It was five in the morning and I was hugging the museum wall. The lights were low and so was I. There was a security camera right above me. I was stuck in its blind spot, trapped inside an invisible cage that was but a few paces all around. This didn’t matter much. The air was still and so was I.
A woman’s face peered out from the dark. Her pallid skin was cracked and peeling. Her expression was vacant. The lights of her eyes had gone dim. It was Rembrandt’s famous painting the Lucretia. She stood over me in her blood stained gown, with one hand clinging to the curtain that kept her upright and the other to her dagger.
I leaned against the wall, took a deep breath, careful not to whistle on the exhale. There would be consequences if I were heard up here.
I looked both ways. The coast was clear. I reached up sleeve. After all, I’d need the right tools for the job.
Good thing this job required no more than a ballpoint pen and a spiral notepad. Opening the notepad, I flipped through several pages of cryptography, scrawled chicken scratch that only I could decode.
My imagination wondered, but not to thoughts of art smugglers and riches, but to thoughts of feuding lawyers. Thoughts of a proud Atticus Finch-type figure delivering his closing argument, pleading with his hands to a jury who wear their decision on their faces. I imagined a judge’s chambers where a pair of lawyers drive fingers into one another’s chests like feuding children. The judge sits in his deflated robes just rubbing his forehead.
I drew a dash on the notepad and wrote, “What if Eileen, the love interest, is also the prosecuting attorney? This would open up the story for much more conflict. What if Murphy, the defense attorney and the hero of the story, had a sordid history with her? What if Eileen is actually his ex?”
The scene continued to play out in my head. Murphy, a debonair gentlemen, strut into the courtroom with the swagger of a late night talk show host about to deliver his opening monologue. Austin, the defendant, was escorted close behind in a pair of shackles. Her jet black hair hung over face like a Japanese ghost. Murphy shift his attention from his client to Eileen, the straight-laced prosecutor across the aisle. When I he caught her looking back, he winked. Eileen crossed her arms and raised her chin in disapproval.
I paced the security camera’s blind spot. There was a surge of inspiration. I wrote, “Maybe he only took Austin’s case because he knew Eileen’s office would assign her to it. It isn’t until Eileen makes a fool of him that Murphy starts to believe in his client’s plight. This could turn the novel into a redemption story.”
I tapped the pen to my teeth. The sound echoed through the space. I drew another dash and wrote, “What if Murphy falls for Austin and he finds himself torn between two women, one who wants to charge him with perjury and one who’s trying to convince him she’s been framed by evil spirits? What if Austin is right? What if she really has been set up by poltergeists?”
I twirled the pen down my fingers, leaving an ink trail down my knuckles. I drew a third dash and wrote, “If Eileen is so hell bent on stripping Murphy of his license maybe he could use that to trick her into exonerating Austin, but how?”
I scanned my surroundings for ideas. Lucretia leered over me with her blade. Her sheath forever bleeding. No help there. I tapped the wrong end of the pen against my lips until I tasted ink. I wrote, “What if there’s a key piece of evidence that corroborates Austin’s version of events, something that all but confirms paranormal activity? What if Murphy knows better than to present this to a jury and instead manufactures a more plausible alibi? What if Eileen discovers this evidence, proof of Murphy’s perjury, but decides only to drop it when it proves Austin’s innocence?”
I licked the ink from my lips. I was satisfied. I’d told myself a story with a beginning, middle, and end. A legal thriller with a supernatural bent, like Law and Order meets The X-Files. All that was left was to do was flesh it out.
Footsteps echoed through the gallery, the hard heals of pair of new loafers. A flashlight shined down the marble floor. I shot up from my hiding place, flipped the notepad shut, and slid it up my sleeve. I screwed the pen between my fingers, a magician hiding his card. The footfalls drew closer. Their owner’s keys jangled. His throat cleared. I hugged the wall as a crossed the threshold into the neighboring gallery.
The fire escape was too far away. I had to press on, to flee the beam, one gallery at a time, until I got to the main staircase.
