“My name's Tad,” the large man said, taking Jerome's bag and easel in hand. “After you. The car is on the main street. We thought it best not to bother with the lane.” Jerome went down the stairs and together they walked towards the street.
“Will your boss Mr. Landgrave be there?” Jerome asked nervously.
“Mr. Landgrave is not my boss, Mr. van Starke,” Tad said. “He was representing my boss you could say.”
“I think I might have forgotten to lock my front door,” Jerome mumbled somewhat unconvincingly.
“No, it was locked,” Tad said. “I checked as you made your way down the stairs. Force of habit.”
“Oh,” Jerome said, taking in a deep breath, “thanks,” and walked along in silence.
“Here we are.”
An exceedingly long, seemingly anonymous looking black luxury car idled by the curb. A man on the other side of the street walking his dog, stood watching. The trunk rose in slow motion as they approached and Tad placed Jerome's supplies within.
“The best seat in the house,” Tad said holding the rear door open for him.
Looking in he could make out two pairs of leather seats facing each other. He heard a woman's voice as he sat down.
“Life gives us pieces of the puzzle each day. We can recognize them or not. Sometimes we are incapable of seeing them until much later when they have merged and transfigured."
“The uncontrollable is always present. The wild card. The metaphorical asteroid on an unknown trajectory.”
The driver's side door opened and Tad sat down in the seat facing the back.
“We live in a world of answers. Answers are all around us. But it is the questions that come from within us that will prove to be our truest guides.”
“Sorry,” Tad said, pressing a button. “Just some motivational data I was listening to. Sit back and relax, enjoy the ride. It will be about 40 minutes to our destination.”
Jerome couldn't see the driver due to the dark glass panel between them. The windows too, were of such a tint that he could not see where they were going. He looked at Tad as he buckled himself in. He was not what most would consider a handsome man. His broad nose and his boomerang jaw seemed incongruously connected with the softness of his blue eyes and the deep cleft under his lower lip.
“Would you like a refreshment Mr. van Starke? We have Perrier, Canada Dry, fresh orange juice, or filtered water.” He pressed a button and a little door opened revealing the a mini bar. Jerome reached over and took a water.
“Thanks. You can call me Jerome, or Jerry if you prefer,” he said before sipping the water. “This is quite a car. What is it?”
“It's been de-badged, so I would be surprised if you could tell who the maker was. Sometimes it's better not to know.” Tad ran his right hand along the leather trim of the door and said, “I can tell you it is the most secure and powerful vehicle of its kind on the market. Relax. Our chauffeur is an excellent driver.”
“How can he see without the rear view mirror?”
Jerome watched as Tad flourished a pair of dark framed reading glasses, withdrew his hand held device from the inside of his suit jacket, and begin to check what he assumed to be messages. He looked at Tad's large broad hands and their finely manicured fingernails as they manipulated the small keyboard like shiny opaque shields parrying digital attacks, sweeping up and sideways, tapping and typing, a warfare of ones and zeros. He noticed Tad look over his glasses at him briefly.
“Are you one of the unconnected?” Tad asked.
“Yes,” Jerome said, stretching out his legs.
Tad handed over his device. “If you're contemplating getting connected, a new model of this phone will be coming out early next year. If you're not in a rush,” he added with a half smile.
Jerome handled the seductive smooth black phone, a Blackberry, before handing it back like some sort of unknown artifact from the future. His old plastic desk phone seemed like a relic or an antique in comparison. Tad put it in his pocket and then opened a drawer between the seats and withdrew a tablet computer. “I like this one for reading though,” he said. “I like a good mystery, The Cat Who series by Braun, and the Aunt Dimity series by Atherton.” The light from the tablet reflected off his belt buckle and cuff links and made his crisp white dress shirt glow. “Do you know those series?”
Jerome's initial perceptions of the man before him had fallen away like the petals on a spent tulip. Motivational data? Reading glasses? Blackberry? Cat Who? Aunt Dimity? “Um, no, I don't know those books,” he said feeling illiterate.
