I suppose I should have gone to see the painting at the beginning of my investigation, but I’ve always been a pragmatic, Joe Friday type of agent. It was Westerian who was missing, not the painting, and I doubted that the piece itself held any clues to his location. I also had the artistic ability of a Ritalin-addled four year old, and no ability of artistic discernment whatsoever, so it never even occurred to me to go to the museum. Perhaps if I had gone there earlier, a group of otherwise normal citizens wouldn’t have tried to murder me over the whole damned affair.
The FBI got involved with the case because of some legal vagary regarding Westerian’s out-of-state bank account. His ex-girlfriend seemed like the most obvious first stop after I received the assignment. She lived in an apartment in Somerville not far from a Korean grocery store I knew from my college days, so it didn’t take me long to find the place. Her name was Nora, and she made an invitation for me to come in by way of an odd pseudo-greeting that mostly involved the words “publicity stunt.”
The living room of the apartment was filled with sealed moving boxes, and the carpet had been recently vacuumed. I decided to leave the obvious comments about a forwarding address and my ongoing investigation until the end of the conversation, and spent half a minute waiting for Nora to return from the kitchen. Today I would have been prepared to shoot her in case she came back with a carving knife; back then I was moving a box of books from a chair to the floor when she returned. She could have easily stabbed me, grabbed my weapon, or clobbered me over the head with something. I’m sure she was at least considering it.
“What did his agent tell you?” she asked, handing me a cup of coffee.
I took the drink and sat down. “He’s the one who called in the missing person report.”
“There you go. I predict Tycho will reappear soon, no worse for wear. He’ll probably have a new painting to go along with his absence.”
Nora sipped from her own mug of coffee, and moved to look out a window. She was reasonably attractive, but bore the evidence of a recent trauma. I already knew about that. I could sense that Nora would have already told me where Tycho was, if she knew. Better not to waste time on it.
“Anything you could tell me about your relationship might help us find him,” I said.
“You assume I want him found.”
“If he really is in some kind of trouble, you could save his life. You cared for him once, so I’m hoping that you still care for him at least enough to try to keep him alive.”
“My doctors say I had a psychotic breakdown,” she said. “It’s hard not to blame him for that.”
“You don’t have to tell me this, but it might help if you tell me what happened.”
Nora sighed. “Everybody already thinks I’m crazy. Might as well give law enforcement that impression, too. I really don’t care if anyone believes me anymore.”
I’m of a rational mind. I’ve never been swayed by any explanation that isn’t grounded in science. What Nora told me didn’t change that. Unfortunately for me she was telling the truth.
“That damned painting,” she whispered.
“The Mirrored Canvas?”
“I’ll save you some time and stick to the relevant information. Tycho and I had a normal relationship. He had a high opinion of himself, that was about the limit of his objectionable tendencies. His work could back it up, though. When he started working on this new project, everything was fine. He preferred to work in his studio alone, and kept his new painting under a tarp if anyone came by. I understood this just fine, he didn’t want to reveal a work in progress. A few times over the next six months, however, I sneaked a peek under that tarp. I happened to peek at it the day before he finished. Agent Buchanan, that canvas was blank. Blank one day, and that… monstrosity on it the next.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but isn’t it possible that you were peeking at the wrong canvas?”
“It was the largest one in his studio, and the one he identified as the work in progress. For me to be wrong, he would have to have painted the actual work somewhere else, and lied to me about it.”
“And there’s no way he could have painted it in one day?”
“This isn’t a Bob Ross, Agent Buchanan. It’s a Westerian.”
I took this to mean it wasn’t an overnight creation. “So your choices were to believe that Tycho had some sort of superhuman painting ability, or that he lied to you about it. Considering those choices, why did you decide it must be your mind in question?”
“If you saw the painting, you wouldn’t have to ask me that. If you really want to find Tycho, go to the museum. If you’d rather have a career outside of the loony bin, do your best otherwise and accept that he’s gone. You might have to lie about it to your boss, though… checking out the painting seems like an obvious course of action.”
“I just don’t see how it’s relevant.”
“There’s no point in talking to you about it until you’ve seen the painting. If you still have questions for me after that, you know where to find me. I’m not moving out for a few more days.”
“All right, fine by me.” I stood up. “Anything else I should be aware of?”
Nora gripped my arm with surprising strength, and looked me in the eye. “Glance at the painting. Don’t stare at it. Don’t stay in the room for more than a few seconds. Most people see the painting, and are compelled to leave. Some are compelled to stay. Don’t be one of the latter. Trust me.”