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|A Killing Rain (standard:horror, 36181 words)|
|Author: Reid Laurence||Added: Dec 07 2005||Views/Reads: 2375/1853||Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)|
|Raymond Mort is a killer — make no mistake — but the lives he takes don’t fulfill a murderers bloodlust quite as much as they work to keep him happy and occupied in the strange, make-believe world he’s self-manufactured out of sheer madness. In doing so,|
Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story of the leg, and gently laid them inside another storage bag he'd brought with. Opening the small suitcase he'd brought along, he deposited all four body parts within, but did not close it. Not yet, he thought to himself. I'm not finished with you yet. And as he methodically wiped the bloodstained blade of the knife clean on the dead man's white dress shirt, he put the sharp steel blade to the corpses neck and proceeded to cut a perfect line from one side to the other, cutting through a vertebrate connection of the spinal column until he'd reached the hard surface of the concrete beneath. Now last, but not least, as a warped form of sexual desire stirred arousal in Raymond's mind, he anxiously cut open the dead man's trousers to expose his genitals. With one swift motion of the tapered blade, he severed the penis and testicles of the corpse, took them up in his hand and carefully placed the bleeding trophy in another waiting storage bag. Finally, his task complete, Raymond double checked his suitcase, making sure that all the components he'd removed from the body were all neatly packed and meticulously arranged. Sure of himself and of the body parts he'd selected, he closed the case, opened the lid of a large dumpster behind him and deposited the decapitated corpse inside it, with no more feeling of regret or remorse then if he'd just finished swatting a fly. Still standing in the shadows of the dark alley, Raymond lit a cigarette and watched as the dim light of the liquor store sign from across the street illuminated the large puddle of blood before him. The constant downfall of rain gradually caused the pool of blood to dissipate, and as it slowly vanished from sight, so did the urgency and thirst of Raymond's bloodlust, but the sin of the crime could never be washed away, or cleansed by the freshly fallen rain. The sin of the crime was forever a stain on Raymond's immortal soul and only God had the power to cleanse him of it, as unlikely an act as that may seem. It was only a short walk from the alley where Raymond had just finished cutting an innocent man to pieces, to the one bedroom apartment where he lived. When he arrived, he pulled the blinds down on every window and walked to the kitchen. Setting his suitcase down on the kitchen floor, Raymond opened it and removed the contents, placing the transparent plastic storage bags, one by one, on the different shelves of the open refrigerator. Lastly, he removed the decapitated head, took it out of its food storage bag, and placed a dish under it to keep it from leaking any trickles of blood that may have spilled their way to other shelves or drawers of the appliance. Then, with the eyes of the head wide open, and face still wearing the same disagreeable look of shock and surprise, Raymond placed the head on a waist high shelf in the front of the refrigerator so that every time he opened the door, he could greet his new found acquaintance. Raymond really thought of the head in his refrigerator as an intimate friend who would stay with him and keep him company. Other friends Raymond made sooner or later, always stopped calling him for one reason or another. So it seemed to Raymond that murder was as good a way as any to get someone to stay. Other, more regular guys might think Raymond's method a little on the drastic side, but to him, it was a logical solution to a nagging problem he'd long tried to address in vain, but finally, it seemed to him he had the answer. It was April in Chicago, and the nineteen-fifty baseball season had just begun with the Cubs suffering a loss to the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field. Regardless of the loss, Raymond remained a die-hard Cub fan and just as he was about to close the refrigerator door on his new buddy, he thought for awhile about how nice it would be if his friend could share in his enthusiasm for the team. Remembering the Cubs hat he hung up on a hook by the front door, he went to retrieve it, placed it snugly on the head in his fridge and bid his new buddy farewell for the evening as he gently stroked the side of the face nearest him. “Good-night, Guy,” said Raymond affectionately, deciding that a generic name like “Guy” might suit his new friend very well. “We'll make dinner together later, how does that sound? If you're not hungry,” continued Raymond, “just tell me and I won't set a place for you at the table.” Then, in Raymond's mind, Guy seemed to really be answering him. Since Raymond was a boy of ten he'd suffered from schizophrenia, and so filling in blanks in two-sided discussions that never really existed was no problem at all to him. Unfortunately, it was something he'd gotten used to doing for many years. “I don't know,” said Guy, in Raymond's mind. “Its been kind of a tough day for me. Wouldya mind if I took a rain check just this once?” “Heck no,” replied Raymond. “I understand, don't worry about it. I'll just make a little something for myself then. Talk to you later,” he said, gently closing the door, doing his best not to offend Guy by slamming it too hard. Picking up the newspaper he'd bought during the day, Raymond turned his attention to the employment section. He sat in his favorite chair, next to a window in his living room where he could watch the rain fall as he searched the want ads. “Wait a minute,” he said to himself. “What am I doing? Just because Guy said he isn't hungry doesn't mean he's not in a talking mood. I'll get him out here for his own good.” “Hey Guy,” Raymond said, as he reopened the refrigerator. “C'mon out an join me. Aren't you lonely in there?” “Well,” replied Guy, “to tell you the truth, I was feeling a little tired.” “Oh, c'mon. Don't be a party poop. Talk to me while I'm lookin' for a job will ya? I could use the company.” “Okay, okay. If it'll make you happy. Put me over on the table next to the window where you like to sit. That is your favorite spot isn't it?” “Yeah,” answered Raymond. “How'd you know that?” “Just a lucky guess. You mind if I ask you a question?” continued Guy. “Shoot.” “What's with the rain? I can tell you're hung up on it. What's your beef?” “I'll tell you later,” answered Raymond, beginning to feel flustered over Guy's question. “C'mon,” replied Guy, in a persuasive manner. “You got me out here, now spill the beans or put me back in the fridge, one or the other. I told you I was tired remember, but I came out here anyway outta the goodness a my heart.” “Alright, if you really must know, I'll tell you then,” answered Raymond, in an angry tone. “A long time ago, when I was a little boy, my father sold fruit from an outdoor stand on Maxwell Street, near the University. You know where that is?” “Which?” said Guy, “the stand or the school.” “The school, the school. Which did you think? Dammit Guy, don't get snippy on me. I went to school there, that's why I ask. It was the University Of Illinois on the corner of Harrison and Halsted.” “Okay, so you went to school,” replied Guy. “You want a medal or a chest ta pin it on? Just get to the point would ya?” “You are really difficult sometimes you know that? I was about to tell you that my dad was ...” “Yes,” said Guy. “He was what? Go on.” “Well, it's not easy to say.” “Just say it already.” “Okay, alright. He was a lousy bastard.” “That's it?” “No,” said Raymond. “That's not all. He used to beat me up.” “Now we're getting somewhere. How often?” “Every time it rained practically. He never made any money when it rained. Nobody wanted to get out of their car in the rain.” “So he came home angry?” asked Guy, in a much more somber tone. “You're not kidding,” replied Raymond. “Angry, an drunk as a skunk.” “Shit, sounds like you had a rough time there.” “You know it Guy. My childhood was about as bad as it could be.” “So what are you telling me?” asked Guy. “You feel bad when it rains now or what?' “I feel worse then bad, Guy. I feel like...” “You feel like what?” “I don't have to tell you do I?” That evening, Guy looked on as Raymond devoured a left quadriceps from the body he'd mutilated, along with a baked potato and a salad with creamy caesar dressing. As he ate, Raymond conversed with Guy on the many advantages of a well balanced meal. “You know what the ancient Greeks used to say don't you?” asked Raymond. “No, fill me in. I'm dying to know. What did they say?” “There's no reason to get sarcastic Guy. They used to say that a healthy body is a healthy mind. Don't you agree?” “Anything you say,” answered Guy, in Raymonds deluded mind. The next morning, Raymond made himself a cup of coffee to go and bid Guy a fond farewell for the day. “I'll see you when I get back,” said Raymond. “Make yourself at home.” “Don't mind if I do,” replied Guy. “You have a good day now. Hey, aren't you gonna eat something before you leave? You remember what the ancient Greeks used to say don't you?” “I remember. I'm still full from last night, but thanks for your concern, you're a good friend. You have a nice day,” said Raymond, as he closed his apartment door and walked to the vestibule of the building. When Raymond got to the front door of his building, he took a deep breath of air and almost immediately wished he hadn't. It smelled like the diesel truck that had just passed, and the fumes from it were still hanging in the cool morning air in the form of a wispy dark cloud. Never-mind, thought Raymond to himself. It's spring and there's bound to be some fresh air somewhere around town. Somewhere, anyway. At least, Raymond noted, that God awful rain has stopped. I don't think Guy realizes just how much I hate it when it rains. Looking up, Raymond noticed something odd about the green street sign he normally passed on his way to the subway train. Someone had put a bullet right through the word: Sheridan, in Sheridan Road, directly between the letters “r” and “I”. It made him wonder to himself, who-in-the-world would do such a thing? “People are nuts,” he said to himself, as he made his way down Granville Avenue with his coffee in his hand and his newspaper neatly folded under his arm. “I swear, it makes you wonder about the kind of element we're living with. What is happening to this world?” he continued, as he approached his favorite hot dog stand just before the Granville train stop. Taking a moment to sip his coffee and pause in front of the store front windows, he waved at the cook behind the counter as he usually did. Waving back in response, the large, fat restaurateur quickly turned away, as if something of great urgency immediately required his attention. Hmmm, thought Raymond, he must be busy. Hey, he's got a business to run, he's a busy man. Wish I had my own business. I wonder if Guy knows anything about runnin' a business? I'll have to ask him tonight. After paying the ten cent fare, Raymond found himself a seat on a southbound train next to an elderly gentleman. The grey bearded older man dressed in a tattered overcoat that may have looked good some ten years prior, but by now was riddled with holes and tears. The garment came complete with the awful smell that accompanies a coat that has rarely or never been cleaned, especially in the case of an owner who has rarely or never been cleaned. “Where ya off to sonny?” said the older man, as he reached into the breast pocket of his overcoat and brought out a pint of scotch whiskey. “How about a blast-off-the-cork? Might do ya some good.” “No thank you,” said Raymond, feeling wary about the old man. Raymond's mother had warned him many times about germs and the way diseases travel before she'd passed on to the great beyond. Who knows, he thought. One chug off that bottle might give me the worst cold of my life. “I'm on my way to the Art Institute,” he continued. “There's a job opening there and I'm gonna go apply for it.” “Good luck to you, my friend,” replied the aged passenger, as he lifted the bottle to his mouth and took several long gulps from it. After wiping his mouth with his other hand, he continued to talk to Raymond. “Believe it or not, I used to work a nice job. Wouldn't know it from the looks a me now would ya. Had a wife an kid too, but that's all gone now.” “I'm sorry to hear that,” answered Raymond, feeling sincere regret over the old man's plight. “I don't mean to be nosey but, do you mind if I ask what happened to them.” “It'll just shock you,” replied the old man. “I don't wanna wreck your day, you seem like a nice young man.” “Don't worry about me,” said Raymond. “I can handle it. You can tell me anything.” When the aging drinker heard Raymond's response, he turned to look Raymond straight in the eyes. “If you really want to know,” he said. “They were murdered. My wife, my son, both a them killed by some crazy bastard over nothin'. Can you believe it? All for nothin',” he continued, as he took another long swig off the bottle he still held in his tightly clenched hand. “But that was years ago sonny. Years ago, an I'm still workin' on gettin' over it. I don't suppose I'll ever really get over it. I don't think killers understand all the damage they do when they take a persons life. It's been on my mind now for the past five years. I just can't forget them an the terrible way they died.” “That is terrible,” said Raymond. “How did they die anyway.” “Butchered that's how. Stabbed to death. Awful ain't it? They were mutilated,” continued the old man, wiping away some of the tears that began to show in his eyes as he spoke. “Body parts cut away by some madman. What the hell would ya do with body parts anyway? It's sick that's what it is, just plain sick. Cops never did find the killer either, he's still out there runnin' around for all I know, cuttin' people to pieces an destroying the lives of loved ones.” Grief stricken, the old man began sobbing and as he did, Raymond affectionately patted the stranger on his back. “I wish there was something I could do,” said Raymond, continuing to pat the man on his back in an attempt to try and comfort him. “You've done enough already,” answered the old man. “Anyone who'd sit here an listen to a broke down old bum like me must be a good person. I know when the time comes sonny, you'll be goin' to heaven, an the crazy son-of-a-bitch who killed my wife an kid'll burn in hell, you can be sure.” “Yes sir,” said Raymond, as he noticed the large red letters on the wall of the subway tunnel which read; Monroe Street. “I've gotta go now, but I've got a very helpful friend named Guy you might wanna talk to sometime. He's a real good listener.” “Thanks son, but this is my own personal problem. I shouldn't even have bothered you with it. I wish you all the best. I hope you get that job.” “Thank you sir, and try to cheer up,” said Raymond, as the doors of the car closed behind him and the train once again continued on its way down a long, dark narrow path, disappearing into what appeared to be obscure oblivion, the train gave solemn testimony to the old man's living hell. “Oh well,” mumbled Raymond quietly to himself. “God, I can't believe it. What a coincidence. I forgot about them. Nothin' I can do about it now.” And with that thought in mind, Raymond turned to walk up the long flight of concrete steps toward his destination, and with each passing step, the dark of the tunnel depths brightened a little more as the warm glow of the sun radiated its near eternal energy, until finally, at the top of the flight, Raymond took pause to revel in the magnificent light of the noonday sun. It was heavenly. “Got any experience?” asked the interviewer sitting in front of Raymond, shuffling the papers of Raymond's application as he appeared to be looking for something important. “I was a night watchman. It's there in my application in the list of former employers.” “Oh yes, I see. Hmmm, let's see...” The interviewer paused for awhile before continuing. “That was back in forty-eight right?” “Yes,” replied Raymond. “That's right.” “You a vet?” “No sir, I didn't have to go. Just a little too young at the time.” “You sure got lucky there son. The war was terrible. There's nothing I can say that explains what I went through in that war. You know, it's one thing just sittin' here talkin' about it, but it's a whole nuther ball game actually going through it. You know what I mean? A whole nuther ball game.” “I can imagine sir,” answered Raymond. “You think you can imagine huh? But I'm sittin' here telling you there's no way you can imagine what we went through. No way at all.” As the museum security guard went on speaking, he got more and more agitated. Finally, he stood up to light a cigarette and walked to his office window. He gazed out at the many patrons of the Art Museum, on their way up the long flight of exterior concrete steps that led to the building entrance. “You don't understand,” he continued. “All the carnage I seen. Men laying there with their guts hangin' out, mutilated. Arms gone, legs missin'. Flesh tore off the body so bad you can see clear down to the bone. You couldn't possibly imagine, but you know what?” “What?” asked Raymond. “You're just a hell-of-a-lot luckier for not bein' there. A hell-of-a-lot. Know what I mean?” “Yes sir, I