“You should try them. They relieve your mind of daily concerns. I'm just starting the 14th in The Cat Who series, The Cat Who Wasn't There.” Tad was tapping and sweeping the bright screen with intent. “Here,” he said handing over the rather heavy tablet to him,”read the first paragraphs and see what you think.” Tad withdrew an identical tablet from the drawer and started that one up. “We have a few of these loaded and ready to go.” Tad touched a few buttons and trays were swung into position complete with angled supports for the tablets.
The title reminded Jerome of T. S. Eliot's poem, McCavity the Mystery Cat. He began to read the story and yet after ten minutes or so, his eyelids began to feel heavy; the smooth riding vehicle with its sumptuous heated seats overcame him, and he felt his neck weaken. Soon his head fell back into the luxurious leather and he was asleep.
“The eagle has landed,” Tad said, shaking Jerome's left shoulder.
Jerome awoke, feeling drowsy, embarrassed. He wiped his mouth, stretched and rubbed his eyes. The tablet computers and the trays were gone. As Tad got out on his side, Jerome could see that they were in a parking garage of some kind. Then his door opened so he unbuckled and got out. Standing before him holding the door open was a veritable clone of Tad, complete with chauffeur's hat and dark sunglasses. Jerome looked around to see Tad closing the trunk, the bag and easel under his arm.
“This is my brother Barry,” Tad said. “Yes, identical twins.”
Looking around he could see five very expensive cars of different colours and makes with room for others. He followed Tad, and Barry followed him making him feel like a baby elephant in an old time circus act. Through a heavy door they came to an elevator. In awkward silence they rose effortlessly to the third floor and then began walking towards the far side of what Jerome thought must be an enormous private house. They turned a corner in the corridor and reached a final door which Tad opened to reveal a large studio space filled with natural light. Half the ceiling was window glass at a forty-five degree angle. Jerome took in a bookshelf, a mini fridge, an upholstered chair, various stools and chairs and a very large antique wood easel. He felt the pressure rise.
“There's a bathroom just through there, if you would like to freshen up. And the fridge has fresh sandwiches, apples and beverages if you're feeling a bit . . . peckish.” He shook Jerome's hand. “Make yourself at home. Help yourself. Don't be shy.”
“Thanks very much Tad. This is great.” Left alone, he approached the windows that rose to the glass roof, and looked out at the what appeared to be hills in the distance. In the foreground he could see finely tended lawns, gravel drives, and equestrian fencing to the far right with a few horses, their heads down, noses in the grass. The bookshelf held a small stereo system, and many books on art interspersed with other books. Literature mainly. Vernon Lee, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Dickinson.
He felt for his watch and realized he had forgotten to put it on this morning. He could see it on the counter of his bathroom. He had to assume it was nearing half past eleven.
After washing his face and hands and having a pee, he wandered around, looked in the mini fridge, and then sat before the easel, preparing his pencils and brushes. He wondered if his subject would mind being photographed. It would help him as he worked at home. His preliminary sketches were the key but photos would definitely help his memory.
When he heard the door open, he spun about on the stool and stood up. An attractive woman, about 5' 6”, perhaps in her mid forties, started walking towards him, her dark red hair flowing down upon her white terry cotton robe. She was bare foot.
“I hope Thaddeus and Bartholomew treated you well?” she asked reaching out her hand to shake Jerome's. He shook her soft hand, vanilla and lavender fragrances flowing over him in her wake.
“Yes,” he managed, holding on to her hand perhaps rather longer than necessary. “Yes, they were very efficient. Thank you.” Thaddeus? Bartholomew? More petals falling.
She walked around him to the windows. “We have been experiencing more fog than usual. Though,” turning around to face Jerome, “I imagine it will soften the light and be more . . forgiving.”
“I would think any light would be ideal for your fine features.”
“You can call me Lucrezia by the way,” she said before walking back to the upholstered chair facing the window in front of the easel. She crossed her legs, the robe slipping to reveal her right calf and part of her thigh. She reached up and drew her long hair together and tied it back.
