The Crypt Artist - Excerpts
From Chapter One
"I TOLD YOU THE MUSIC was a bad idea," Howard Russell Butler snapped in a hushed tone, his dark eyes flashing angrily. "The drunk down the hall heard it, and he came looking for it."
"He's not a drunk," Jeanne Hebuterne whispered. "He's a fine artiste."
"That, my dear, is a matter of opinion."
"And mine counts just as much as yours," she returned crossly.
The light flickered back on in 2E, illuminating the drab, lifeless room in all its neglect. Bookshelves built into the wall were covered in a thick coat of dust, with several electrical wires hanging down from the ceiling. Three old chairs, covered in grimy brocade, were positioned in a circle in the middle of the room. The chairs were arranged around a low, flat coffee table that held a gas lamp and an ancient black wax phonograph cylinder. A cylindrical cardboard box lay on its side, left empty when Shadows of the Night had been the music of choice just moments ago.
The ensemble in the room also included five gossamer figures, all of them dressed in clothing from the era in which they came. Three men occupied the chairs, each one regarding the other with vague hostility and skepticism.
A short-statured man in a black wool suit paced the room in a circle, from one end of the space to the other, muttering under his breath as he did so. "This feckin' place is as much a disaster now as it was when I lived here." His Irish brogue became more pronounced as he continued addressing the room in general but no to one in particular. "Those bloody Ramsey's never did know their arses from their elbows. What a sorry lot of bumblers."
"Oh do be quiet, Malachy, " Howard barked, his brow furrowing with irritation. "I've heard just about enough of your paddy twaddle." Howard was resplendently dressed in a dark blue pin-striped suit, a white handkerchief tucked into his breast jacket pocket, and black suspenders holding his trousers firm. He was the epitome of conservative class and style, but without being overly ostentatious.
"Yes, please Malachy, be quiet," Jeanne pleaded softly from her place by the window. "I'm trying to think, and your gabble is making it impossible."
"Well, pardon me," Malachy retorted indignantly as he stopped in his pacing to stare at the woman. "Who croaked and made you Queen of Sheba, may I ask?"
Jeanne dipped her head, her long dark brown hair dangling at the sides of her face. "I meant no disrespect," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Her French accent was so thick it was nearly indecipherable. "I'm having a difficult time with my thoughts. Please try to understand."
"Poor little colleen," Malachy clucked sympathetically. "I'm sorry, Jeanne. I keep forgetting your unfortunate dilemma. Will you be forgiving me?"
She looked at him with her doe brown eyes, and sighed tremulously. "Oui, Monsieur O'Leary." With that, she turned to face the window again, her thin hands touching the cracked and dirty pane. She wore long, dark gloves with the fingers missing, and seemed to be repeatedly adjusting them to cover her nails, an attempt to hide the fact she chewed her long, slender digits while in human form. Her midnight blue dress was long and wispy, gathered tightly at the waist with a slim belt of the same color, over which was draped a ankle-length black silk coat. There was also a distinct perfumed aroma surrounding her, with hints of sweet, unburned tobacco. The aroma always seemed to trail in her wake.
With another sigh, Jeanne began to roll back and forth on the balls of her feet, a slight moan coming from her lips. And so she always remained, until she was driven to interact with her strange companions once more.
Malachy resumed his pacing, muttering under his breath again. "The feckin' shyte I have to endure just to gather me own thoughts . . ."
He looked behind him, snapped his fingers and spoke sternly: "Come along, Hissy." He was followed by the transparent figure of a cat, his dear companion in life, who was only too happy to traipse after him after her initial hiss of rebellion. The hazel-eyed feline was beautiful, albeit a dichotomy of color. Her right foot was white while her left paw only had white on the tips and claws; her tail was black peppered with cream and grey stripes, her back a mix of black, brown, grey and cream, and her chest and belly were an unblemished shade of white.
"The pair of them are as mad as the march hare," observed John Quidor to no one in particular. He was a tall, devilishly handsome specter with black hair and dark green eyes. His gaze went to Jeanne by the window, taking in her beautiful hair and slightly swaying body.
"Let's get back to the problem at hand," Howard said crisply. "The drunk down the hall nearly caught us out."
"It's not going to happen," John disagreed, his eyes leaving Jeanne at the window and instead focusing on Howard. "You may not want to face facts, Howie, but we're as dead as doornails. We're just ghosts, sitting around in this vile little room. The drunk can never catch us out, as you implied. It's logistically impossible." John seemed at ease in his generation attire, which included a sable-brushed topcoat that fell to his knees. Underneath the coat, he wore a dark vest and white shirt, a dark blue tie, and a gold pocket watch hanging from his waist. He looked quite dapper, and he knew it.
"He heard the music," Howard insisted, his glare turning to the pacing Irishman. "All because Malachy wanted to listen to Shadows of the Night."
Malachy paused in his pacing again, returning Howard's glare. "The music is a memory from the lad's childhood. What's the harm in it?"
"And how do you know it's a childhood memory for him?" Howard prodded.