think so.” “Alright,” said the guard. “I didn't mean to lay all this on you. I just came home with some problems from the war is all. Once I start talkin' about it I don't know when to quit.” Sitting down once again at his chair, Raymond's interviewer took one last deep drag on his cigarette, forcefully smashed it down into a glass ashtray on his desk and turned his attention once more to the interview process. “Got any interest in art? Cause that's one thing we got a lot of.” “Oh yes sir, I do. I even paint some on my own. I could show you sometime if you like.” “No, No. That won't be necessary. When can you start, we need somebody as soon as possible. Someone just up an quit on me with no warnin', can you believe that? I was nice to him too.” “I can start anytime. Anytime at all.” “Okay, tell you what. My names' Solomon,” said the guard, as he stretched out his hand to shake Raymond's. “Solomon Schram. You're Raymond right? Mind if I call you Ray?” “No sir, not at all.” “Good then Ray. You can call me Sol. Be here Monday, eight o'clock sharp. I like people who show up on time, you read me? You come in, I'll give you a uniform, then I'll show you around. You'll meet the other two guards and I'll show you what you gotta do then. Are we square?” “Yes sir,” said Raymond with enthusiasm. “I won't let you down.” “Good, that's what I like to hear.” Late that afternoon, when Raymond got home, he decided to celebrate and one of the first things he did was to take Guy out of the refrigerator. He just had to tell someone about the good news he had on his mind, but when Raymond took Guy out and placed him on the small, modest looking kitchen table, he realized he had a new problem on his hands. “Whew,” remarked Raymond, holding the nostrils of his nose together. “What happened to you? You really stink.” “Oh yeah, you don't smell so hot yourself. That doesn't mean I have ta complain about it.” “I'm sorry,” replied Raymond. “I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, but you're starting to smell like rotting meat.” “Okay, so...You know what to do don'tcha? Get some a that clear varnish you used on the table you refinished an gimmie a few coats. After that, I'll be right as rain.” “Whaddaya mean by right as rain?” “Oops,” said Guy, apologetically. “That's just an expression. I didn't mean ta set you off.” “Don't worry about it, but when I bare my soul to you, I expect a little understanding in return. My dad really hurt me you know.” “I know, I know. It was just a bad choice of words on my part. Gosh Ray, you are one touchy guy you know that?” “That's what people tell me. But Guy, just how did you know about the table I refinished? I did that before you got here.” “Lets just say, I have my ways.” As Raymond applied the varnish to his buddy that evening, he told Guy all about his new job and how excited he was just to be given the chance to work around such great works of art. Raymond thought that the job might lead him to new, interesting pathways into his own style of painting, which was really quite good, but in Raymond's mind, going stale and in need of more then a little fine tuning. As a boy, Raymond began painting to try to fill the void between himself and his father, but most of all, his artistic expression became an excellent diversion for him, and he was able to focus on it without all the annoying imaginary chatter in his mind caused by his illness. Schizophrenia became Raymond's cross to bear as a very young man and it normally accompanied any activities he pursued. It was almost like magic though, when he sat down at his easel and started to sketch. It gave him the feeling that when he painted, his mind was free. Free of bad memories and of bad people from his past who he remembered all too often. It was Raymond's belief, that in working at the museum, being so close to so much genius, some of it might rub off on him and with this inspiration, he might become the painter he'd always wanted to be...one who is able to paint any scene or image directly from the mind and heart. What bothered him most about his expertise was the fact that he was only able to successfully capture images of landscape, buildings and other such scenery on canvas. Whenever he tried to paint images of people, they appeared disproportionate, or slightly distorted. It was a handicap he shared with one very famous person who Raymond admired very much, but like him, Raymond always wished it were otherwise. He knew very well that his palette of ability would forever be incomplete, unless he fully mastered the technique of human form. Like the focus of his admiration, his father had beat him and the sensitivity he needed to capture this form had forever been as elusive to him, as it was to the man he idolized. “Hey Ray,” asked Guy inquisitively. “I know you said you like ta paint, but I never seen anything you've done yet. Why don'tcha gimmie a look at summa your work?” “Just look around you,” said Raymond, turning the dish with the severed head in it so that Guy could get a better look at the surrounding four walls. “It's all my work.” “You're fuggin' kiddin'!” exclaimed Guy. “I thought you bought that stuff. Hey Ray, you're good. What the heck are you doin' livin' in a dump like this. You outta be makin' money, sellin' your work.” “Thank you very much Guy, I'm very flattered, but most of them are just copies of originals I found in books. I'm not very original, that's a flaw of mine.” “Yeah so,” continued Guy. “They happen to be very good copies. There must be some kinda money in it.” “Naw, ‘fraid not. I don't think so.” “Well, whatever,” said Guy, refraining from pursuing the matter of money any further. “But there's one thing that bugs me.” “What's that?” “Where's all the people in your work? I don't see any. Every one a those paintings is a really good landscape, but I don't see any people. How come?” “I was wondering when you'd notice,” answered Raymond. “You know,” said Guy. “I don't mean to hurt your feelings now, but If I didn't know better, I'd say you got the same kinda hang-up as the bastard we just went to war with. You know who I'm talkin' about. I don't have ta spell it out do I?” “Hitler,” said Raymond. “You're talking about Adolph Hitler. I know, I don't mind you comparing me to him. I think he was a great man.” “Buddy, have you got your lines crossed or what?” asked Guy. “Are we talkin' about the same Hitler? The same one who killed millions of innocent people?” “Sure, why do you think I carry this knife?” replied Raymond, as he reached into the inside pocket of the black trench coat he'd taken off just an hour before. “Look,” continued Raymond, “It's real. It's a real German dagger. There's a swastika on it an everything. Whaddaya think?” “Yuck,” replied Guy. “Get that piece a crap away from me. How can you carry that thing around with you after what those bastards did. Don't you have any feelings?” “Guess not Guy. Not those kind anyway.” Later that evening, Raymond started to get hungry and began to rummage through the fridge to see if he could scrounge up something for dinner. He removed several things that interested him, and being the polite host that he was, asked Guy if he'd like to join him. As they spoke, Raymond decided to get a head start on things and began dicing onions, throwing them into a frying pan that included one of the items he found while searching. “Wha'cha up to now?” asked Guy, from his position on top of a kitchen counter overlooking the gas range. “Cookin' hors d'oeuvres. Want some?” “Looks a little weird to me. Mind if I take a pass?” “Not at all,” answered Raymond, as he stirred the contents of the pan until all the ingredients had blended to his liking. Then, opening the fridge again, Raymond took out a few more vegetables and one of the biceps he'd been saving for just such an occasion. Some seasoning and an aluminum foil cover over the piece of human flesh and it was ready for the oven. While dinner cooked, Raymond grabbed a fork from the silverware drawer and dumped the contents of the frying pan into a dinner plate. “I'm so hungry, I could eat a bear,” exclaimed Raymond. “From the looks of things,” said Guy, “you're not far from the truth. I don't think I wanna know what that is, but don't let me spoil your appetite.” “Don't worry about it,” replied Raymond, as he stuck his fork in the fried genitals on his plate and cut the parts into smaller, bite size pieces. “You couldn't spoil my appetite if you tried.” “You know,” remarked Guy, “I'm inclined to agree with you.” The next morning, Raymond arrived a half hour early at his new job, to try to make a good impression on his boss, but also, to give himself time to meet the other guards and to try on his new uniform. By eight o'clock, when the two other security guards arrived, Raymond had already been fitted for his uniform and was standing in front of a mirror in the men's washroom admiring himself. After combing his hair, he put on his hat and adjusted it until it looked right on his head, took out the Nazi dagger he always carried and concealed it under his short waisted security jacket and walked out of the men's room to the locker room to put away his street clothes for the day. In the locker room, he found the other two guards in the middle of changing clothes in front of their assigned lockers and in an easy going manner, one of them began to introduce himself. “You must be the new guy, huh? I'm Lorin Bertrand,” said the guard, stretching out his hand to shake Raymond's. “That guy there is Dan Neuman,” he continued. “Good to meet you.” “Likewise,” answered Raymond. “My name's Raymond Mort. This is my first day here, I'm a little nervous. Is it a difficult job?” “Not at all,” replied Lorin, as Dan, overhearing Raymond's question began to smile. “If you can't play Monopoly, you're gonna have a tough time here,” said Dan, beginning to laugh aloud at his own remark. “I don't get it,” said Raymond, with a perplexed look on his face. “What's he talking about.” “He means,” explained Lorin, “that every break, we play cards or Monopoly or some other kinda game just to keep ourselves from goin' crazy. The jobs' real easy, that's not the problem. The problem is the monotony of it. It's boring as hell.” “But you guys get to work around all these great paintings,” said Raymond. “Doesn't that keep you interested?” “After two or three years of it,” replied Dan, adjusting his coat and putting on his hat, “you'll be bored silly, believe me.” “There's just one more thing,” said Lorin, brushing the lint from the freshly pressed trousers of his uniform as Dan looked on at the both of them. “Can you keep a secret? I mean really keep a secret?” “Sure I can,” said Raymond. “Trust me.” “You're gonna find out anyway so I might as well tell you. Sometimes, just ta kill the boredom, we have a few drinks. But now that you know, you can't ever say anything about it to Sol. If he knew, he'd fire us on the spot, got it?” “Sure, I got it.” “Lorin,” said Dan, with a look of worry on his face. “He's brand new on the Job. How do ya know we can trust him?” “So I took a chance,” said Lorin, as he looked Raymond straight in the eye. “So sue me. Life is filled with uncertainty and chance, get used to it. Besides,” he continued, “he looks like a guy we can trust.” Later that day, after Sol showed Raymond around the building and gave him the usual speech and pep talk about coming in on time and doing what was expected, Raymond got the chance to browse through the many galleries of famous paintings. Awestruck, Raymond naturally gravitated to any and all of the landscape paintings and stopped in front of them, one by one, to examine and admire the artists style and use of color. One such painting that caught his eye was a Claude Monet from eighteen sixty-five called, Haystacks At Chailly At Sunrise. The beautiful colors and peaceful serenity of it made Raymond stop and daydream for a few moments. He wondered about what it might be like to actually live inside such a perfect haven, to be given the chance to take part only in all the good things that life has to offer, and never to have to go through the bad. He thought about what his life might have been like if his dad never abused him. He thought about what it might be like to go through life as a regular guy, but after all, Raymond had no real, clear concept in his mind of just what exactly a regular guy was. He was only in touch with the way he felt at present, and even that was just a blurred mix of schizophrenic confusion. Another painting that impressed Raymond from the same artist, came from a series of works entitled, Houses Of Parliament. The one he was looking at dated from nineteen o'five, and compared to other Monet paintings, it was much darker and less cheerful. Even though it didn't inspire the same dream of hope and perfection in Raymond's mind, the dark, muted colors in the painting, together with the feeling that at any given moment it might rain, brought despair and hate to the surface of Raymond's thoughts. Raymond suddenly realized the power this painting had over him as he found himself fondling the smooth surface of the Nazi dagger under his coat, staring at the brushwork while rubbing his thumb over and over the enamel swastika, as he habitually did before a kill. But just as he was about to unsnap the leather strap around the handle of the weapon and remove it from its sheath, a voice rang out above the criminal thoughts of his reverie, and broke through the strange spell cast on him by the great work of art. “Yo, Raymond!” called Dan. “It's ten o'clock, where you been? I been lookin' all over for ya. It's break time, c'mon.” Hearing Dan's words, Raymond slowly drifted back to the reality of present time and wittingly released his grip on the handle of the blade, slipping it back into its sheath and reflexively smoothing out the wrinkles of the coat he wore over it. “Gosh,” replied Raymond. “I guess I lost track of time. I'm glad you found me.” “Sure,” answered Dan, as the two of them began the long walk back to the break room. “But you mind if I ask you what the heck you were doin' with your hand in your coat? Just makin' yourself happy or what?” “No, really,” said Raymond, blushing. “Just tucking my shirt in, honest.” “Anything you say,” said Dan, smiling at his own jest. “We're startin' a new game a Monopoly all for you. I hope you appreciate it. We only got ten minutes ta piss away so lets hurry.” Lorin was already waiting for Dan and Raymond in the break room, and as he brought out the Monopoly box and unfolded the game board on top of the card table they played on, he removed his hat and loosened his tie to make himself more comfortable. Choosing a marker for himself, he set the others down in plain view on the table to hopefully expedite the game. The markers were assorted and consisted of; a car, a jockey on a horse, a man in a space suit, a rocket ship, a tiny silver gun and last but not least, the bust of a man with a top hat on his head. Lorin had already picked the gun from among the six items, and Danny was just about ready to make his selection from the remaining five in the bunch. “I'll take the car,” said Dan. “Makes me feel like I'm not trapped here.” “I know what'cha mean,” answered Lorin. “C'mon Ray, hurry up an pick a marker.” “I'll take the head,” said Raymond. “It makes me feel at home.” “How does a head make ya feel at home?” replied Danny, laughing out loud. “I don't know,” came Raymond's reply. “It just looks like someone I know.” “Whatever,” said Lorin. “Just roll the dice to find out who goes first will ya? We only got another seven minutes till the end a break.” By the end of break time, the three players had rounded the board by more then a few times and already had begun to purchase property and make headway into the game. Lorin had spent most of the money he'd begun with by purchasing Boardwalk, the most expensive property on the board, hoping to make up the financial loss by safely passing “GO” several times, replenishing the money he'd spent. Danny started off buying the railroads and making more minor purchases, hoping to win the game by a more modest strategy of making purchases in volume all over the board. But Raymond didn't really begin with a game playing strategy. He merely let the cards fall where they may, so to speak, and made purchases only when he felt it was convenient to do so. But when Raymond playfully started to ask the marker he moved on the board for financial advice, picking it up and speaking intimately to it, the other two guards began to stare at each other in wonder, both of them with equally questioning looks on their faces. Naturally, the scene sparked more laughter from Danny and he couldn't help but question Raymond's new game playing strategy. “That's no fair Raymond! You're gonna have ta play by yourself. You don't see us gettin' outside help do ya?” “He's just foolin' around aren't you Ray,” said Lorin. “You're a funny guy Ray, you had us both goin' there for a minute. That stuff where you're talkin' ta the marker, it's a big joke right?” But just as Raymond was about to speak, Sol stuck his head around the door of the break room to remind the three that their morning break was over. “Lets go you guys, party's over, back to work.” The next hour and fifty minutes before lunch went smoothly for Raymond. He walked up and down the many galleries of the museum as he was instructed by Sol, making sure patrons kept their hands away from the many priceless water color and oil paintings, bronze and stone sculptures and other varied displays of modern or contemporary art, and at noon, he went