Inspector Riley liked what he saw.
With one sweep of his eyes, he took in the Everglades, an old stone house, set far back in its own little garden of flower beds, earthen pots, hanging ferns and trees. What a misnomer, he thought, for such a place of pure beauty, peace and paradise!
But there was something dark and forbidding about it too; he couldn’t put his finger on it and a little voice in his head cautioned him to keep away. He wondered at it and then shrugged it off. The dappling sunshine, the dazzling colour, the pulsating life and the overall unapologetic beauty of the place took his breath away even as the little warning clamoured in his head.
How could the hair on the back of his neck prickle and also remind him that here was a drop of Paradise?
He opened the gate and walked up the path, conscious of the pure delight he felt in just passing between the two rows of many ferns, flowers, bushes and creepers. Only a meticulous woman could maintain such an elaborate little garden, he then deduced, for his eyes had detected a pink watering can on the porch, upon which a very pretty butterfly had just descended. But he straightened his back and came around to his senses. He was on duty, and his smart, crisp uniform with all the stars, tassels and buttons were testimony enough.
In his breast pocket was the picture of a man whom he needed to enquire about – the man had been missing for two weeks, and the last house he had been known to visit had been the Everglades. He stepped up on the porch and was momentarily distracted by the butterfly rising from the pink watering can. Then again, there was the sudden, prickling sensation at the back of his neck.
Something told him to leave – to get away before it was too late, but at that instant the door opened with a soft jingle and he felt his knees go weak. A woman appeared there, full, ripe and shaped like music in her summer dress.
She smiled brightly in welcome, like she had been expecting him, and Riley, though enchanted and speechless, wondered.
“Dad,” she called out over her creamy, gold-tanned shoulder. “You have the ears of a fox. There is someone on the porch. A police officer, as a matter of fact.” Her smile widened as she opened the door to welcome him in. Riley was somewhat taken aback. Normally people shrank away in trepidation when he turned up at their doors. This...gorgeous nymph here appeared calm, collected and completely relaxed, like she had been expecting a visit from him. She laughed at his questioning glance and then explained:
“My father rarely leaves the house - he doesn’t actually. So, any visitor is welcome, even if he’s a cop,” and she boldly looked him up and down and tossed her long, flowing hair back to expose her smooth shoulders, “and a very handsome one at that.”
“Really?” A deep, hollow voice sounded from within as the young woman made way for Riley to enter.
“Really,” she answered, with a giggle. “Come through, Inspector. My father’s with his canvas, as usual.”
She ushered him into a room, and Riley took in a deep breath at the absolute coziness and the sunshine that beamed in. The walls were decorated with pictures, masks, plates and paintings. One corner was crammed with books upon shiny wooden shelves; another was adorned with a grand old piano, its ivory keys almost amber with age. The furniture looked neat and comfortable and the carpet was deep and cool. But it was the old man himself that was imposing. Broad shouldered and grey of hair, he appeared to fill the room with his very presence. He sat upon a chair, an easel before him and was at his work, dexterously moving his brush on a canvas, splashing colour about in some abstract art.
“What can I do for you Inspector?” The utter gloominess of his voice left Riley astonished...even more so because the old man turned to face him, looking at him with blank, washed-out blue eyes. Again, there was that feeling that something wasn’t all together right here, and despite the sunshine, despite the colour and the beauty, Riley thought he felt a shadow of evil lurking somewhere.
He shook the feeling off with irritation; he was a rational man. “The old man’s blind, that’s all,” he admonished himself silently. “Get on with your job!”
He introduced himself, shook the old man’s hand and wondered at a red smudge of paint that stuck to his palm. And try as he might – no matter how hard he rubbed the smudge, he could not wipe it off. It bothered him for a moment. Then he shrugged it off as irrelevant, sinking into a gravity couch; the utter pleasure of relaxation overwhelmed him for an instant.
He presently got down to business:
“Mr. Damien, I’m enquiring into the whereabouts of a missing person. One Markus –
“That’s correct,” Riley said, realizing that he didn’t need to use the photograph. But then again, he thought, it would have been nice to stand close to the girl and show the picture to her.
“Oh! He was here about...what...Jemma!” The long cry was sepulchral. “When did that botanist come here?”
“That Marcus Cochran chap?” she answered from somewhere within. “Two-three weeks ago? Yes, two weeks. I’d been setting the rose cuttings down in front.”
“There,” said the old man.
“Do you know where he was staying?”
The blind man shrugged his massive shoulders. “Never mentioned it.”
“He was passing by,” explained Jemma, entering the room. With bold suggestiveness in her blue eyes, she bent low and laid a tray of treats on a coffee table. Riley goggled, coloured and reluctantly tore his eyes away from her ample cleavage in full view. He felt sweaty and wondered how long it had been since his wife had left him. Too damn long! Here was a blind old man, and there was a woman who dazzled him blind!
“He’d noticed our garden,” she was saying, “and wanted to look around the flowers...make some notes or something. As usual, Dad called him in and they chatted, drank coffee and then the chap was on his way.”
“Did he mention where he was headed?”
She giggled as she placed a cup of coffee in her father’s hands. “Now Inspector, would you tell us where you’d be headed once you’re done here?”
He smiled at the reasoning, sipped his drink and ignored the subtle weirdness of the taste. He noticed a row of miniature paintings on the wall and found himself being drawn towards them.
“Dad loves his miniatures,” and Jemma’s voice was a sweet melody. “He was telling me this morning that he needed a subject to start another one.”
“I can’t say he’d have trouble finding one,” Riley commented, peering keenly at them.
“No,” Jemma agreed and the blind, old artist chuckled weirdly. “As a matter of fact, no.”
There were six miniatures hanging side by side on the wall; all abstracts of men, their faces blobs of brush strokes, but strangely frozen in a paroxysm of agony! Riley looked at them, bewildered, because though they were only abstracts, the pain on each face appeared so real and life-like!
He inspected each one – an image of a man of literature because the subject appeared to be leaning against a bookcase, the second of a mechanic, and this was followed by a teacher, because he was dressed in bold strokes of black academicals. The fourth painting appeared to be of a truck driver, and the fifth resembled a biker. All of them held a weird look of torture on their hazy countenances. As he moved to the sixth, Riley swore that the face looked different just a second earlier; he could never have imagined that expression of a contented gardener – perhaps a botanist – lying in a bed of myriad flowers. But suddenly now it appeared to transform into a blob of misery, the black smudge of the mouth thrown open in some silent scream of pain.
Riley shook his head, stoutly telling himself that he was imagining things. Then a silken hand electrified his shoulder, and he snapped around, locking his eyes with pools of
deep blue. In an instant he was rocketed into a storm of pleasure and mind-blowing gratification; then he was gurgling in thick red acrylic, choking, gasping and arms flailing...cramped and plastered into a tiny space where the satisfaction on his shapeless face seemed frozen for all time.
Two weeks later, Jemma hung a seventh miniature up – this was an abstract of a man...a policeman most likely from his uniform, buttons, tassels and stars. The features were rapt with pleasure – a blob but still an unmistakable face.
It would remain so till the next man was drawn into the honey-trap of the Everglades.