Malachy resumed his pacing. "I'm Irish, my good man. We have ways and means into the souls of others."
"What a load of codswallop!" John broke in with a laugh. "More of your Irish blarney, no doubt."
"May the lamb of God stir his hoof through the roof of heaven and kick you in the arse down to hell," Malachy responded with glee.
"Even more of your heathen gibberish, Malachy?"
"I'll leave that for you to decide, ya feckin' gobshite," Malachy hissed.
"Enough!" Howard roared angrily, annoyed with the pointless banter. He turned his head to stare at Malachy. "Do you know something we don't?"
"The lad you refer to as the drunk needs our help," Malachy said plainly. "And we're going to give it to him."
"What sort of help does he need, and how can we possibly give it to him?" Howard asked with a snort. "In case you haven't looked lately, the lot of us are see-through."
"Surely you understand the lad," Malachy replied cryptically as he moved around the room. "He's one of your kind. An artist. A struggling one, but an artist nonetheless. Me being a poet, I don't fully understand it. All I know is he needs our help if he's to survive through the winter."
"Why is he struggling? Just what sort of artist is he?" Philip Padwick asked quietly, the first time he had spoken in days. Although he rarely said a word unless directly addressed, Malachy felt Philip to be the most reasonable of the bunch. Philip's phantom presence was tall and thin. His balding pate still contained wavy blond hair, and the man always wore a colorful bowtie. The only drawback seemed to be his nervous habit of continually brushing faux lint from his gray jacket and trousers, as if to occupy his hands. His ensemble also included a soft gray fedora hat, which rested on his lap.
Malachy shrugged as he continued to circle the room, his feet barely seeming to touch the floor, which gave the impression he was floating on air. Hissy crept after him, occasionally stopping to rub against Jeanne's leg. She would smile and reciprocate, bending down to touch Hissy on top of her head. The cat seemed to detest Howard, would only stop occasionally to glare and hiss at him, but appeared to be indifferent to John and Philip. "He's done cityscapes and individual portraits in the past," Malachy spoke. "But without much success. He recently decided to paint reproductions of famous and semi-famous works in hopes of making a bit of extra money."
"Again," Philip pressed. "How can we help him? We're mere shadows of our former selves."
"He's going to replicate one of your works, along with those of your stodgy companions here. Would it hurt if you were to assist the lad in his efforts? Lend a guiding hand here and there, so's he gets it right?"
"I'm not sure how I feel about someone reproducing my work," John groused. "It's not right."
Malachy rolled his eyes. "So you say, but aren't you the one who used to paint scenes from Washington Irving's stories about Dutch New York?"
"That was different," John defended himself. "I may have recreated literary subjects, but the work was my own."
"Whatever," Malachy dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "No one blinks an eye these days. As long as the reproductions are acknowledged as such from the get-go."
"This world is not my cup of tea," John mumbled, his voice tetchy.
"Nor is it mine," Howard declared, a disgruntled expression on his face.
"You have no choice in the matter, especially if you want to be present in it," Jeanne spoke softly from her place by the window. She glanced over her shoulder at the men briefly, and then continued. "Malachy is right. The jeune homme - young man - is going to reproduce our work regardless of what we do or do not do. Don't you want to make sure he gets it right, that he lives up to your true and intended impressions?"
"When you say it that way . . ." John admitted grudgingly.
Malachy flashed Jeanne a grateful smile before speaking again. "It's settled, then. We'll help the artsy boyo, right?"
They all nodded in agreement, and then their conversation stopped momentarily. Malachy wafted over to the black wax dictation cylinder on the coffee table, ready to play the waltz again. He stared at the handle of the dictaphone, the transparency of his bright blue eyes seeming to go through to the back of his head. At the same time, Hissy paused in her stride to glare at Howard, giving him a long hiss and deep growl.
Howard snorted, but looked uncomfortable. "I hate that ill-mannered cat of yours, O'Leary. She's a damned nuisance."
"She senses anger in people, or rather in you. Perhaps if you calmed down a bit, she would stop hissing at you."
Howard bristled. "You can just bugger off, and take that cat from hell with you," he muttered under his breath, looking away from the cat. "Heathens, the pair of you."
Malachy smiled tightly, returning to the subject at hand. "Who's going first?" he wanted to know, his tone quiet.
Jeanne glanced over her shoulder again, a slight smile playing around her mouth. "Moi, Monsieur O'Leary. Moi."
"Tread lightly," Malachy warned her. "Our lad might be a heavy drinker, but he's not an eejit."
"He'll hear nary a shuffle from my feet or a word slip from my lips," Jeanne promised in a whisper as she turned around to face the window once more.
Malachy nodded, satisfied with her answer. "Let it begin, then, my pretty little colleen. Let it begin."
The music of Shadows of the Night, also known as Quentin's Theme, began to carry softly in the air, it's sound lulling the ghosts into a tranquil mood. Smiling, Malachy resumed his circular journey around the dismal room, followed by his hissing cat.