back to the break room to find Danny and Lorin already there ahead of him, taking off their hats and washing up, getting ready to go eat. “Good, you're here.” Said Lorin, “lets get the hell outta here.” “The faster, the better,” replied Dan. And as soon as Raymond had loosened his tie and hung his hat on a coat hook, the three were out the door and headed down Monroe Street for a sandwich and a beer, or two. Their destination was Torino's Pub, only two blocks west of the museum and frequent hot spot for the guards, other office workers and truck driver's who delivered goods and services in the area. Once seated, there was no reason for Dan and Lorin to open a menu, they were very familiar with it and could practically recite it from memory. “What'll it be?” asked Lorin, looking in Raymond's general direction. “The burgers are good here, grilled to perfection. You might wanna try one.” “I don't know,” answered Raymond. “I think I'm more of a hot dog kinda guy. You ever fry ‘em with onions?” “Can't say that I have, but the Francheesie's good here. They wrap it in a lot of bacon and give ya a shit load of fries with it,” continued Lorin. “Get yourself a booze drink while you're at it. You can't go back sober.” “I know what I'm gettin',” said Danny. “A babe ta bop, an a bottle a booze.” “You always say that an you always come outta here empty handed,” quipped Lorin. “Whaddaya want me ta do? It's lunch break.” “Excuses, excuses,” replied Lorin. “C'mon already, lets order.” After lunch, the one scotch each that they downed turned into two. And when that was gone, they were about to ask for more, but with only a few minutes left of lunch break, there just wasn't time enough to sit and drink it down. “Don't worry about it,” said Lorin to Raymond. “When afternoon break rolls around, you'll be so hammered you won't know your own name.” “Here's to the job,” said Raymond, raising his glass in tribute to the fun he was having and gulping down the last of the gold colored alcohol. “I think I'm gonna like it here.” When the three got back to work, Raymond once again began to make his rounds up and down the galleries. By the afternoon, he'd become familiar with most of the rooms of the museum and had begun to revisit some of his more favored paintings. One in particular that caught his attention was Van Gogh's painting of his Bedroom In Arles, from eighteen eighty-eight. It had a calming effect on Raymond which was the intention of the artist at the time he painted it. The neutral shades of colors for the floor, walls and door of the room were intended to allow the brighter yellow of the bedframe to stand out, and bring about feelings of restfulness to the observer. As Raymond's eyes carefully scanned the picture, he thought of how nice it would be if he were only able to walk to the green and yellow glass window on the far wall in the room, open it, and look outside to the sunny, mild day in early fall which the artist had imagined. How nice it would be to live in the warmth of an everlasting, timeless sun. An eternal day which would permit no clouds or storm to cause chaos in Raymond's terribly impressionable, delicate mind. But those days do exist in reality, and so do the storms, and with them Raymond's drastically changing mood swings, in a constant flux and human portrayal of the good and evil in him. Checking his wristwatch, Raymond realized it was time for his three o'clock break. This time, when he got to the break room, he noticed that Lorin and Danny had become louder and more boisterous then before. Hanging his hat up as he'd done before lunch, he saw that the two were again seated at the game table, but on this occasion, with bottles of Coke beside them. Out of sheer curiosity, he couldn't help but ask what was so funny. “I heard you guys in the hallway on my way in. The joke isn't on me is it?” “No it isn't,” answered Lorin. “Quit being so paranoid. We were laughing about some people we met after lunch. Some dumb ass tourists,” he continued. “I only tried to explain Titian's lighting methods to them because they asked, but it went right over their heads. Vooom. I wish you coulda seen the looks on their faces.” “Maybe it was the way you explained it,” replied Raymond. “Hey, I do the best I can. The problem is, you don't always know who you're talking to. We meet ‘em all here Ray. From artists and art historians, to people who never finished high school who all of a sudden feel the need to become cultured and worldly. Believe me Ray, there isn't any time to choose your words and speak for all the different types who come in here. It's just impossible, you'll find out. By the way,” he continued. “You know anything about art?” “Just from the books I pick up and the paintings I make.” “You're kiddin'. We got an artist here,” he said, looking in Danny's direction. “What kinda things you paint?” asked Dan, growing curious about the level of Raymond's expertise. “How good are ya?” “Better then passing I guess. I like to paint landscapes and scenery mostly. It calms me down and makes me feel like the world isn't such a bad place after all. You know what I mean?” “I know what you mean,” said Lorin, shaking his head up and down as he glanced out the break room window behind Danny's chair. “The world just plain sucks sometimes doesn't it. People have this natural inclination to shit on each other, but forget about it for now. It's time for a Coke Ray. Have a seat.” Almost simultaneously as Raymond sat down, Lorin got up to get the rum he and Dan had been so vigorously enjoying before Raymond walked in. Fishing through a duffel bag he brought with, he brought out the bottle and quickly poured a few ounces of it into a waiting Coke for Raymond, disguising the alcohol in the dark color of the cola. “So tell me about your art work,” began Lorin, as interested in Raymond's skill level as Dan. “Why dont'cha bring something in sometime. Show us what you do.” “Sure, I can do that,” replied Raymond. “I'll bring in some examples for you guys tomorrow. But hey, don't expect much. I'm not Titian you know.” At home that night, Raymond brought Guy out and sat him on a table in the living room. Wondering which of his paintings he could bring to the museum, he thought Guy might be able to help him make some important decisions. The paintings had to be small enough to fit inside the carrying case he used to transport them on occasion, but more importantly, he wanted good examples of his art that exemplified the best of his ability. “Whaddaya think,” asked Raymond. “Which ones do I bring?” “Am I lookin' at all of it or is there more?” replied Guy. “There's more in the bedroom, in my closet.” “So what are you waitin' for? Lets have a look see.” Rummaging through the remainder of his work, Raymond found another fifteen or so paintings and brought them out into the living room. Lining them up near an opposite wall, he placed them on the floor, leaning against a couch and some chairs, as if it were time for a classroom critique. “You're puttin' me in a bad spot here,” said Guy. “I don't understand,” replied Raymond. “Can't you see them? You want me to move you to a different table?” “No,” answered Guy. “I can see just fine, but ya got me feelin' like a teacher or somethin'. I didn't want that much responsibility. Makes me feel uncomfortable.” “Well, what can I do to get you to relax? I need you to help me make some decisions here. Wait, I know,” continued Raymond. “Hold it right there for just a minute. I'll be right back.” Walking to his front hall closet, Raymond opened the door and examined the three hats he remembered, which hung on hooks on the inside of the door. One of them was a dress hat he rarely used; one was a knitted ski cap he wore for protection against the cold winter winds of Chicago, and the last was an artists beret. It was a hat Raymond bought on a whim one day while shopping in a department store. Taking it from its hook, he took it in his hands and smoothed out any creases in it. “Here you go,” he said to Guy, gently removing the Chicago Cubs cap from the severed head, and replacing it with the beret. “This outta work. It'll make you feel smart, just like a teacher at a university. How do you feel now?” “I feel like I'm the one who should be paintin' now. Move over Ray, there's room for more artists at the top if you're good enough. Know what I mean? Shit.” “What's wrong now?” “If I only had arms I could paint. Oh well my friend, such is life. One takes the good with the bad.” “C'mon,” said Raymond. “We're losing time. Just help me make some decisions.” “I like them all Ray. There isn't a bad one in the bunch. You're a talented guy you know that?” “Really?” asked Raymond. “You really think so?” “I know so,” replied Guy. “Take that one over there,” he continued. “Which one?” “Hey, if I could point, I would,” said Guy sarcastically. “The green one. The painting of the pears. That's a Cezanne isn't it?” “Yeah,” answered Raymond. “How'd you know?” “I might be just a head, but I ain't stupid. I can even tell ya when he painted it. About eighteen eighty-five, right? It's titled, Still Life With Pears.” “That's true,” Raymond said, surprised at Guy's knowledge of art. “What else can you tell me?” “Plenty,” said Guy. “For starters, that other still life in the corner, next ta the wall. The one with the orange pieces a fruit. That's another Cezanne, painted about nineteen hundred, titled simply, Still Life. “ “Gosh Guy, I'm impressed. You must know at least as much as I do. Did the beret do all that?” “Not really but it did help ta loosen me up, know what I mean? Anyway,” Guy continued, “why dont'cha take those two and the Monet over there. The one he titled, An Impression, Sunrise. That's the piece that practically got the whole ball rollin'. The whole impressionism thing. You did a good job on it too. I don't think I could tell it from the original, even if ya laid ‘em side by side.” “I'm flattered,” said Raymond, feeling quite proud of himself. “Thanks Guy, you're a big help.” “Don't mention it. Just one more thing.” “What's that?” “Forget about that son-of-a-bitch Hitler would ya. He was psycho.” “I'll see what I can do Guy, but I can't make any promises.” “Yeah, right.” Replied Guy, expressing dismay at Raymond's unwillingness to put an end to his admiration for the fallen fuhrer. The next day at work, Raymond arrived ten minutes early and set the small, but exemplary cross section of his work on a long kitchen counter in the break room. Each of the three paintings leaned against the wall in readiness, as Raymond waited for the other guards to arrive and take notice. Wondering to himself what the guards would think of his work, he stood with his right hand to his chin while he deliberated and judged his own brushwork, color and style. Hmmm, he thought. I wonder if Guy was just being nice last night when he told me he couldn't tell my work from the originals. God knows, I've done the best I can. There's nothing more I can do. “Hey Ray,” said Lorin, as he entered the room, interrupting Raymond's pensive mood. “Oh, Hi. I didn't hear you come in.” “Yo,” remarked Danny, spotting the artwork leaning against the wall. “Nice stuff Ray, really nice.” “Damn Ray,” said Lorin. “I can't tell these from the real ones. Hold on,” he continued, as he picked up one of the works by Cezanne. “I got an idea. C'mon with me.” And as Lorin left the break room with Raymond's painting under his arm, the two other guards walked after him, wondering to themselves what it was that Lorin had on his mind. Approaching one of the galleries of impressionist painters, Lorin walked past some of the most famous works of art in the world. Some of which were priceless, and some, if auctioned would've sold for millions of dollars each. “Let's see now,” he remarked, as he passed by some of the most outstanding paintings of the late nineteenth century. “Who's who here? We got Pissarro, that ain't it. We got Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, here we go, stop right here. Check it out,” he said, as he stepped over the thick, felt rope which separated the patrons from the artwork on the walls, and held Raymond's copy next to the original. “Whaddya think?” “Whaddya mean, what do I think? It looks just like the original,” replied Dan. “Exactly.” “I'm not sure I understand,” said Raymond, assuming a posture of uncertainty, as he stood shrugging his shoulders with his hands in his pockets. “C'mon back ta the break room. I got somethin' I need ta talk over with you guys.” With a strong will, and with determination in his stride, Lorin walked back to the break room with Raymonds painting under his arm. Inviting Raymond and Dan to have a seat at the game table, he quickly laid out a sketchy but promising plan that occurred to him when he realized how talented Raymond actually was. “We only got a few minutes left before we gotta get out on the floor, so I'm gonna make this brief,” he said, as he placed Raymond's copy back up on top of the counter where it'd been. “The way I see it, it's real easy. Raymond makes perfect copies doesn't he? Who's gonna know if we change out the original paintings with some of his copies?” “Wholly shit!” exclaimed Danny. “That's grand larceny. How many years can we get if they catch us?” “I don't know,” replied Lorin. “Five, ten, what difference does it make. Nobody's gonna catch us.” “But how do we change out the paintings?” asked Raymond. “People are always here walking around.” “That's one of the easiest parts,” replied Lorin, as he began to walk around the game table, thinking out loud as he made a near perfect circular path about the two seated guards. “I swear, this could be the perfect crime. You know on Thursdays, when people come in for free and Sol takes off early?” “Yeah so,” said Danny. “We still gotta get the paintings off the walls while people are walkin' around. How do you intend to accomplish that?” “We take our time, and we remove one painting per week. If anyone asks what we're doin', we tell ‘em we're removing them to give them a cleaning. We take ‘em back to the repair shop in the basement, change ‘em out with Ray's copy and wha-lah. We got ourselves a priceless work of art.” “What do we do with it then?” asked Dan, with Raymond looking on as the two guards talked back and forth, pressing each other for logical answers. “We got ourselves a hot painting. How do we ditch it?” “Leave it to me,” answered Lorin. “I'll find us a buyer, but for now,” he continued, turning his attention to Raymond. “Get those paintings off the counter, an don't let Sol see ‘em. Don't ever let him find out what you're capable of Raymond, you got me?” “Sure,” replied Raymond. “I understand.” “Oh shit!” said Lorin, clenching both of his hands into tight fists as he exclaimed. “We're gonna be rich!” That week when Thursday came around, Raymond returned to the museum with the Cezanne that Lorin had used for comparison, and left it concealed in the portfolio he used to carry his work. The space behind the tall refrigerator in the break room, between the appliance and the wall, provided a good hiding place for the portfolio and it appeared to the guards that Sol would never be the wiser, as long as no one told him where it was and what they were up to. So far, Lorin's plan seemed to be pretty much fail-safe, and that afternoon, when Sol left the Museum after lunch as he usually did, the thoughts and words of their scheme became action. After waiting awhile to make sure that Sol hadn't forgotten anything which may have prompted his return, Lorin nonchalantly walked his way to the impressionist galleries, and took the initiative to begin the first step of the plan on his own. Greeting patrons and nodding to them on his way past - acting as calm and natural as he possibly could - he stepped over the felt covered rope in front of the object of his interest. Taking it in his hands, he began to feel the pressure of the situation rise, as his palms began to sweat and his forehead became beaded with perspiration. Removing the original Cezanne from its position on the wall, he carefully tucked it under his arm and was on his way out of the gallery, when a lady who'd been steadily watching from across the room suddenly walked up and began questioning him. “Excuse me son,” she said most politely, “but may I have a word with you?” “Ahh,” replied Lorin nervously. “I'm kind of busy right now...Is it real important?” “To me it is, yes. I've been waiting to ask you a question for the longest time, but you seemed so...Oh, how shall I say it? Preoccupied with what you were doing.” “Go on Mam,” said Lorin, clutching the artwork under his arm as if it had become part of his body. What did you want to ask me?” “Well, it may not be considered a part of your job to do things like this, but you know the Georges Seurat painting on the far wall there? The really big one of the people in the park?” “Yes Mam,” replied Lorin, pointing to the largest canvas in the room. “It's a favorite of mine. What seems to be the problem?” “Oh, I was standing there looking at it when all of a sudden, I couldn't help but notice that one of the light bulbs above it is burned out. You know, you really cannot get the true effect of the piece if the lighting is not sufficient.” “I see,” said Lorin, staring at the painting in question, and breathing a sigh of relief as he subconsciously loosened his grip around the priceless artwork in his possession. “I'll get right on it Mam, and thank you for bringing that to my attention.” “Oh, thank you,” replied the grateful woman. “But there is just one more thing I was meaning to ask.” “Yes,” replied