brought out of the Collins house smelled of death. I got stuck with all of that, a dollar added to my bill for every musty item of furniture, linens, or clothing tainted with corpse-stench. Many lots were cardboard boxes filled with God knew what. That was common with this type of auction. A worker would bring an over-stuffed carton to the auction block, and people bid based on what the auctioneer said and displayed of the contents. Sometimes, I would buy a box of old towels and find pearl earrings, old coins, or tools, too.
A helper brought a box to the auctioneer, sparking a frenetic monolog. "Okay! What do we have here? Items from the bedroom! Got some un-opened shampoo, light bulbs, some kind of drawing! Who wants it for fifty bucks? Fifty? It's a pencil sketch, folks! Looks old! Frame it and hang it over the mantel! Fifty? C'mon, folks! Fifty? Fifty? Twenty-five! They're halogen bulbs! None in the package, but they might work! Ten bucks! Gimme ten!"
He milked it like a good auctioneer does with every lot, but soon it joined the pile in my truck.
I stopped at the landfill on the way back to the shop. Rufus met me at the dock. "Whoa, Carl! What'd them boys do? Stuff what was left of that old witch in one o' them boxes?"
"I got stuck with some real junk. I wish I had a gas mask. The dust and mildew is bad enough without the rotting corpse smell."
"Well, c'mon, drive up on the scale. Ah'll help you unload."
As we struggled with some ruined furniture, Rufus said, "Wonder what it was like when they found her. They say she was dead two weeks."
"I went inside to look around, but I couldn't take it," I said. "I could have made money from some of this stuff, but it's ruined."
"Ah wouldn't trust nuthin' from that woman's place. She was a witch or into voodoo or devil worship or somethin'."
"There were no pentagrams, chicken entrails, or skulls, so I doubt that. I think she was just a lonely, bitter old woman. Her husband shot himself in their bed years ago, you know. Living in that horrible old house where he died took its toll."
"All's I know is, Carl, if you find anythin' weird, or a Bible with pages tore out or stuff wrote funny, call a preacher."
"You watch too many movies, Rufus. There are no witches or evil spirits. You know that."
"Ah know what's good fo' mah immortal soul, too."
I drove back to the shop with the windows open. After a long shower, I went downstairs to unpack my treasures. There was the usual cheap costume jewelry, bundles of old letters, unused packs of shoelaces and thumbtacks, and a few pieces of nice cutlery. Eventually, I got to the box with the light bulbs.
One of the bulbs worked. I tested it in a desk lamp I bought somewhere. Nice and bright. No one wanted to buy the lamp anyway, so I put it on my desk and started examining the rest of the contents of the carton.
At first, I was going to throw the drawing into a box of stuff going to the trash, but then I took a better look at it. The auctioneer was right. It was old, or at least, the paper the artist used looked old. The drawing itself was just plain odd. I dialed my phone.
"Main Street Rare Books," a familiar voice answered.
"Hey Frank! It's Carl. Are you busy?"
"Not too busy for you, buddy."
"Could you take a look at something I bought?"
"What's the title?"
"It's not a book. It's a pencil sketch. Looks like a woman with a monkey sitting on her chest and a horse in the background."
"You're supposed to be the art dealer, Carl."
"True, but you're the one who knows paper. That's what I'm curious about. I think it could be pretty old."
"How brown is it?"
"It's not, really."
"Come over now. Let's see what you have."
I put up my "Back Soon!" sign and walked down the street. Between customers, we spent time in Frank's office, studying my find under a magnifying glass.
"That's a really strange drawing. A dead woman, a baboon, and a horse," Frank said.
"What's that written on the back?" I asked.
"'Consideres hoc vel pati. Vos excipiam mortem.' It's Latin. I'm pretty rusty. Let's see...." Frank rummaged through a messy bookcase behind his desk for a Latin-English translation dictionary. "Okay, it says something like, 'Respect this, or suffer. You will welcome death.' Is that a curse?"
