Keeping My Hand In

The apartment was… well, not a wreck, but certainly not the way Neal kept it. There were papers scattered around, books pulled off the shelves. Nothing torn or broken, but the paintings and prints had all been taken down, and the small wall safe had been attacked inexpertly by a pry bar. It remained firmly shut.

On the other side of the room, a gap showed in the crown molding, a long crack extending downward from it along the corner.

Peter pulled at the edge of the molding and a section of the wall came away in his hand, revealing a dark space behind it. In it stood a tall, narrow wooden crate.

Paintings.

The Raphael? Here?

He slid the crate out and opened it.

There were three canvases inside, and he cautiously slid them out together.

At first glance, the one on top looked like a Renoir, until he slid it out further and got a good look at the subject.

Not a Renoir, despite the palette and the brushwork. Not remotely.

The young woman lay on her back, surrounded by lush greenery, naked from the waist down, bare legs flung wide against a bountiful heap of white ruffled petticoats, so white their shadows were luminous blue. Her flesh almost glowed, cream-rose, and Peter had to restrain himself from touching the surface of the painting. Her hands were above her head, bound with a brightly-flowered silk scarf, and a matching scarf covered her eyes. Her bright, moist lips were parted in a delighted smile, showing a glimpse of pearly teeth, and her dark, soft hair lay tousled about her head. Her dark-blue bodice was partially unlaced, and her breasts were half-exposed.

It was, unmistakably, Elizabeth.

Rage warred with sheer aesthetic awe in Peter's mind. He could hardly bear to look and yet couldn't tear his eyes away. The painting was exquisite, unabashedly pornographic, and a miracle of technique, and the subject was… his wife.

His wife.

He caught himself up sharply as he realized he'd been thinking back, trying to remember any interval when there would have been time for her to pose for him—no. No. Not possible. And the thought of Neal working from a photograph was even more ludicrous than the thought of El posing for one.

With shaking hands he lifted the painting off the stack, laid it face-down on the table, and looked at the next one.

A Wyeth, said his first instinct, from the Helga period. Except the spare, dark-green iron bedstead with its yellowed, striped-tick mattress held not one woman but two. Both nude, positioned head to crotch, both looking up with stunned, blank expressions as if interrupted in a very, very intimate moment.

The one further from the viewer, with her head toward the right, was Diana. The other was Christie.

Both were hyperrealistic, every hair and pore and Diana's tattoo faithfully rendered under a merciless, stark, northern light. Nothing soft or warm about it, cold and clinical and unsparing, no joy, no tenderness, not even voyeuristic pleasure. Peter thought of identifying bodies at the morgue, and felt sick.

He turned this painting face-down atop the first and looked at the last.

Goya. Goya's palette at any rate, his blurred brushstrokes and smoky apocalyptic sky, but had Goya ever painted Saint Sebastian?

If he had, it would undoubtedly have looked like this. A lean young man, naked but for a mere twist of drapery, cruelly bound to a rough, splintered stake. Blood thinned with sweat sheeted down his torso, his arms and legs, from the dozen arrows that pierced him. He was in three-quarter profile, head thrown back in his death agony, limbs twisted and distorted, and his left hand was pinned to the stake by one of the arrows.

The graceful, long-fingered hand clawing at the air, the young, handsome face distorted in a rictus of pain, the unseeing blue eyes, the dark curls plastered to his neck by blood and sweat, were Neal's.

Peter looked at it for a long moment, then drew a shaky breath.

Quickly but carefully, as if they were the masterpieces they mocked, he slid the paintings back into their crate, secured it, wiped it down, returned it to its hiding place and re-secured the molding. After a moment he wiped down the wall too, but lightly, sloppily. Better to mimic an intruder leaning on the wall or brushing past it than do a too-thorough job and make it obvious he'd removed his prints.

"June?"

Neal's voice, sounding anxious, almost panicky, as he jogged up the stairs.

"It's me, Neal," said Peter, schooling his face to the stern, focused look appropriate to an investigation. Okay if he looked and sounded a little rattled, it was natural after a break-in at a friend's house, too close to home, too sharp a reminder of when El was taken.

He looked up as Neal came in. "Somebody broke in," he said. "June came home and noticed the door was ajar; she didn't come in. Called me instead of the cops in case, you know…" he trailed off.

"In case there was something incriminating lying around?" Neal asked. "Was there?"

"Nope," said Peter. "Looks like they rummaged around some, but I don't see anything obviously missing. You'll be a better judge of that, of course. Want me to stick around?"

"No. No, I've got it. But if you could ask NYPD to step up patrols for a while, it might make June feel better."

"Can do," said Peter. "If you get any ideas about who it might have been, let me know, okay?"

"Sure thing," said Neal. "Thanks for coming."

"Don't mention it," said Peter. "See you in the morning." He pulled out his phone as he headed downstairs, and called June to give her the all-clear.

He took a long, long walk before he caught the subway home. He wished he'd taken up smoking, or that he could plausibly stop for a few drinks before going home to Elizabeth.

It was going to be a long time before he could get those images out of his head.