Lorin, bracing himself for what he thought he was about to hear. “It's your shoe,” said the woman. “I couldn't help noticing your shoe.” “My shoe?” “Yes, you have a shoelace that is completely untied and hanging. If you tripped on that you could get very hurt on these hard stone floors. Don't you think you should tie it, just for safeties sake?” “I will Mam, just as soon as I get the chance. And thank you for bringing that to my attention also.” Relieved and slightly shaken, Lorin walked up to where Raymond was standing, watching the patrons of the museum walk leisurely past, and nervously related what had just happened to him. He then told Raymond to change the bulb over the Seurat painting as quickly as he could. “Downstairs next to repairs Ray, that's where we store supplies. Follow me, I'll take you there,” he said. “Get the bulb in as soon as you can. We don't need anymore interruptions like the old lady. I nearly crapped my pants.” “Sure Lorin,” said Raymond, smiling. “But there's just one more thing.” “What is it? I'm in a hurry.” “Don't you think you should tie your shoe?” It only took Lorin thirty minutes to remove the original painting from its frame and replace it with Raymond's copy. When the task was complete, he walked the original work back to the break room and carefully placed it in the portfolio behind the refrigerator. As the three had discussed, part of the plan was to have Raymond take the originals back with him and store them in his apartment until the time was right to find a buyer for them. Before hanging the copy in its place on the gallery wall, Lorin asked the other two guards to give their opinion and rate their effort one last time. “Whaddaya think about it now that it's framed?” he asked, as he held the finished work in front of himself in his outstretched arms. “It looks great,” answered Dan. “In fact, I'm a lot less worried now that I can see how good it looks in the frame. It's a great copy, what can I say.” “I think you're right,” said Lorin. “I got a good feeling about it too. What about you Ray?” “I'm worried. I've never done anything like this before. Lets face it,” continued Raymond, “we've committed a crime here.” “Ray,” replied Lorin. “Don't wimp out on me now. This is the chance of a lifetime. Hell, even if we were somehow caught, you got a clean record, they'll go easier on you for a first offense. Hey,” he continued. “Just imagine what you're gonna do with your share of the money we make when we sell the originals. How about a beach house in California? How does that sound?” “It sounds terrific, that's how it sounds,” said Raymond, imagining the warm ocean breeze, fresh California air and sunny days on the beach that could be his if he could only forget his regret. “All right,” said Lorin, “that's what I like to hear. Keep a positive attitude Ray, it's real important right now. You with me?” “I'm with you.” “Great. Now I'm gonna get this thing back in place on the wall an nobody'll be the wiser. You'll see. There's just one more thing I gotta say.” “Like what?” said Dan. “You guys might as well know, I'm keepin' a gun in my duffel bag now. Especially on Thursdays when we're changin' out paintings.” “Why would you bring a weapon?” asked Raymond. “I don't get it. I was just starting to feel good about this.” “You never can tell Ray.” said Lorin, with a firmness to his voice. “There's always the possibility something could go wrong, as slim a chance as it is, it's there and we have to face it. We gotta get used to that from now on, till we're done. Knowing that it's there in my bag makes me feel a little safer, know what I mean?” “I guess,” answered Raymond. “I suppose I can relate to that.” “Yeah, me too.” said Dan. “Whatever. Just show me the money.” That night, when Raymond arrived home to his apartment, he couldn't wait to show Guy the original artwork in his portfolio. Leaning the case against the wall, near the front door, he took off his black trench coat and hung it in the closet. Then, he walked swiftly to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator to find his friend exactly where he left him, on the deepest shelf, still wearing the same expression of horror, and still wearing the artists French beret on top of his head as Raymond had left him. Removing the severed head from its shelf, Raymond placed it on the dining room table so Guy could get a better view of what Raymond had to show him. “Did ya get it?” asked Guy, showing the enthusiasm that Raymond had hoped for. “Sure did,” replied Raymond, removing the priceless artwork from the black carrying case and setting it on a chair next to a far wall. “It's fantastic isn't it? Have you ever been so close to something this important? It's a real thrill for me Guy. A real thrill.” “Gosh Ray, no kidding. I feel the same way. Whaddaya think it's worth? A million? Two million?” “Something like that. We'll never make that much on it, but at auction, it'd go for about one million five at least, wouldn't you say?” “Damn, this is exciting, but what if ya get caught? What then?” “I don't know Guy, that has me worried too. Lorin says the law should go lighter on me over a first offense like this. I don't have a police record you know.” “Ahh, don't worry about it,” replied Guy. “I was just thinkin' ta myself. Hey Ray,” he continued. “Why don'tcha hang it up on the wall. It doesn't look much different then the rest a your stuff. Who's gonna know? I bet you guys get away with this. It's really a perfect crime. Just keep doin' what you're doin'.” “Thanks Guy, you're very nice, but you know it wasn't even my idea, it was Lorin's.” “Who cares who thought of it. What does it matter now. Just think a the money you'll have when this is all over. Hey,” continued Guy, “You are takin' me with aren't you? I mean, you are leavin' town when this is over ain'tcha? You're not leavin' me behind are you?” “Of course you're coming with me Guy. You're my best friend. How could I leave you here in this cold, wicked town?” “Thanks Ray, thanks for thinkin' of me,” said Guy, appreciative of Raymond's thoughtfulness. “How about a game a blackjack to pass the time. It gets lonely here when you're at work, ya know.” “Sure Guy, if it'll make you happy. I'll get the cards.” The next morning when Raymond woke up the sun was shining and a few bold robins were singing their celebration of spring in the chilly, fifty degree Chicago air when he noticed Guy, still perched on his dinner plate on the dining room table from the night before. Opening the blinds to let the sun in, Raymond turned toward the kitchen to start the coffee percolator when Guy began to speak. “Goin' ta work?” “Yes, I have to.” “Sure ya don't wanna play hooky today? It's Friday, we can play some rummy, make popcorn, listen to the radio. Whaddaya say?” “Guy,” replied Raymond, tempted to stay home but determined not to be persuaded by Guy's strong influence. “I can't stay home, they're expecting me. Besides, we need the money. What if I lose my job, who's gonna pay the bills around here? You get to stay home everyday. I don't see you movin' your butt out there in the work world.” “I would if I had one. You really know how ta hurt a guy Ray. I have feelings too ya know.” “I'm sorry Guy, I didn't mean to hurt your feelings but I have to go to work. Of course I'd like to stay home, who wouldn't? Look,” continued Raymond, “why don't we talk about it when I get home tonight, I really have to run now.” “Sure, easy for you ta say.” Fridays at the museum were often slow and uneventful for Lorin and Dan. Most of the visitors who were tourists from other states and countries had the opportunity to come in during other days of the week, especially on Thursdays, which was a day of free admission. But Friday always meant the end of a long, dull week to the guards and best of all, they could collect their paychecks. On this Friday however, it was just before the afternoon break at three o'clock when Lorin found himself roaming from gallery to gallery as he usually did, in a haze of boredom. But as his legs took control of his nearly sleeping mind, he suddenly found himself in the gallery of impressionist paintings where they had switched works of art just one day previous to today. It was then that he recognized the very same lady who'd questioned him over the Seurat painting, now standing, with eyes fixed, gazing at the same Cezanne he'd practically just finished changing only twenty-four hours ago. Worried that she might have another question on her mind, this one much more troublesome than before, he turned his body away, and began to walk out of the room when he heard someone suddenly shout at him. “Oh young man! Yoo-hoo,” exclaimed the one lady he'd been dreading. “Over here. I have a question.” Good God, thought Lorin to himself, somebody wake me up, this must be a nightmare. She won't friggin' leave me alone. Doesn't she have a life? She was just here yesterday. “Yes Mam,” said Lorin reluctantly. “What can I do for you?” “That painting, the Cezanne I was looking at. There's something wrong with it.” Oh, shit. Now what? He thought. There's no way I'm goin' to jail, no way. “What might that be Mam. I don't see anything wrong with it.” “Come now, take a good look. Tell me what you see. I know you're young but you must have an eye for art, otherwise, why work in a place so filled with it?” “I understand Mam but I still don't see what you mean. I really must be moving on. I have to make my rounds through the museum or my supervisor will be wondering what I'm doing.” “I know, but this won't take long,” she said. “Oh, very well,” she remarked, this time with a tone of exasperation to her voice. “If you won't at least guess, then I'll say it for you. It's the lighting over it.” “I see Mam,” answered Lorin, as his heart nearly pounded a hole through his chest. “Didn't we just have a conversation like this yesterday?” “To be truthful young man yes, we did, but I detect a note of sarcasm to your voice and I don't appreciate it one bit. I could report you to your supervisor you know.” “I apologize Mam. I didn't mean to offend you. I was just wondering what could be wrong with the lighting this time. I don't see any burnt bulbs.” “Don't you see? The lighting sources from above are not directed as they should be. If you turned them this way and that,” she said, as she illustrated twisting motions in the air with her hands, “you'd be lighting that marvelous work as it should be. Do you see my point?” “Yes Mam, I see it now. I'll get right on it, but I'll have to get a ladder,” said Lorin, removing his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. “It'll take me awhile, I don't know if you want to wait for me to do this.” “That's all right, I'll wait for you. I'm here for most of the day today so that I can take in everything I missed yesterday. It's such a large museum you know.” “Yes Mam, I know. I'll be right back.” That old bat's gonna give me a heart attack, thought Lorin, as he made his way to the storage room in the basement. Please God, make her go away. Wondering to himself as he lumbered up the long stairway - dragging the tall heavy ladder as he went - Lorin thought that if he stalled long enough, the fanatic patron might tire of waiting and leave. Climbing to the top of the landing, he rested the extension ladder against the wall, opened an emergency door exit and reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette. Walking outside, he brought out the matches that he kept in his pants pocket and read the cover aloud to himself. “Torino's Pub. Damn, I sure could use a drink now. Always something going wrong. Always something,” he repeated the words to himself as he leaned his back to the outside wall and took a deep drag off his cigarette. “Does anything ever go the way you planned it?” he continued, “if I wait here long enough will the crazy lady please, just disappear? This plan of mine, it's damn perfect. I can't let some old witch screw it up for me.” With a new resolve in his mind, Lorin tossed the cigarette to the pavement and ground it out with his foot. Turning to walk back inside, he noticed a familiar silhouette in the dim light of the hallway. “Where you been? I been lookin' all over for ya. There's an old lady in impressionism throwin' a fit. Says you were rude to her. What the hell happened?” “You wouldn't believe it if I told you Sol. She started in on me yesterday over a burnt out bulb. Now she's goin' crazy over nothing again, complaining that the lightings turned wrong over one a the Cezanne's. She just wants ta bother me while I'm turnin' the spotlights, can you believe it? Where do they find me Sol? What'd I do ta deserve this?” “Shit, I didn't know she was that nuts. Got a fanatic on your hands don'tcha. Alright,” said Sol, continuing to analyze the strange situation Lorin had become involved in. “Just do me this favor. Go over there an take care a the lights okay. I'll go with you an try ta smooth things out. Don't worry about it, I'll get her off your back.” “Thanks Sol,” answered Lorin, as he thought over the danger of having Sol's attention drawn to the copy now hanging in place of the real Cezanne. “You don't wanna spend too much time with her though,” reasoned Lorin, “she'll just drive you crazy.” “You let me worry about it, I'll be fine. I got five years experience dealin' with nuts here, I'll be okay. C'mon, you take one end a the ladder an I'll take the other.” Walking back to the impressionist gallery, with ladder in tow, Lorin and Sol weren't surprised when they found the overzealous patron still waiting for them, more annoyed then ever and complaining here and there to some of the other people as they passed by. On seeing this, Sol eased his end of the ladder down to the floor and walked over to the still life painting she was standing in front of, hoping to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. “Here we are Mam, just like I promised,” said Sol, as he motioned to Lorin to set the ladder up in front of the Cezanne still life. “Sorry we took so long getting here, this ladder's a little difficult for one man to carry but it won't take long now.” “Very well, but have you reprimanded that man as you should have?” she said, pointing in Lorin's direction. “He was condescending and I can't abide by that.” “I'm sure he didn't mean it. If he was brief, it was only because he knows he has other things around here I want him to do, but I talked to him about it and he assured me that it won't ever happen again.” “Oh, oh, wait young man,” said the lady, taking her attention away from Sol and focusing on Lorin instead. “You're twisting that lamp in the wrong direction. That won't do at all.” “Okay,” said Lorin, now standing near the top rung of the ladder. “How's this? That better?” “Mmm,” replied the old woman. “This isn't going to work is it. I think we're just going to have to move the painting over a bit.” “Mam,” insisted Sol, “we can't take time to do that now. I only have so many guards posted and they each have their daily tasks to perform.” “Very well then, who may I ask is curator here? Maybe he will listen to me.” “That won't be necessary,” said Sol, motioning to Lorin to come down from the ladder. “We can resolve this without having to notify the curator.” “Lorin, come over here,” said Sol, standing off to the side, just out of listening range so the meddlesome woman wouldn't hear them speaking. “Looks like we got a problem on our hands.” “What'd I tell you,” answered Lorin with his arms crossed over his chest, standing fast in his opinion. “She's nuts.” “I know, I know, but look. If we can satisfy the old bag without bringing anyone else into this, we'll be done with this thing right here an now, read me? Nobody else has to know, you with me?” “Yeah, sure. What the hell, I get paid by the hour.” “That's the spirit. Now go downstairs to repairs and get a hammer and a couple a nails. I'll do what I can while you're gone.” “Fine,” replied Lorin, as he turned away and began the long walk from the gallery to the basement and when he'd disappeared from view, Sol renewed his conversation with the now impatient patron. “You'll be pleased to know Mam, we decided to move the painting as you suggested,” said Sol, stepping over the felt rope and moving the ladder off to the side. Taking the copy in his hands, he carefully removed it from the hook it hung from and held it a few inches to one side of its original position. “What do you think? How about here?” “Mmm, better, but we're still not there. One more inch in that direction. There, hold it right there. That's the spot. That's exactly where it needs to be. You see how the spotlight hits it now? It emphasizes the lighting in the painting that the artist intended all along. Do you see?” “Yes Mam, I think I do.” “Very well, just be sure and hold it right there. Don't move an inch.” “I'll try Mam but my arms are getting tired. Why don't I just set it down on the floor here until the guard gets back.” “If you must, but we'll lose our perfect position on the wall and we'll have to start all over again.” “Not a problem Mam,” said Sol, placing the painting on the floor and leaning it up against the wall. When Lorin returned, he found Sol and the woman standing next to each other, Sol with his hands hidden from view in his pockets, wondering when this awful situation would end, and the old woman talking to him as he slowly nodded his head up and down in cadence with her words. Noticing Lorin as he walked back into the gallery, Sol politely excused himself from his captor and approached the depressed looking guard to have a word with him in private. “I never