There was a three-story window at the far end of the museum. From the third floor, it had the perfect view of the Minneapolis skyline. This morning, the skyscrapers disappeared into the low hanging clouds. Moonlight poured into the museum, washed out by a thin curtain of myst. It gave the Shiva statue, at the heart of the gallery, a warm glow. I thought to duck behind her, to pose as another set of limbs, but my pursuer’s flashlight would surely catch my wristwatch. I had to keep moving.
Bronze panthers showed me their teeth as I passed. A chiseled Hercules aimed his spear above his shriveling manhood. The impressionist paintings passed by in a pastel blur. Their strokes carried from one canvas to the next. Monet’s pink haystacks tipped onto Van Gogh’s yellow fields.
I ducked into the Victorian room, a hall of mirrors free of security cameras. My sneakers squeaked on the hardwood floor. It’s walls multiplied my trespassing feet. It didn’t matter how low I ducked, if my pursuer shined his light in here me and all of my crouching brethren would be exposed.
The Victorian room put me on a path through the other period rooms. I stumbled through a forest of woodcut furniture. My elbow grazed a rocking chair. The creak it made carried from one end of the museum to the other. My pursuer’s footfalls altered course. He was honing in on me. His light shined through the archways.
I crawled behind a row of wicker chairs. They glowed gold in my pursuer’s beam. I rolled away from it. Napoleon’s portrait looked down on me, his hand driven into his coat, forever clawing his belly.
I crawled into the next gallery. The beam passed by overhead, illuminating the etchings; the decapitated heads, the piles of naked bodies writhing on rocky shores. Dante’s Inferno brought to life by the passing light.
The next installation was a period bedroom with a black canapé. The plaque on the wall read, “PLAGUE ROOM.” I thought to roll beneath the wire, to wait this out from under the bed. Then it occurred to me, the installation’s motion sensor would tattle on me right away.
There was no rest for the inspired. Murphy and Austin would be filing for a continuance. Their day in court would have to wait. Murphy’s law firm wasn’t ready to start taking clients just yet.
I threw myself down a long corridor. My pace grew to a sprint. That’s when the giant pillar introduced itself to my forehead. The marble did little to cushion the blow. My skin throbbed. My brain pulsed. Blood rushed up to fill the bruise. I felt top heavy. My equilibrium was thrown. I zigzagged into the main hall, vulnerable out in the open, a dancing fool for all of the cameras to see.
I tried to find my footing but I just kept spinning, a dog looking for his own tail. My ankles tied themselves into knots. My legs staggered out from under me. Then my knees broke my fall. It was from this angle that I finally found the staircase to the level below.
My pursuer’s beam made shadows of the nearby vases, shadows that reached out to grab me.
I ran down the stairs, hugging the railing all the way. My knees were killing me. Upon arriving at the second floor, I slid into a row of Terracotta warriors. They wobbled like bowling pins. If they fell forward their stone armor would mash me to a pulp. Their monochrome scowls would show me no mercy. I scrambled to my feet. There was a light tap on the floor. The warriors had held their footing. The sound was from something that had fallen off my person.
My pursuer’s light shined down the staircase. He was closing the gap between us. Soon I’d have a whole mess of lens flare in my eye. Whatever I had dropped it was gone for good.
I charged through ceremonial war masks, through blades, through daggers, and spears. I ran until I found the three-story window. The Minneapolis skyline towered over me. I tried to catch my breath, to feel my forehead for swelling, to feel my knees for blood.
I turned back to find myself staring down the barrel of the flashlight. My pursuer threw a small object on the floor.
He said, “Drop something?”
He kicked it to me. I knelt down to pick up my name badge, careful not to drop the pen in my palm, then I latched it back onto my uniform.
My superior shined his light beneath his chin. He said, “I’m not going to tell you this again, stay on your assigned floor. Whatever you were up to, knock it the hell off. You got that?”
I swallowed as I nodded. It was an inopportune time for my notepad to slide into my palm. My superior’s attention was fixed on my bruised forehead. He didn’t spot the contraband in my hand.
I spent the rest of my shift pacing the second floor, looking for a blind spot in the art museum’s security system, looking for a place to get back to my art, back to the notepad, back to Murphy, Austin, and Eileen.