"God, Frank, you're as bad as Rufus at the landfill. When he helped me unload the junk from the sale, he told me to call a preacher if I found anything 'wrote funny'."
"This is from the Collins' auction?" Frank asked, turning the drawing over and studying the image again.
"Yeah. Look at it. Rufus would run screaming for the hills if he saw this and heard your translation."
"Did you get anything else from the house with hand-writing on it? Maybe we can compare the penmanship," Frank said.
"There were a bunch of letters that looked like they may have been from Collins to his wife while he was in England during World War Two. Stamp collectors come into my shop sometimes, so I saved a box of that stuff."
"Go get it. If we can figure out who wrote this, it may tell us something about the sketch."
An hour later, Frank and I agreed that the hand-writing on the back of my appeared to be by Mr. Collins, who shot himself some fifty years earlier. With some on-line searching, we found his obituary from the local newspaper. Mr. and Mrs. Collins were recluses. Mr. Collins was reported to have been "in ill health for some time" before he took his own life. Mrs. Collins was outside with a zoning officer serving a complaint about the appearance of their property. They both heard the gunshot, and they found the body and the note together. The police and the coroner said it was a clear-cut suicide.
"Collins was a brick-layer. Where would he have learned to write in Latin?" Frank wondered.
"My grandpa was a brick-layer, and he far from stupid. Maybe Collins was an old-school Catholic. He was pretty good with a pencil, if this is his work."
"Carl, if Collins drew this, he used old paper. If this is his work, it can't even be eighty years old, since he'd be ninety-three if he were still alive. This paper looks hand-made. The top and sides are straight, like they were cut with a knife and straight-edge, but the bottom looks like someone tore it from a bigger piece. This could be a lot older than eighty years."
"It seems familiar. Maybe it's a sketch someone made before doing a painting. I'll have to do some research, but I can't shake the idea that I've seen this idea before."
"Maybe Collins knew it was valuable, and that's why he wrote that."
"Could be, but it's hard for me to believe the guy was a connoisseur of the arts. I got stuck with some of the framed 'masterpieces' from the house, too -- paint-by-numbers with mistakes, dogs playing poker. and Elvis on black velvet."
Frank said, "Sounds like old man Collins believed in self-euthanasia. I don't know how well I'd do suffering with a terminal illness."
"Yeah, but it has to be pretty bad to shoot yourself in the mouth where your wife will find you."
"What's more bizarre than that was the way I heard she spent the next fifty years," Frank said. "Apparently no one saw her much after that. They say she had her groceries delivered and got packages in the mail, but she didn't go outside. I can't imagine why she stayed locked up in the house where her husband killed himself. She even refused to move out when the state offered her a lot of money for the property."
"Do you know a way to test the paper to see how old it is?"
"You could send it to a lab I've used for non-destructive testing, but it's expensive. I'd hate to see you spend a lot of money on a sketch that isn't worth anything. Since I live and breathe old books, I know enough to run a few crude tests myself on just a piece from the edge down there where it's torn. If you frame it, you'll have to trim it anyway."
He tore a sliver of paper from the ragged bottom edge, sealed it in a plastic bag, and put it on his workbench. We talked a bit more, and then I took my drawing and went home to finish picking through the late Mrs. Collins' trash.
After a few hours, I realized I should be hungry, but I wasn't. In fact, my stomach didn't feel all that good. My eyes and nose burned, probably from dust and mold on some of the things I was handling. When an ugly headache threatened to join my other discomforts, I went upstairs to bed, hoping to sleep through the worst of whatever bug I was catching.
Before dawn, sirens woke me, fire trucks screaming past my building and stopping close by. I opened my window and smelled smoke, so I got dressed and went downstairs to the sidewalk. Flames were rolling from a building in the next block. Frank's store and his apartment above it were fully engulfed.
"What happened?" I asked a woman in pajamas and an overcoat.