been so glad ta see you,” said Sol. “Have I been cursed or have you? What'd we ever do ta deserve this?” “Remember? I asked you the same question. Now you know. So now what happens?” “I don't know,” said Sol. “I'd sooner go back to Anzio then listen ta her for another two minutes. C'mon,” he continued, “lets get this over with.” Returning to the problem at hand, Sol and Lorin were determined to bring this unusual state of affairs to an end, and stepping over the dividing rope - which by now in their minds had become the divisor of good and evil - Sol bravely picked up the counterfeit painting and put it back in its approximate position on the wall. “No,” claimed the old woman. “That's not where you had it before. Here,” she continued, “I'll help you.” And as the fanatic patron stepped over the rope, she caused a panic in the minds of the two stricken guards. Now there was no physical barrier between them, and all distinction between good and evil had eroded. Opposite poles had attracted, and the guards were helpless to repel the invasion. Surely, thought Sol, this must be the work of some higher force committed to punishing them. “I can see better on this side of the rope. That awful thing just gets in the way.” “Mam,” pleaded Sol. “Patrons of the museum aren't allowed on this side of the rope.” “Just this one time won't hurt anything, I'm sure. Here,” she continued, “let me put that where it needs to be. Right there,” she proclaimed, “that's exactly where it needs to be. Now don't move it or we'll have to start over again.” “No Mam, I wouldn't want to move it,” said Sol, giving in to the agony of this day as he'd never given in before, even in times of war and major conflict. Both of the guards had unwittingly become the old woman's mindless drones, both of them realizing that it was easier to give in then to fight, given the present set of circumstances. “Here now, I have a pencil in my purse,” she said. “I'll just make little tick marks on the wall so that when we take the painting away, we'll know precisely where to put the hook. You see. There now,” she went on, “you see how well we work together as a team? We'll be done before you know it.” “Before I die of old age I hope,” mumbled Lorin under his breath. “What's that, young man?” she asked. “Nothing Mam,” answered Sol. “He was just remarking on how great the painting looks here, weren't you Lorin.” “Exactly. That's exactly what I said. How's this Mam? How does it look now?” “Splendid. It's just divine, don't you think?” “Yes Mam, it certainly is,” answered Sol. “Why don't you make the tick marks now so we can finish up. We do have to make our rounds around the museum. I'm sure the both of us are missed. We're really falling behind in our work.” Surprisingly quick, the relentless old woman made tiny, perfect marks on the wall around the frame, hardly perceptible to the naked eye, but there nonetheless. She then drew a light line from dot to dot, even with the top of the frame and measured down from the center of the line to the exact position of the hook. There and only there did there exist one perfect point, out of a geometric field of infinite others that corresponded with the tip of the nail. And there the nail went, and after it, followed the painting. “Now let me ask you,” said the lady, stepping back over the rope as if in retreat, to admire her work. “Isn't that better? The light strikes it perfectly. Wasn't it worth the effort you put in?” With expressions of dejection on their faces, both guards looked back and forth at each other and then at the officious old woman standing before them. “You bet,” answered Sol. “Every minute of it.” Late that Friday afternoon as Raymond walked east on Granville toward his apartment, it began to rain. It fell in tiny droplets for a few minutes, allowing Raymond to get closer to home, but soon after, it became another hard rain. Pulling his hat down over his forehead, he made sure it fit tightly and looked up toward the sky. He stopped walking momentarily, and as the water fell around his face and neck, he cursed the wretched weather and cursed his abusive father. If I could only go back in time, he thought, I know exactly what I'd do. Looking for a place to get in out of the rain, he found shelter under the small cantilevered roof of a restaurant/bar. Peering into the large storefront window, he read the blue neon sign aloud to himself, “Rockin' Robyn's Restaurant. Hmmm,” he continued, as he reached for the door handle, “I wonder what's so rockin' about it?” Walking through the door threshold, he noticed a large jukebox hard at work playing a stack of the latest hit tunes, while The Little White Cloud That Cried by Johnny Ray filled the air with sorrowful notes: He said, “Have faith in all kinds of weather” “For the sun will always shine” “Do your best and always remember” “The dark clouds pass with time.” Shit, he thought, don't I feel bad enough. I thought this was a rockin' place. Looking around the room, he realized that he was nearly alone in the restaurant except for a tough looking bartender who stood wiping down the bar; a lady, probably Robyn he thought, seated by herself in the back of the room, and one lonely looking customer, sitting calmly at a table dressed in army fatigues, methodically sharpening a long, deadly looking knife. Slightly put off by the actions of the strange man but still, undeterred, Raymond took a seat at one of the tables, took off his coat and tried to make himself comfortable. “What'll it be Mac?” yelled the bartender from across the room. “Scotch and soda please,” yelled Raymond in return, and thirty seconds later, the cold refreshment sat chilling, getting icier by the moment on Raymond's table. But of course, as luck would have it, who should take notice but the odd man who sat sharpening his knife. Getting up from his table, he walked the distance to where Raymond sat, and pulled a chair out from Raymond's table without asking. “Have a seat,” said Raymond, feeling the nervous tension build inside him, wondering what it was this strange person had in mind. “Don't mind if I do. Got a match?” “Sure,” replied Raymond, reaching into the inside pocket of his trench coat. “Here you go,” he said, tossing the pack on the table in front of the man. “I never seen you in here before,” said the man. “Name's Joe, Joe Murphy. Got a name?” asked the stranger, peering out from behind a newly formed cloud of cigarette smoke - eyes squinting from the burning fumes - he slapped the book of matches back down on the hard wooden surface of the table for emphasis. “Raymond Mort. Pleased to meet you,” said Raymond, extending his hand as a gesture of good will, and shaking the hand of the rough looking stranger. “I couldn't help noticing that knife you were sharpening when I walked in,” Raymond said. “It's a pretty mean looking dagger. Do you mind my asking where you got it?” “Oh this,” said Joe, taking the knife by the handle and twirling it, back and forth in half turns as if it had suddenly become a nervous habit. “Picked it up in the army. It's army issue. I brought it home with me, among other things. Seen a lotta combat in France.” “You ever kill anyone?” asked Raymond. “What'd I just say?” said the man, opening his arms, still clutching the knife in his left hand to express the seriousness of the matter. “A course I killed people. We all did. Most of us anyway. The one's who didn't get killed themselves.” “Wow,” said Raymond, impressed with the stranger's war effort. “You protected America Mr. Murphy, you should be proud.” “I am Ray, you mind if I call you Ray?” “Not at all.” “But it comes at a terrible price.” “I've heard. My supervisor just got through telling me something a lot like that. But...” hesitated Raymond. “You ever kill anyone with that knife?” “Yeah, had ta kill a sentry with it once. Snuck up behind him, put my left arm around his mouth - just like they teach ya - an shoved this blade right through his kidney. When it happens, it happens real quick, barely any time ta think, ya know?” “I guess,” answered Raymond. “You seem to know a lot more about it then I do.” “Course I do,” replied Joe. “Army teaches ya how ta kill, then they expect ya ta come home an forget all about what you done back there. It's no joke Ray, I'll tell ya that right now. It's no joke.” “Can I see it?” asked Raymond. “See what? Oh, the knife. Yeah sure, just be careful with it. It's razor sharp,” said the vet, as he tossed the well balanced blade from his left hand to his right and forcefully brought it down, point first into the grain of the hardwood table with a thud. “Really nice,” said Raymond, removing the knife point from the table. “I like it. It feels good in your hand doesn't it. It makes me feel...powerful. Like I'm in control.” “You are too,” answered Joe. “Unless a course the other guy has a gun, then ya got trouble. Hey Ray,” insisted Joe, picking up the beer he'd brought along with him. “Drink up. We're here in this life ta live a little right, there's plenty a time for dyin'.” When Raymond left Rockin' Robyn's, it was about seven o'clock and mostly dark. Walking in the opposite direction of his apartment, he noticed the distant image of a man in a trench coat walking behind him. In the dim light of the rainy evening, he could tell that as the man walked, he carried a large briefcase in one hand and an open umbrella in the other. Reversing his course and approaching him, Raymond stopped to ask him a question. “Got a match?” “Sure buddy,” said the stranger, resting his briefcase on the concrete sidewalk. “I think I do. Hold on, it's here some...” But as the man turned to rummage through his pocket for the elusive book of matches, Raymond had already fatally stabbed him through the stomach, until the hilt of the Nazi dagger he carried was all that showed to the outside world. Pulling it from where it was lodged in the man's gut, Raymond let him fall where he may, and wiped the blade clean on his victim's coat. Dragging him through a nearby alley, he proceeded to butcher the man for what was to Raymond, the most desirable of body parts, and used the mans own briefcase to transport them. “What have we here,” said Guy, from his spot on the living room table. “Looks like you been busy.” “Long week Guy, I'm tired.” “C'mon, don't be bashful,” insisted Guy. “Let's see what'cha got.” “Very well,” replied Raymond, as he went to the kitchen for a dinner plate, opened the briefcase he'd walked in with, and set the newly severed head of the man he'd just murdered upon it. “Hey, put him next ta me Ray, two heads are better ‘en one ya know. Hey Ray,” continued Guy, “does he have a sense a humor? That's what we need around here ya know. What's his name?” “Uhh,” Raymond hesitated for a moment before speaking. “Joe I think, Joe Murphy.” “Hey Joe, whaddaya know?” asked Guy, but there came no reply from the inner recesses of Raymond's warped mind. “What is he, shy? Hey c'mon, we don't need no dead heads around here, do we Ray.” “I think he's just tired,” answered Raymond, “and a little bit surprised. I don't think he realized he'd end up here, you know?” “Ahh,” replied Guy, “I think I get the picture. Okay, maybe he needs some time ta get used ta the place.” “I'm okay,” spoke Joe, suddenly. “I'm just in one a my quiet moods, that's all. Sometimes, ya learn more from listenin' then from talkin', know what I mean?” “That's a good point Joe,” replied Raymond. “It seems as though most people just want to talk and be heard. The art of good conversation may be dying with the advent of modern technology.” “Well put Ray,” said Guy. “Nothin' we can do about it though. I bet it only gets worse in the future too. Why don't we just roll with it Ray, an buy a T.V.? Anyone who's anybody sits in front a the tube an vegetates now.” “I'd rather not Guy. It's just so much noise to me, so much more confusion in my head then I need. Heck, I have a tough time concentrating as it is. Why don't you two just play rummy while I finish the painting I've been working on.” “Check it out Joe,” said Guy, enthusiastically. “It's terrific. Show it to him Ray, it's Claude Monet's garden isn't it? The colors are beautiful Ray, all purple, violet an light blue. You've really outdone yourself this time. C'mon, take the cover off an show him.” “Okay, but after this, I really have to get to work. I got this weekend to finish it cause Thursday, it's going to the museum. Here,” he continued, “I'll take the cover off for you.” “Wow,” said Joe, impressed with Raymond's mastery of impressionism. “I ain't seen paintin's like that since I fought in France, but whaddaya mean it's goin' to the museum? I don't get it.” “We're gonna be rich Joe, don'tcha see?” answered Guy. “Ray paints copies an takes ‘em to the museum where he works, then they pull the old switcheroo when the boss ain't around. Pretty good huh.” “Oh yeah,” replied Joe. “Good for five years in Joliet State, an I don't mean the university neither.” “Don't worry him Joe, ease up. It's a fool proof plan,” said Guy. “You'll see Ray, it'll all work out in the end.” “I hope you're right Guy,” answered Raymond. “I wouldn't know what to do with myself in jail. Besides, I don't belong in prison, do I?” “Well,” replied Guy, hesitating as he seemed to choose his words with careful consideration. “Besides the fact that you have a kinda strange way a makin' new friends, an now you're committing grand larceny, I'd say no, you don't belong in jail.” “Now you've got me worried again Guy,” said Raymond. “You know I'm a worrier.” “Oh c'mon Ray, can't I joke around a little. What's life without a little pun here an there. Everyone gets made fun of sometimes ya know, it's not the end a the world. Go on now, get ta work an leave me an Joe here ta our own devises.” By Sunday evening, Raymond had finished his copy of Monet's garden, and when Monday morning came around, he put it in his black portfolio to bring to work for Dan and Lorin to see. Raymond was proud of the painting. He made the most of his opportunity to copy the serene, brightly colored masterpiece and reenacted the original summer scene exactly as Monet had intended. Every brush stroke had been contemplated and accounted for, and every dab of bright, vibrant color well planned. It was the best work Raymond had done so far in his life and he was excited at the thought of having people look at it and admire it. When he finally got off the train at the Monroe Street station, he walked as quickly as he could to the museum. Once there, he found himself nearly running to the break room, in a hurry to remove the artwork from its protective case and put it on display. Reaching his morning destination, he walked into the room and leaned the portfolio against a wall while he took his trench coat off and hung it on a hook. Then slowly, and with great pride he took the painting from its case and held it out in front of himself to take one last long look at what he'd accomplished, before the others had arrived. Not bad Raymond, he thought. I hope they like it as much as I do. I really put my heart and soul into it this time, that's as much as any artist can do I think. And as Raymond stood thinking to himself, Lorin and Dan entered the room. “You're done, great. I was worried you might not be. We set ourselves back a week in time if we don't move like clockwork. Hmm,” Lorin remarked, “lets see what'cha got. I like ta stand back a bit from a big canvas like this. Lets the viewer appreciate the work as a whole. Whaddaya think Dan?” “I think he made another great painting out of a great painting, that's what I think.” “I agree. Lets put it away now till Thursday. Looks like we got another winner here Ray. Dan,” said Lorin, taking his focus from the painting to his friend and co-worker. “It's your turn to change ‘em out this week. I'll help you if you need.” “That's okay, I'll be fine,” answered Dan. “Don't worry about it.” That Thursday afternoon, after Sol left for the day, Dan waited as Lorin had done the week before, making sure the supervisor wasn't turning around, coming back to pick up a belonging he'd forgotten. Then, when he was sure the coast was clear, he walked his way to the impressionist galleries and found what he was looking for. There, hanging next to two other great Monet paintings, hung the view of the artists garden, a work Monet had completed in the year of our Lord, nineteen-hundred. Looking like the day the artist painted it, Danny had to marvel at the great work before him. I really don't see any difference between this and the copy Ray made, he thought. There's just something about knowing you're looking at the original, that makes you appreciate it that much more. Stepping over the rope, he gently pushed the painting up off its hook and began his trip downstairs to the repair shop, carrying the art work by the wire on its reverse side. Everything seemed to be going very smoothly. As soon as he got to the shop, he set the painting down on a workbench and turned the metal clips on the back of the frame which held the painting in place. Slowly, the frame relinquished its hold on the priceless masterpiece. Carefully, Dan pulled it out and away from the frame and leaned it against the wall on top of the workbench. “Just doesn't look the same without its frame,” he said aloud to himself. Taking off his hat, he smoothed his hair back and wiped his brow with his sleeve. Opening Raymond's portfolio, he pulled out the copy waiting in the case and set it next to the original. What a copy, he thought. If Ray hasn't made any money till now, he's about to, that's for sure. I just can't tell the difference between ‘em. Taking the copy in his hands, he turned it over, front side facing the frame and began closing the clips as he'd opened them. The only thing left to do now, was to replace the painting where it had been and that, Dan expected, was the home stretch and the easiest task of all. Holding the artwork by its wire, which stretched from side to side of the frame, he carried it up the long flight of steps from the basement to the first floor until he reached the landing at the top. Walking through the double doors which read; Employees Only, he entered the big open space area of the galleries and was well on his way back from where he'd started when he met Raymond, beaming, smiling from ear to ear, walking towards him. “Hey Dan, how ya doin'?” he asked, eager to learn from Dan what progress had been made. “I'm doin' fine Ray,” he replied. “Just gonna hang this up an I'm done. Tomorrow's Friday too, I couldn't be feeling better. Well...,” he paused. “Well's a deep issue,“ replied Raymond, amused at his own jest. “I know,” said Dan. “I learned that from you sometime ago. But I was about to say, I could be feeling better if I was in Hawaii.” “Hell yeah,” replied Raymond. “But I wanted to ask you something Dan.” “What's that,” he asked, as the two passed through hallways and corridors on the way to their destination. “I wanted to ask you if it would be alright if I carried the painting from here. I feel like it's my new baby kind of. You know what I mean?” “Sure,” answered Dan, “I don't see any reason why not. Here ya go,” he said. “Just be careful okay.” “You know it. Trust me,” said Raymond as he took the painting by its wire and started off by himself on the last leg of their journey, with Danny following at a leisurely pace several yards behind. Then, as Raymond came to the last turn in the long winding path that he followed, he noticed that the smooth linoleum floor under his feet was shinier then usual. Taking no caution though, he turned his body to enter the gallery, with only a matter of some feet of distance between himself and his destination. Then suddenly, Raymond lost his footing, and as he did, his elbow fell into the artwork he'd labored over, piercing the canvas and destroying the perfect copy. Running to his aid, Dan bent at the waist to help Raymond to his feet, but the pressure of the incident was all too much for Raymond to bear, and he sat on the floor with his hands to his eyes, crying his heart out over the ruined piece of art, and for the anthropomorphized child he felt he'd lost. “My painting, my painting,” Raymond moaned over and over, until the patrons of the museum began to gather around him. “Oh nooo, my painting,” he cried. “What do I do now?” “C'mon,” said Dan. “We gotta get you up Ray. C'mon, stand up.” “Okay, okay,” answered Raymond, still sobbing at the thought of all his lost effort. “What's he talking about,” asked one of the ladies who'd joined the small group of onlookers. “What does he mean, my painting? That was museum property. A terrible catastrophe too I might add. Monet is rolling over in his grave at this moment, you can be sure. God, what a klutz.” “He doesn't know what he's talking about Mam,” answered Dan. “He's probably injured from the fall. I need to take him to a place where he can lay down and rest. He may need a doctor.” And with Raymond in tow under one arm and the ruined canvas in the other, Dan left the gallery to look for Lorin, and to take Raymond to the museum infirmary. “What the hell happened?” asked Lorin, when he saw Dan dragging Raymond through the museum corridors by one arm. “That isn't the real one is it?” he asked, pointing to the torn canvas. “No, no,” replied Dan. “The real one's downstairs in the shop.” “Thank God. You don't know how worried you had me. Dammit,” he continued, “we're a week behind now. How the hell did this happen?” “I slipped,” said Raymond. “Somebody musta spilled some water. The floor was slippery, and when I went to turn into the gallery, I fell and my elbow went right through the canvas. My best work. I can't believe It's wrecked.” “Alright Ray, forget it,” replied Lorin. “Why don'tcha bring in the Monet you showed us, then at least we won't lose any more time then we have to. Bring in that sunrise painting.” “You mean, An Impression, Sunrise?” “Right, in fact,” said Lorin, putting his hand to his chin as he thought over their situation. “Hold on, I got an idea. How long does it take you to get to work? An hour? Hour an a half?” “About forty-five minutes,” replied Raymond. “Why?” “Because, I bet you can leave here an get back with the sunrise painting before we close, that's why.” “But I'm tired Lorin,” replied Raymond. “I need rest. Danny was taking me to the infirmary to lay down. I think I might've sprained my elbow. Its been a very bad day for me.” “Okay then,” said Lorin. “The hell with it. We'll just throw away a million bucks cause Ray needs ta lay down. Fine.” “You got to Ray,” agreed Dan. “The opportunity is here, now. We have to do this quickly, while we can. What if Sol decides to change his schedule? Anything can happen.” “Exactly,” answered Lorin. “Look,” he continued, “it's two o'clock now an we close at five. That gives you time to get to your place an get back, and at least an hour to change out the painting. Whaddaya say?” “I say I'm not feeling well, but I'll do it. I think I hurt my leg in the fall, it's starting to get painful.” “Go to the infirmary an take some aspirin,” said Lorin. “C'mon, lets go. We don't have time to waste.” Walking to the train was difficult for Raymond. His elbow hurt him and his right leg also bothered him, especially when he put his weight on it, but he didn't want to let his new friends at the museum down. Besides, what they were doing really did appear to be the chance of a lifetime, and they all agreed that the opportunity may never again present itself. So Raymond dragged himself to the elevated train, and there was pain in his step and it showed. Finding an empty seat next to an elderly woman, he slowly lowered himself into it, but as he did, the woman couldn't help but notice Raymond wince and sigh. She wondered to herself what had happened to this poor young man and soon, her curiosity got the best of her. “My, my young man,” she said, “you are in a bad way aren't you. What in the world happened?” “Ohhh,” replied Raymond, as he rubbed his leg in an effort to ease the pain. “I slipped and fell just a few minutes ago.” “You should lay down and put a cold compress on that leg. Why are you up walking around?” “I have to go home and get something. It won't take me long I hope. After that, I'll go back home and lay down. “How about some aspirin in the meantime? That might help.” “No thank you,” replied Raymond. “I already took some, but I appreciate your concern.” “A friend in need is a friend indeed,” said the old woman. “If we all helped each other more often, the world would be a better place, don't you think?” “Yes,” answered Raymond, “you're quite right. We could all be a lot friendlier, that's for sure. I just get into these bad moods sometimes and I feel like I can't control myself. Have you ever felt that way?” “Oh goodness yes, indeed I have,” she agreed. “Haven't we all felt that way? I wouldn't worry about it young man. You have your whole life ahead of you. I'm sure you'll sort things out. Many times, you know,” she went on, “we end up answering our own questions in life. Things we thought we'd never resolve, but then all of a sudden, the answer is there, right under your nose. Time tells all young man. Oh, help me now, what did Johnny Ray say in that new song of his? Do your best and always remember, the dark clouds pass with time. You'll be fine, I'm sure, and best of all, there's a heaven above for good people like you and I.” “Are you sure?” asked Raymond. “Sometimes I wonder. I had such a rough time growing up.” “Oh yes, I'm certain. At least, for anyone who hasn't killed someone, and of course, you haven't, so why worry? You're too nice a young man to worry about such things. I can see the innocence in your eyes. Don't you worry about the afterlife,” she continued, “it's all a matter of God's will and I'm sure, He knows you're worthy.” Arriving at the Granville stop, Raymond said good-bye to the lady he shared his seat with and started on his way down the street toward his home. When he got there, he opened the refrigerator to find out how Guy and Joe were getting along, but he didn't have much time to stay and talk, as he politely explained. “How are you two getting along?” asked Raymond. “Just fine Ray,” replied Joe. “Hey, how're those Cubs doin'? We don't have no radio in the fridge here. It's kinda like livin' life in the dark, know what I mean? That's a joke Ray, get it?” “Yes Joe, I get it. The refrigerator is dark isn't it. I'm sorry about that.” “Ahh, don't worry about it,” said Joe, in an understanding tone. “But I'd be proud ta wear that Cub hat you got in the closet if nobody else wants it.” “How did you know about the Cub hat?” “Guy told me he used ta wear it, but you switched his headgear ta the beret. Anyhow, whaddaya say? Can I wear it?” “Sure Joe,” answered Raymond, and leaving the refrigerator door ajar, he walked to the front hall closet to retrieve the Cub hat for Joe. “Here ya go,” said Raymond, as he fit the cap snugly to the second severed head in his refrigerator. “How do I look?” asked Joe. “We got no mirror in here either, but don't worry about it, I ain't complainin'.” “You look great Joe, but look guys, I can't stay. I gotta get back to the museum. I just came home for a painting.” “What happened?” asked Guy. “You brought Monet's garden with ya Monday, didn'tcha?” “It's a long story Guy and I don't have time to explain.” “What're ya hoppin' around for?” asked Joe. “Ya hurt your leg didn'tcha. Take some aspirin, it'll ease the pain.” “I took some, but listen guys, I really gotta go. Lets talk tonight, its been a bad day for me and I just wanna get it over with.” “Anything you say Ray,” said Joe. “Yeah Ray,” said Guy. “Don't worry about a thing. Everything's cool. Get it? That's a joke Ray, cause we live in a fridge.” “Yes Guy, I get it,” replied Raymond, as he courteously said goodbye to his friends and closed the refrigerator door. Looking around himself in the living room, he wondered where he last put Monet's sunrise painting. Unable to find it, he moved to the bedroom to look for it and suddenly noticed it on the floor, leaning against a chair. Putting it in the portfolio he'd brought with him, he shouted one last goodbye from where he stood near the front door and waited for any response from Guy and Joe. “Good luck!” said Guy. “See ya later,” said Joe, in muffled voices from within the refrigerator, both could be heard plainly in Raymond's mind, and without further delay, he dragged his aching leg out the door and down the street to board the train once again. Stepping through the open doors of the train, he spotted an empty seat next to a man wearing a long black trench coat, similar to his own, and sat down beside him. Minutes of silence passed between them and it appeared as if neither Raymond or the stranger had anything to say to each other, when suddenly, out of the blue, the mysterious man in black began pulling up the left arm sleeve of his coat and nudged Raymond with his other arm to try to get his attention. “Hey Mac,” said the stranger, “need a watch? Look here,” he continued, “seventeen jewels. It's a beauty ain't it.” Removing the watch from around his wrist, the stranger offered it to Raymond. Taking it in his hand, the temptation proved to be too much for Raymond and he fastened the timepiece around his left wrist to get an idea of what it would look like as he wore it. “Pretty swank huh? That black alligator band goes real good with your coat too. Every well dressed man should have a watch like that, an don't worry about cost neither. These babies just fell off a truck, know what I mean?” “Ahh, were they damaged in the fall,” asked Raymond, naively. “What?” replied the man. “Ohh, the fall, I get it. Right buddy, you're a funny guy. I'll have ta remember that one. Were they damaged in the fall? Ha. Anyways, whaddaya think? We got a deal or what?” “Hmm, I don't know. It looks expensive. How much do you want for it?” “Tell ya what,” said the stranger. “You look like a nice young man, an I like a guy wit a sense a humor, so I'm gonna make you a special, one time offer. I'll let ya steal it from me for thirty bucks. Whaddaya say?” “Well,” replied Raymond, hesitating in his speech as he thought over the man's offer. “It sure looks nice on my wrist. Okay, I guess so. I'll take it. Here you go,” said Raymond, as looked for the wallet he kept in the back pocket of his trousers and pulled out a twenty dollar bill and a ten. “Gee, my stop's coming up soon,” said Raymond. “I've gotta get going, my friends are waiting for me.” “Just a second kid,” said the man, stuffing the two bills into his shirt pocket, while rummaging through the deep recesses of his trench coat with his other hand. “Look here,” he went on, “ever see anythin' like it? She's a beauty ain't she?” he said, as he held up a large diamond ring for Raymond to admire. Set in white gold, the quarter carat diamond sparkled and reflected the rays of the sun around the walls of the train car as Raymond examined it. “It's beautiful,” said Raymond, “but I really have to get going now. I get off at Monroe.” “You're makin' a big mistake kid. This here's a once in a lifetime deal.” “Did it fall off a truck too?” asked Raymond. “You know it kid. Same one. Whaddaya say?” “I just can't right now,” answered Raymond, grasping the handle of his portfolio and beginning to rise from his seat. “Besides, I don't think I can afford it.” “Two hundred kid. Two hundred an it's yours. Go on, take it,” insisted the man, as he offered it to Raymond in his outstretched hand. But Raymond was already standing at the door of the train, and had only moments to pass before the big, electronic doors swung open. “I can't Mister, but you have a good day now. I have to go.” And in seconds, the train came to a halt, and Raymond walked over the threshold of the door, and out onto the concrete platform of the Monroe Street train stop. Watching Raymond as he began the arduous task of dragging himself and his portfolio up the long flight of concrete steps to street level, the odd, talkative salesman leaned back in his seat and took comfort in the fact that he'd made a sale that afternoon. “Sucker,” he muttered to himself, as Raymond disappeared behind a thick concrete wall of the underground railway. It was a little after three-thirty when Raymond returned to the museum and when he did, he found Lorin sitting on a bench near the front doors of the museum, waiting for him. “Did ya get it?” “Yeah, I did,” replied Raymond, “but my leg is killing me. I hope you guys are happy now.” “I'll be happier when we get this thing up on the wall,” said Lorin. “C'mon, lets get it down to the shop.” “Where's Danny?” asked Raymond. “He's makin' his rounds around the building. He's the only guard on duty now so we have ta make this quick. Go get the sunrise painting and I'll meet you downstairs.” With both Raymond and Lorin working to change out the painting, it didn't take long before they were done and by four o'clock, they were on their way up to the first floor of the building with plenty of time left to spare. “Ray,” said Lorin, “you be real careful this time an watch your step, we don't need anymore accidents setting us back. I'm gonna take the original back to the break room okay? Remember now, don't let the team down.” “Are we a team?” asked Raymond, showing his enthusiasm at the word; team. Always wishing he could be a part of something that would make him feel like a functioning member of society, Raymond hung on the word as if it were a key to his happiness, or a life preserver to a drowning man. “Sure we're a team,” replied Lorin. “What'd ya think? We're in this thing together up to our ears aren't we? What else would ya call it? Now go hang up the painting. I'll come by an check it out when I'm done in the break room.” Making his way to the gallery, Raymond looked for the empty spot on the wall where the original Monet had hung and walked toward it. There were a few people in the large room as usual, casually observing the artwork and watching each other walk by, when Raymond cautiously stepped over the round felt rope and lifted his artwork to the waiting hook. Unknown to him, four young girls had been watching from the opposite side of the gallery and as Raymond crossed back over the rope to admire his excellent work, the girls approached him. One in particular seemed to have a question on her mind. “Hey Mister,” said one of them, briskly walking towards him with her hands in her pockets. “There's something wrong here.” “What?” said Raymond. “Are you talking to me?” “Yes,” said another girl in the group. “Robyn noticed something about the painting you just hung up and she wants to tell you.” “Right,” replied the astute high school student. “My name's Robyn. Robyn Scefonas.” “My name's Raymond Mort, glad to meet you. What can I do for you?” “I'm here with my class on a field trip. We're all in high school.” “That's nice,” said Raymond. “I went to Niles North. Seems like a long time ago now, but anyway, what can I do for you?” “Well,” she said, pointing to the painting that Raymond had just finished hanging. “That painting, the Sunrise one...” “Yes,” replied Raymond, with growing concern. “What about it?” “Robyn,” said a girl wearing a name tag with Natalie Galler