Jerome ran his fingers through his hair and breathed deeply. “I have a few questions about the painting,” Jerome began. “First I'd like to know if a modern canvas is acceptable, or whether you would prefer complete authenticity with a wood panel? And secondly, if you would be willing to let me photograph you as an aid to my memory.”
“Canvas is fine. As for photographs, I am afraid your sketches will have to do.” She raised her shoulders and stretched her neck back and forth.
Jerome stared at her fine cheek bones and strong jaw line. Much determination therein. Her lips were full, especially her lower lip. His pencil flourished lines and shades. Each of her long lashed dark green eyes had a beautifully flared inner canthus. Her appearance was a contrast to the original. Her mouth was larger, her nose was not quite so long, her eyes much darker, and her overall bone structure bolder. This living Lucrezia was much more seductively beautiful than the original.
“So Mr. van Starke, how did you become a painter?”
He continued scratching away, looking at her for a few moments between flourishes, his eyes dark with concentration. “I really don't know. It's all I remember doing.” He scratched and smudged the graphite and rubbed the paper. “From a young age I found myself at home in art. Second nature I guess.” He picked up his stool and got much closer to her, wanting to capture her eyes. “You can call me Jerome.”
“Jerome. Such an old fashioned name,” she said crossing her arms. “Were you born in Montreal?”
“Yes,” he said, looking deep in her eyes. “Thirty seven years ago. My Mother brought me up on her own. A single child.” He turned his head sideways and looked at her nose. “My Mother was Dutch and my Father was French. I've never met him.”
A silence descended upon them. A crow called persistently in the distance.
“When I first saw the portrait at the Uffizi,” she said softly, “I was immediately taken with her. She was so vulnerable, so real.” She looked at Jerome's eyes and wondered if he saw something likewise within her. “I know it must seem unusual to desire such a portrait.”
“Not at all.” He rested his hands on the sketch pad. “Your response to a work of art is very natural.” He bent his head down and worked away. “A single painting can evoke such a breadth of responses. Did you suffer from Stendhal syndrome when you visited Florence?”
She laughed lightly. “No,” she said, resting her hands on the arms of the chair, “I imagine my fortitude was strong. I paced myself.”
“Could you possibly push the collar of your robe away a bit so I can draw your neck and ears.”
A slight flush came to her cheeks as she gently pulled the robe apart revealing more than Jerome had anticipated. Her well kept figure was fuller than the original Lucrezia. He was used to the naked body, but he felt the intimacy heavy in the air.
“Is Lucrezia really your name?” he asked, trying to remain professional.
She didn't respond at first. He looked up at her eyes to see if he had overstepped his position. “I'm sorry, it's none of my business,” he said. “Forgive me.” He continued sketching. “I too remember seeing the original when I was in my twenties,” he said hoping to recover the momentum. “It is a moving painting. Yes, very real.”
“Have you read the novel, The Wings of the Dove?” she asked.
“No, I haven't. I know of it of course, but I've yet to find my way there."
“The painting is referred to,” she said mysteriously. “My reaction was rather different as you say, from the female character in the novel.”
“I'll have to look it up,” he said. “I'll just work on your hands now if I may.”
Lucrezia didn't close her robe, but merely displayed her fingers as they were found in the original. “I can lend you a copy if you would like. We have numerous copies of works by Mr. James.”
Jerome looked up into her eyes. “That is very kind. Thank you.” A thought came to him. “Perhaps I could use the book for the painting. Have your right hand lying upon the open pages of The Wings of the Dove?”
She turned her head sideways. “We shall see.” The light shifted. The crow called out once more breaking the silence. Lucrezia looked past Jerome out the windows and could make out in the distance, on the top most branch of a very tall evergreen tree, the proud dark winged creature. Calling. Calling. She felt Jerome touch her hand, she looked down and saw the graphite upon her fair skin. Pencil dust she thought. Pencil dust.
© ralph patrick mackay