"There was some sort of explosion, and then there was fire everywhere. They think he's still in there."
The roof collapsed a moment later, and fire crews directed more of their attention to the preservation of neighboring buildings. There was nothing to be done for Main Street Rare Books or its owner.
I stood on the sidewalk, sick with grief, watching Frank's funeral pyre. There was no point in hurrying back to my shop to open up for the day. Fire equipment and hoses blocked the street. I wasn't sure I could face customers, anyway.
Later that day, I was in my office in the back of the store, sorting through more of the treasures from the Collins sale and watching a report on the local news about the fire. "Officials have confirmed that a body was found in the wreckage of the building. We also have unsubstantiated reports indicating that arson is suspected in this tragic pre-dawn fire."
The bell over the door jingled. Two men in suits walked into my store. I went out to meet them.
"Are you the owner?" the taller one asked.
"Yes, Carl Singleton. How may I help you?"
"I'm Detective Joshua Hayes, and this is my partner, Detective Mario Bertoli. We're with the Homicide Division. We'd like to ask you a few questions, Mr. Singleton."
"You have the news on, sir. The fire at Main Street Rare Books this morning was intentionally set, and we believe it was the owner's remains that were found inside. Until the coroner tells us he died of natural causes before the fire started, we're treating this as an arson death, which means it's a homicide. We understand you knew the owner, Frank Brown."
"Yes, I did. Wait! What's this about? Do you think I had something to do with it?"
"Not at all, sir. If we did, Detective Bertoli would have read you your rights. We need help. Anything you know could point us in the right direction."
"How well did you know Brown?" Detective Bertoli asked.
"We've been close friends since high school."
Hayes looked up from his notepad. "When was the last time you saw him or spoke with him?"
"I was at his shop yesterday afternoon. He knew a lot about old paper. I bought something at the Collins auction I hoped he could help me identify."
"What was that, sir?"
"A drawing. Guys, are you sure it was Frank in there?"
Bertoli said, "He hasn't been seen since the fire. His car was in the parking lot. We're trying to get dental records now, and other members of our squad are reviewing security video from remote feeds at the company that monitored Brown's alarm system and from neighboring businesses. We should be able to see who came and went from the building before the fire."
"You'll see me going in the front door of the shop around four in the afternoon, and then leaving and coming back again from the camera on the drugstore across the street, and the pizza shop's camera should show me leaving again around six. Frank locked up the front before I left, and I went out the back."
"Did Mr. Brown have any enemies?" Bertoli asked.
"No. Frank was well-liked. He kept a nice shop and helped his neighbors. He did volunteer remodeling work on slum homes and a church, for pity's sake."
"It doesn't make sense to us either, sir," Hayes said. "Everything we've learned so far says Mr. Brown was a model citizen. That's why we don't understand why someone would kill him and burn down his shop."
"Wait a minute. Kill him? Are you saying his death wasn't an accident? That someone torched the place after they killed him?"
"Preliminary investigation indicates the point of origin for the fire was the ground floor room we understand Brown used for repairing and cleaning books. That's where the body was found. Did he often go downstairs and work in the middle of the night?" Bertoli asked.
"No. Frank's the most habit-driven guy I know. He goes to bed right after the eleven o'clock news and he needs his alarm clock to wake him up at seven. We joke about that. He says he doesn't understand how anyone can function on less than seven hours of sleep. He says he never wakes up in the middle of the night. That's part of the reason he got that high-tech security system. He was afraid he'd sleep through a break-in or a fire."
"Do you know if he kept flammable materials in his work room? Solvents? Adhesives?"
"The fumes can be very harmful to old books. Frank used all natural, water-soluble cleaners and glues. I don't think any of that stuff burns."
"There's accelerant residue in several areas on the main floor, especially in the area of the workroom. It appears that the fire was deliberately set in that room, and that Mr. Brown, if that proves to be his body, was there when it started or got there soon after."