on it, “just tell him already.” “Yeah Robyn,” interjected Natalie's sister, Ellie. “This is taking way too long. We have to catch up with the class, remember?” “Okay, okay,” said Robyn, beginning to blush with frustration. “It's just that, the painting that was there had a little scratch in the corner by the artists signature and now, I don't see anything. I couldn't help noticing. Is something wrong?” “Oh no,” said Raymond, becoming intensely worried and very grateful when he looked up and saw Lorin walking towards him. “Nothings wrong. Nothings wrong at all.” “What's up Ray?” said Lorin. “Hey kids, how's it goin'?” “We're fine,” said a girl in the group named Danielle. “But we couldn't help thinking something could be wrong with this painting.” “What's that?” asked Lorin. “Nothing's wrong. What could be wrong?” he said, looking in Raymond's direction for an answer. “This girl here,” said Raymond, gesturing toward Robyn with his hand. “She says the painting that was here had a scratch on it, but this one doesn't have one. She wants to know what happened.” “Nothing happened,” replied Lorin in a quick response. “Nothing at all. We cleaned it up that's all. We have an expert go over the paintings from time to time to look for flaws created through handling. He must've painted it out. That's all it is, I'm sure. By the way,” he continued, “I saw a big high school class waiting by the door in the lobby. I bet they're waiting for you girls.” “Shit,” said Ellie. “Oh crap, we're late,” said Natalie. “C'mon, lets move it.” “Bye girls,” said Raymond, as they exited the gallery. “They were nice kids but I didn't know what to tell them,” he said to Lorin. “You came by just at the right time.” “Yeah,” said Lorin. “Good timing. But anyway, how the hell did that kid notice a scratch? Nobody else knew it was there.” “Don't know,” answered Raymond. “She's got sharp eyes I guess. You think anyone else will catch on to it?” “I doubt it Ray. I highly doubt it. It looks real good. Don't worry,” he continued, “no one else is wise to it. You, me, an Danny, we're the only one's who'll ever know.” Late that same afternoon, before leaving the museum, the three guards talked over their present situation and the possibility of having Raymond bring in more selections out of storage from his home. Raymond didn't like the idea of bringing in paintings that he'd already completed. Instead, he talked about the new challenges that presented themselves and the chance he now had to work hard and improve his skills over several new canvases, but Lorin insisted that time was of the essence, and the best way to the most expedient results was to bring in what he'd already accomplished. Dan found himself in agreement with Lorin, and both tried to explain to Raymond that the sooner they'd met their goal, the better, and the goal was now to accomplish the substitution of four original paintings in total, two of which had already been completed. “I understand your own personal goals Ray,” explained Lorin. “I can appreciate your interest in making yourself a better painter, but its like we talked about before, the best way to do this is the fastest way. Dan agrees, don'tcha Dan.” “Yeah Ray, I do. You can see why right? I mean, haven't we had enough trouble already? We've had one close call now for each painting we've replaced. I just wanna get this over with, don't you? The sooner, the better if you ask me.” “Alright,” said Raymond, giving in to the best interests of his friends. “I'll go look through my closet at home. There's one that comes to mind that I finished last year. It's a landscape by Alfred Sisley; The Seine In Winter. We have it here don't we? I thought I saw it.” “I know the one you're talking about,” answered Dan. “It's hanging in the hallway as you enter the impressionist galleries.” “Why don'tcha bring it in Monday Ray an we'll take a look,” said Lorin. “I don't know about you guys but I'm glad we got that straightened out. We just don't have any more time to paint anything new right now. The longer we wait, the riskier this whole mess becomes. But now,” continued Lorin, “it's Friday night, an it's time ta start thinkin' about raisin' some hell. Whadda you guys feel like doing?” “You mean...”, Raymond began to ask, “I'm going too?” “A course,” replied Lorin. “Why else would I ask? God Ray, its not that big a deal. Whaddaya wanna do?” “I..., I don't know,” said Raymond. “I don't go out very much.” “I know,” said Dan. “How about that strip club on Wells Street. They take everything off there don't they?” “Near as I recall they do. That's a good idea Danny,” replied Lorin. “How'd you get so damn smart anyway? Tell ya what,” he continued, “gimmie some time to take a shower an eat something. You want me ta pick you guys up, or you wanna meet there? It doesn't matter to me.” “I don't have a car,” said Raymond. “I'd have to take the train to get there.” “Don't worry about it. I'll pick you guys up,” answered Lorin, as he and Dan walked away from Raymond to began one last patrol around the building, ushering visitors out into the lobby and eventually out of the building. “It's been a long day, I'll tell ya Dan. Don't tell Raymond but I'll be glad as hell when this is all over with.” “You don't have to worry about me,” Dan replied. “I'm not gonna say anything to him, he's touchy enough as it is. You ever notice how vulnerable he appears, how easy it is to hurt his feelings?” “Yeah,” answered Lorin. “I wonder what happened to him sometimes, but I ain't his shrink. There's nuthin' I can do about it.” “I suppose,” said Danny. “Hey,” he continued, “Thanks for driving tonight.” “Don't mention it. You can do me a favor if ya want though, an drive next time.” “It's a deal,” said Dan. “Don't get scared now when ya pick Raymond up.” “What?” said Lorin. “What're you talking about. Whadda you mean; scared?” “I mean with all those paintings he must have laying around,” Dan said, as he began to laugh, “there can't be any room to walk. You might be stepping right through a Van Gogh, you never know.” “I'll take my chances,” said Lorin. Later that night, at about ten minutes after eight, Lorin came by Raymonds apartment to pick him up as they'd discussed. Before leaving the museum that afternoon, Raymond had written down instructions to his apartment on Granville Avenue for Lorin, and it didn't take him very long to drive from his place, to Dan's and then to Raymond's. The only snag in their plans for the evening so far, was the lack of parking on the street in front of Raymond's apartment building. Prevented from finding any kind of legal parking space in the front or the back of the building, Lorin left his car double parked and thinking it would take him only a few minutes to find Raymond's apartment, he left Dan to watch the car and started on his way up the long sidewalk toward the vestibule of Raymond's building. Once in the vestibule, Lorin found the right apartment number and pressed his thumb over Raymond's doorbell to let him know he'd arrived. “You're here,” said Raymond over the intercom. “C'mon up, I'm just about ready.” As Raymond finished speaking, another buzzer went off and Lorin opened the vestibule door. Walking up the steps, he found Raymond in the open doorway of his apartment, waiting for him. “Come in,” said Raymond, “Make yourself comfortable, I'm just picking out some shoes.” “Wear anything,” replied Lorin, “it's no big deal. I'm double parked downstairs so hurry up.” Walking to a living room window, Lorin looked downstairs to find a policeman leaning against his car, talking to Danny. “Shit, now what? I don't want a ticket Ray, c'mon, there's a cop downstairs, let's go.” “Be there in a minute, I'm looking for a belt,” answered Raymond from the bedroom. “Okay, but make it fast,” said Lorin, wading through a maze of paintings on the living room floor which ranged in styles from Impressionism to French Neo-Classical and Contemporary Modern art. “You are really quite the artist,” said Lorin, on his way to Raymond's refrigerator. “I used to dabble in art myself from time to time, you know that Ray? Hey, what's in the icebox,” he continued, “I'm starved. I didn't get a chance ta eat much.” “I haven't gone shopping in a while,” replied Raymond. “Just some old pieces of meat and my two...” But before Raymond could finish his sentence, about to innocently disclose the fact that two of his best friends were severed heads sitting on shelves in his refrigerator, and just as Lorin had his hand on the icebox door about to pull it open, a loud car horn sounded from downstairs and drew their attention. “It's Danny I'll bet,” said Lorin, walking from the kitchen back to the living room. “You know that cop downstairs bothering Danny? I hope I didn't get another parking ticket. I got two now, I hate those damn things. They go on your record don't they?” “I guess so,” replied Raymond. “I really don't know much about driving and all the rules that apply. I don't have a car, remember?” “Yeah, right,” Lorin answered in haste. “C'mon, c'mon, lets get going.” “Okay,” replied Raymond, standing by the front door of his apartment, taking one last look around. “Goodbye guys,” he yelled in a high pitched voice, directed towards the kitchen. “What are you talkin' about,” asked Lorin, as he leaned his weight against the front door and looked at Raymond. “What's with the goodbye guys? Goodbye guys who?” “Gee,” said Raymond, “they're my two best...” But once again, before Raymond could explain himself, the horn of the car downstairs went wild, and for several blocks in any direction, people heard the noise. “Whatever,” said Lorin, pushing Raymond out the door and into the hallway. “we gotta get downstairs pronto. Dan might have trouble on his hands.” “Right,” said Raymond. “I'll just close the door and lock it behind me. This neighborhood is up for grabs lately,” he continued speaking, as they walked down the stairway and exited the building. “Somebody shot up a street sign not far from here. Who knows, sometime soon I might have to move.” The strip club that Danny recommended was a very popular place for young men in the neighborhood. The girls who worked there were generally very attractive and no one in the house complained when they stripped down to pasties and a g-string or even beyond, to bare skin. Between dances, the girls circulated to the different booths and tables and tried to sell the men the hospitalities of the bar, consisting of the usual pricey, watered down drinks. But sales went further then that, as Lorin and Dan had found out on occasion, when a few of the girls offered services above and beyond the measure of any alcoholic beverage. When the three museum guards walked into the big, smoke filled room of the dance bar, their eyes filled at once with the vague image of a nearly nude girl in the middle of her routine. Looking around the room, they found a round shaped booth at a wall with a forward view of the stage which appeased the three of them, and sat down to watch the show. Various hoots and hollers emanated from many of the men in the audience, some of whom found it difficult to contain themselves in the midst of such an attraction, and several bouncers walked the floor, making sure the enthusiastic clientele didn't climb the stage, or grope the women who performed. Relaxed now and feeling ready to take on any consideration the girls might give them, Lorin and Dan became anxious to order drinks in an effort to prepare themselves, and to break down the normal inhibitions that sometimes prevent men and women from meeting each other. Nonchalantly, Lorin raised his arm to flag down one of the girls taking drink orders until he was sure he'd gotten her attention. When she arrived at their booth, she smiled and courteously asked them what they'd like to drink. “Scotch,” said Lorin. “What about you Dan?” “I'll take a beer. How about a bottle? Anything in a bottle is fine.” “And you sir?” she asked Raymond. “What would you like?” Tongue tied and at a general loss for words, Raymond's mind went completely blank. Being confronted by the opposite sex caused his brain to stall and of course, any private relationships were utterly and totally out of the question. Scared, and beginning to show it, as beads of perspiration formed on his forehead, Raymond's eyes fell to the floor in a drastic effort to disconnect himself emotionally from the scene. “Ray,” said Lorin, “she just wants your drink order, it's not a life or death struggle. C'mon,” he insisted, “what'll it be?” Frozen in fear like a rabbit pursued by some natural predator, Raymond was unable to answer, and finally Lorin answered for him. “He'll take a scotch. And make his a double would ya.” “Thank you sir,” said the pretty young waitress, and as she turned to walk away, Lorin and Dan found themselves watching her from behind, mesmerized by the motion and shape of her body, until she finally disappeared from view. “Wow,” said Dan, “hot stuff.” “I know,” replied Lorin, who was now turning his attention away from the girl and back to Raymond. “What's with you Ray? I just saw you freeze up over nothing. All she wanted was your drink order, she didn't ask you to marry her.” “I don't know,” replied Raymond. “I get nervous around girls. I told you I don't get out much.” “Well,” said Lorin, looking at Dan and then back again to Raymond, “we're gonna change all that. Hell Ray,” he went on, “you can't spend your life inside, and you sure as hell can't spend it living in fear. You gotta get out more. Loosen up. Look at Dan. Dan loves it here don'tcha Dan.” “What?” said Dan, taking his eyes from the nude girl who danced on stage and slowly bringing them into focus on his friends. “What'd you say?” “Never mind,” replied Lorin. “See what I mean Ray? I couldn't pull him outta here with a team a wild horses. I bet you get ta like it here too. What the hell Ray,” he continued, “your not one a those homos right? Just relax, enjoy the show.” “Okay,” said Raymond, “I'll try.” “Look,” said Dan, “here she comes with our booze order.” “Right on time, right Ray?” said Lorin. “Drink up. You're just up tight that's all. Here,” he went on, as he pushed the double scotch in front of Raymond. “In five minutes you'll be screamin' your lungs out like the rest a the bums in here, I guarantee.” “Time will tell,” said Dan, overhearing Lorin's conversation and changing his gaze from the girl on stage, to Raymond and back again to Lorin. “Time will tell, and we got front row seats.” After some twenty to thirty minutes went by of watching the show, Lorin and Dan decided they were ready for another round of drinks, and as Dan raised his arm to get the attention of their waitress, three young dancers looking for a spot to sit down noticed him, and eagerly began to walk in their direction. Watching the girls from his spot in the booth, Lorin saw them approaching but said nothing to Raymond, thinking it better to sit quietly and say nothing then to cause panic in him. Then, fixing his eyes on them, he smiled and the girls smiled back. Noticing that Lorin's attention was somewhere else other then their table or the stage, Raymond turned his head around the corner of the booth in an effort to find out what Lorin was looking at, but just as he realized what was about to happen, the girls were upon them, standing in front of their table, asking them if they'd like some company. “Got room in there for three more?” asked one of the girls. “Sure we do,” replied Dan, getting up from his seat to let Lorin out of the booth. “The more, the merrier.” And when Lorin stood up, the first girl began to slide her way along the long, curved bench seat towards Raymond, who now sat with both hands cupped around his nearly empty drink, eyes transfixed to the table surface in front of him. “You're awful shy honey,” said the girl who ended up next to Raymond. “Need another drink? That one's almost gone.” “N-n-n-no,” stammered Raymond, “I'm fine.” “My name's Sunshine, what's yours?” “Raymond,” he said, “Raymond Mort.” “You can look at me Raymond. I don't bite,” said Sunshine, as she boldly put her hand on Raymond's knee. “We're all here to have a good time.” But as Sunshine's words ushered from her lips, Raymond lost control of himself and spilled the remaining contents of his drink all over the table. “Accidents happen, don't worry about it,” she said, while grabbing a napkin to wipe up the spill. “Well,” she said, turning her attention away from Raymond. “What are your names?” “I'm Lorin, and this is Dan. How are you two gettin' along over there? Is Raymond treatin' you right?” “Just fine. Did you meet my friends? Bambi, did you introduce yourself to Lorin?” “Yeah, she did,” answered Lorin, enjoying the attention he was getting from both girls. “Sunshine, Bambi and Candy,” said Dan suddenly, as his eyes followed around the semi-circle of the booth, in unison with each name he pronounced. “Are those stage names or are they real names?” “We've been using those names for such a long time now,” said Candy, “they might as well be our real ones.” Squeezing Dan's upper arm in her petite hands, she continued by saying, “my, you are a strong one. Do you workout?” “I do,” answered Dan proudly. “And how do you keep so fit?” he asked. “Dancing must keep you in shape.” “That among other things,” replied Candy, smiling as she spoke. “Raymond's in shape,” said Lorin, as he put his left arm up and around the shoulders of Bambi. “Aren'tcha Ray?” “I guess,” said Raymond. “I get some exercise walking around the museum. That's where I work,” he continued, “the art museum. We have to walk around the building for most of the