"So you're saying that someone broke into the store, went into the workroom and poured flammable liquid around and lit it while he was in there?"
"Possibly, or it's possible he discovered the fire and was overcome. We'll know more when we see the video from the security company. Do you know who else has keys to the building?"
"I don't think anyone does. Frank changed all the locks after those break-ins around here last year. Why?"
"All the doors were locked and dead-bolted, including the one on the upstairs fire escape. You need keys to do that from outside," Bertoli said.
They left soon afterward, each taking one of my business cards and giving me their own. "We are truly sorry for your loss, Mr. Singleton. We'll keep you updated on anything we learn."
I hung out the "Closed" sign when I locked the door behind them. Upstairs in my kitchen, I poured a generous glass of whiskey. This made no sense. Frank was one of the few people I considered a friend. We had known each other two-thirds of our lives. I spent as much time at his apartment as he did at mine. Now he was the victim of a "locked room" murder.
I made dinner and picked at my food, not feeling any appetite. The whiskey calmed my nerves, but it was sour in my stomach, and soon, my head started to pound again, just like the night before. I went to bed and dreamed of musty old houses, the smell of death, and fire in the night.
The phone rang about nine the next morning. "Mr. Singleton? This is Detective Hayes. Is there some time today when we could talk?"
"On the phone or in person?" I replied.
"We'd like to show you some video, and it would be easier if you could come here. Please believe, sir, we in no way suspect you of any wrongdoing whatsoever. We need help understanding what we have."
A half hour later, I sat in an office in front of a large monitor. At home, I felt emotionally drained and tired but reasonably healthy. Now, I felt sick. Again I wondered how bad it would get. I didn't want to be across town, especially since it meant I would have to concentrate on poor Frank's death.
Bertoli pointed at the screen. "That's you leaving, shown on the pizza shop camera. The time stamp shows it was three minutes after six."
Hayes said, "We're going to skip a lot here. All cameras show no one entering or leaving the building until much later. There were a few pedestrians out front and some pizza shop customers in the back lot, but nothing involving the book store itself. Brown set his security system to remote-monitor all cameras at eleven thirty-four. Video from the drugstore shows the last light going off in his bedroom a few minutes later."
"Here we are, two forty-nine," Bertoli said. "Brown turned off the alarm on his back door then, and the pizza shop camera shows it opening."
"That's Frank," I said.
"Yes," Hayes said, "getting in his car and leaving the parking lot. Nothing else shows up on any video for well over an hour. Skip to the pizza cam at four twenty-one, Mario."
The video showed Frank pulling back into his parking place and opening the trunk. "Are those gas cans?" I asked.
"They are," Hayes answered. "He carries eight of them inside, two at a time. They appear to be five-gallon cans, full, with the way he's carrying them. That's forty gallons of gasoline in total, about eighty pounds per load. Brown's medical records indicate he had a bad back, but he seemed to lift and carry them easily."
Bertoli paused the video. "When he goes inside the last time, it's four twenty-five. His security system alerted the fire department at four twenty-seven, and the pizza shop cam shows fire at the same time."
"What about the time in between?" I asked.
Bertoli said, "Brown's security system also included interior surveillance on the ground floor. Video was stored on-site, but the security company had a remote feed, too."
"Are you saying you have video of the fire starting?"
"How did it start?"
"Mr. Singleton, it appears your friend committed suicide."
"Brown lit the fire," Hayes said.
"That can't be right. Show me."
The cops looked at each other. Then Bertoli pushed the button.
The interior cameras showed the back door of the building being opened from the outside. Frank appeared, carrying two cans, which he opened and placed in the middle of the sales floor area of the store. He went back outside and came in with two more, one of which went against either end wall of the front part of the building. The next two went in the open doorway to the stairwell that led upstairs. When he brought in the last two cans, he set them down to deadbolt the door and re-arm the intrusion alarm. Then he carried the cans into his work room.