day.” “Oh,” said Candy. “Then the three of you all work at the same place?” “We do,” answered Lorin, “but we have other types of business going on at the same time. It won't be long now, we're gonna be rich.” “Oh really?” asked Bambi, looking up into Lorin's face with big, brown questioning eyes. Her short, jet black hair perfectly sculpted to her head, set off the bright colors she wore and the dazzle of her smooth white skin. She was a pretty girl. Very pretty, and very difficult to resist. “What kinds of business?” “The kind we can't talk about right at the moment,” said Dan, gesturing with his forefinger and cutting an imaginary arc across his neck, as if to say; we need to stop right there. “It's the type of business venture that requires just so much secrecy, at least until the transaction is completed, and probably afterward also. Isn't that right Lorin?” “I see your point Professor Neuman,” replied Lorin in jest. “Very well then Dr. Bertram, I'm glad you do,” said Dan, returning the quip. “Now then,” he went on, “what about the nights festivities? I propose a toast.” Raising their glasses, the six of them toasted to what they hoped would be, a bright future. Later on that evening, Lorin successfully talked the girls into coming over to his apartment on Sheridan Road, where he had a beautiful view of Lake Michigan and where they could walk along the sandy beach if they wanted to, drink some beer, and light a fire of driftwood. “Ohh, hey,” said Bambi, “that sounds like fun. It'll have to wait till we're off work though. We're not done till twelve.” “I'd love to,” replied Candy. “Me too,” said Sunshine. “I can't,” interjected Raymond. “I have to get home.” “Why?” asked Sunshine. “The party's just starting. Why don't you come with?” “I have friends that need me. Besides,” he continued, “I'm not really the party type.” “What friends?” asked Lorin, curious as to who Raymond was referring to. “You could have the time a your life right here. Why leave?” “I have to go home,” insisted Raymond. “Fine,” replied Lorin, unable to see the logic in Raymond's decision. “I can't understand why you'd wanna pass this up, but I'll take you home when the girls are off, if that's what you really want.” “Yes,” said Raymond, nervously wiping the moisture of his glass that collected on his hands with a napkin from the table. “That's what I want.” “I like the colors in the sky,” remarked Guy. “You did a great job, as usual.” “Thanks Guy,” answered Raymond. “You really help me with your praise. You know I don't have much self-confidence.” “I'm just telling you the truth Ray. If it was bad, I'd tell you.” “What about you Joe? What do you think?” asked Raymond, interested in getting a second opinion. “I don't know much about art ya know. Maybe if I had a hat like Guy's it'd help my confidence. It helped Guy didn't it?” “You can't have it,” said Guy selfishly. “He gave it to me.” “Now's not the time to bicker,” said Raymond, breaking up an argument before it got out of hand. “I need your help now. What if Joe just wore the beret for a little while? Here,” he continued, removing the french beret from Guy and giving it to Joe, in place of the unrefined Cubs cap he'd been wearing. “Okay now, do you feel any more competent to make a decision?” “Yeahhh...,”replied Joe. “Believe it or not, I do. Clothes really do make the man don't they.” “I suppose they help one's confidence,” said Raymond, “but c'mon now, what do you think?” “I think...,” said Joe, pausing for a few moments to ponder Raymond's art. “I think it really expresses winter on the Seine. It gets that across very well. You can just imagine yourself walking on the snow covered grass of the river bank, listening to it crunch under your feet with every step. Breathing the cold winter air into your nostrils and letting out a cloud of vapor that only appears in the dense, freezing, hazy air of January or February.” “Show off,” said Guy. “That's enough,” insisted Raymond. “Joe's being very nice. Thank you Joe, I appreciate your critique, please go on.” “Well..., I know it was Sisley's idea and not yours Ray, but just the same, I like the way you've color contrasted the light brown in the sky with the darker brown of the trees on the hillsides. Of course, it's not just the differences in shades of color that make the painting what it is, there are a lot of factors to consider, but generally, the earth tones are another clue to Sisley's winter theme.” “Yes,” said Raymond, “and...” “And I find that the reflection of those shades in the water of the river just reinforce it more. Creating a strong bond between sky and earth - adding an adhesive you might say - to the total picture of the years coldest season. I could go on Ray, but I don't want to bore you with details. All in all, you've done another fine job. I don't see anything wrong with it.” “Your sure?” asked Raymond. “There's nothing more you want to say?” “Hmmm..., as long as you've asked me, there is something more,” said Joe, who, as far as Raymond was concerned, appeared to be deep in thought. “The joining shades of color in the sky and on the grounds surface remind me of a possible connection the artist was trying to make. The heavens above, or heaven itself for that matter, and man's earthly, mundane existence - made more heavenly by the reflected image and color - make this work a kind of religious experience, don't you think? A kind of outdoor cathedral. Of course, I can't say that's just what the artist intended, but nevertheless, that's what it speaks to me.” “Gosh,” said Guy, I'm impressed as hell. “Did the hat do all that?” “The beret is just a piece of clothing guy, like any other,” said Raymond. “But it does help your confidence level, doesn't it.” “Sure does,” replied Joe. “It's like magic, I swear. I bet I go back to sounding like old Joe Murphy when the hat comes off. Can I keep it on for a while?” “I guess,” said Guy. “Besides, I don't mind the Cubs hat. Makes me feel like I belong here. Like I'm a part a this city, know what I mean?” “Yeah,” said Joe, “I know exactly what you mean. But tell me Raymond, before I forget ta ask you. What happened last night? Did you have a good time?” “Yeah!” said Guy, suddenly remembering Raymond's outing with his friends. “Did ya meet any babes?” “Yes,” answered Raymond, walking to the window to watch the flow of people and cars pass by his window. “I did.” “And...,so, what happened?” asked Guy with growing interest. “We went to one of those places where girls dance and take their clothes off. ”Wow, you luck,” continued Guy. “Can you take me an Joe to one sometime? I haven't been to a nudie bar in the longest time. You can meet some really nice girls there, you know that?” “Yes,” said Raymond. “I met one last night. Her name is Sunshine. She wanted me to come along with them to Lorin's apartment on the beach, but I didn't go. I came home instead.” “Why would'ja do that?” asked Joe. “Sounds like the perfect night ta me.” “I know,” answered Raymond. “I just find that I don't hit it off with girl's very well. Maybe if I grew up differently...I don't know. I'd rather not talk about it right now, it's a kind of painful issue to me.” “Anything you say Ray,” replied Joe. “Hey, why don'tcha get the cards, I feel lucky taday. How about a little Blackjack ta pass the time. It's Saturday, let's have some fun, whaddaya say?” “Sure,” said Raymond, “that sounds like a fine idea. I'll be dealer.” The next week, the security guards replaced Alfred Sisley's painting of The Seine In Winter with Raymond's copy without mishap. To Lorin's surprise, none of the visitors asked any questions about minute differences in the painting - like the scratch that mysteriously disappeared in the corner of the Monet - or had any issues with the track lighting above, as they experienced when they switched Raymond's copy of Cezanne's Still Life with the original. Now, the guards main concern was with the fourth and last painting they had in mind to switch, and they asked Raymond for suggestions. He noted that a follower of the impressionists, Gustave Caillebotte had in recent years become very famous and suggested a work the artist had completed in the year eighteen eighty-two called simply, Thatched Cottage At Trouville. It wasn't valued as highly as the works they'd already replaced, but it was a pretty landscape which Raymond had done a great job on, it was already finished, and it would still bring them a sufficient amount of money, given the right art dealer. And so it was decided that in the following week, they would replace Caillebotte's painting of his cottage with Raymond's copy, and then begin to look around for an interested buyer for the four originals they'd taken. Lorin had already been in contact with a man in France who seemed very interested in seeing the guards small, but important collection and at lunch on Friday, the three of them decided that Raymond should be the one to pay the dealer a visit, since he was more in touch with the paintings then Lorin or Dan and already had a good idea of what the paintings were valued at, given the fact that they were not going to auction, and that the guards would have to settle for much less then if they had. “Then it's decided,” said Lorin, in between bites of the barbecued ribs he'd ordered at Torino's. “We change out the cottage painting on Thursday, an then we give this Paul-Henri guy a call.” “Sounds good to me,” replied Dan, “but whadda we use for an excuse to get Raymond on a plane outta here?” “Why doesn't he just tell Sol he's got a relative who died and he needs a few weeks off for the funeral and trip?” “Sure Lorin, that always works,” said Dan facetiously. “The old grandmother who kicked-the-bucket routine. You think Sol will really go for that?” “You got a better idea?” asked Lorin. “I could just leave if I had to, couldn't I?” asked Raymond. “If Sol won't let me go to my relative's funeral, I could always just leave.” “You know you're right,” answered Lorin. “That'll make it look like you got pissed off and left. Sol will assume you quit cause you were mad, and once we sell the paintings, you can take your time to look for another job. Hell, we can all take our time to look for jobs. I don't know about you two, but I got an extended vacation on my mind. I like it Ray. Do it,” he said, pouring sauce on another rib and picking it up in his hands. “You want one a these ribs, they're great?” “I don't eat pork,” replied Raymond. “Oh,” said Lorin. “Why not?” “I don't want to spoil your lunch,” said Raymond, “but they're not clean animals.” “Maybe not,” said Dan, “but they sure taste good. I'll take a rib. Hey,” continued Dan, “how about toasting to our future?” “You got it,” replied Lorin. “Here's to our good fortune,” he said, as the three museum guards raised their glasses and clinked them together. “And here's to Ray. Have a good trip an don't take too long, I got a feelin', the good life is right around the corner.” “To the good life then,” said Dan. On Thursday, Dan replaced the real Caillebotte painting with Raymond's copy and on Friday, Raymond walked into Sol's office to ask for time off as the guards had planned. One way or another, Raymond was leaving Chicago for Paris and booked himself on a flight out of town scheduled for Saturday, the following day. “So your grandmother died and you need two weeks off, huh,” said Sol. “You sure you're not feedin' me some kinda line? You practically just got here. You're gonna leave me short handed too ya know. I'm back ta two guards if you leave. Shit,” he continued, “why doesn't anything ever go like you planned. Alright,” he said, after some deliberation. “Lemmie think it over, I'll get back to you.” “I'm sorry Sol,” said Raymond, “but this can't wait. Dan thinks that if I don't get there on time, my whole family will think badly of me.” “Is this some kinda scheme ta get an early vacation outta me?” asked Sol. “Did Dan put this idea into your head?” “No sir.” “Lorin? This is his brainchild isn't it?” “No, I swear. I really have to go Sol, it's an urgent matter.” “So,” answered Sol, “where is this family a yours? How far do they live? Maybe I can bend the rules a little an get you a few days off. How would that be?” “Oh,” replied Raymond, “they live really far,” he said, thinking that if Sol wouldn't give in to his request, then he'd just leave as the guards had talked about. Raymond thought that would solve two problems anyway - getting away from the job without arousing suspicion, making it seem as though he'd left out of anger, and secondly, getting to his destination without having to worry about his length of stay. If he didn't have a job to come back to, he could stay in Paris as long as he needed, or indefinitely for that matter. “Well,” began Sol, looking as if he was thinking over Raymond's dilemma. “Give me some time ta think about it. In the meantime, do me a favor an get back out on the floor. They need ya out there I'm sure.” “Right,” said Raymond. “I appear to have come in handy at times.” “Good,” said Sol. “If I get a good report on you from Lorin an Dan, I'll raise you up a little, how would that be?” “That would be fine,” said Raymond, as he got up from his chair and left Sol's office. Even though it seemed to Raymond and the others that selling their hastily gathered collection of fine art was the best thing that ever happened to them, Raymond couldn't help feeling regret at the thought of having to leave a job that seemed to be working out. After all, good jobs and good friends, he thought, are hard to come by. “Start packing,” exclaimed Raymond. “We leave tomorrow morning on an eight o'clock flight.” “Oh, no way,” said Guy. “I can't leave on such short notice. What'll I wear?” “Very funny,” replied Raymond. “Don't you remember, we talked about this. You do want to come with me don't you?” “You bet I do.” “I could do with a vacation myself,” said Joe. “Same old refrigerator gets boring after a while, know what I mean?” “I can imagine,” answered Raymond, as he opened and made ready a wide suitcase he found for the purpose of transporting Guy and Joe in the comfort they'd grown accustom to. “What do you think of the case?” he asked. “Would you two like to get in now, or would you like to wait till the last moment?” “I'd like ta wait,” said Guy. “It's dark in there an there's nothin' ta do but sleep in the dark. I don't know about Joe but I'm too excited ta sleep.” “Me too,” remarked Joe. “I ain't been ta Paris since the war. This is gonna be fun, there's girls everywhere ya look in Paris.” “Oh yeah,” quipped Guy. “What would ya do with one if you found one?” “Listen you,” said Joe, irritated and angry. “If I had arms I'd come over there an smack you one in your big mouth.” “Now boys,” began Raymond, beginning to lose his patients. “I've got a lot to do and I don't have time to stand here and listen to you argue. I'm trying to be nice so don't make life difficult for me.” “Tell him ta keep his comments to himself then,” replied Joe. “It's a long way ta Paris an I don't need ta make the trip with a pain-in-the-ass.” “Guy, you heard him,” said Raymond. “We have to try and get along here. Nobody likes getting picked on. Boy,” he went on, feeling the pain of humiliation he'd suffered from his father and others. “I sure know what that's like. I spent years trying to get away from nasty, crazy people and you know what I found out?” “What's that?” asked Joe. “There's nowhere to hide. Nowhere to run to. No way to get away from people who're determined to hurt you, cause they're everywhere, that's what. Even the ones you call your friends can't help giving you shit. It's just human nature. There's no end to it, It'll never stop.” “Gosh Ray,” said Guy, “you got it bad, don'tcha.” “What do you mean?” asked Raymond, folding his clothes and packing as they spoke. “I mean just cause a some jerks in your life, you go around feelin' hurt forever. It's time ta cheer up Ray. C'mon, we're on our way ta Paris, what could be better. So I get a little obnoxious when I'm in a good mood, so sue me.” “I suppose your right. It's hard to change the habits of a lifetime though. It's difficult to change the way you learned to react to things and situations. Do you see my point?” “Yeah but, if ya don't mind my sayin' so,” interjected Joe, thoughtfully. “You do have a pessimistic view point. You can change yourself if you really want to. Life's not rocket science. Just forget the crap an focus on what's important. In your case, just concentrate on selling those paintings when we get to France, an then on your future. Think of all the great paintings you'll have time to work on after you put your share a the loot in the bank.” “You are both wise and helpful,” said Raymond. “I really appreciate your help. Who knows,” Raymond said, reflecting on the words he'd heard in his mind from Guy and Joe. “Maybe someday, with you two helping me, I can become the regular guy I always wanted to be.” “God helps those who help themselves Raymond. Just keep trying,” said Joe. “Keep trying and you'll get there.” “Here you two,” said Raymond, unfolding pairs of earmuffs he usually wore to help get himself through some of the difficult, freezing cold Chicago winters. “This outta make the engine noise of the plane a little more bearable.” “Wow,” said Guy, “they're hot. Do I gotta wear ‘em?” “I would if I were you,” said Joe. “Those engines are so loud, you won't be able ta hear yourself think.” “Shit,” answered Guy, “what am I gonna do for fourteen hours? I'll go stir crazy.” “It's going to be difficult for all of us Guy,” replied Raymond. “At least you two will have each other to talk to, just think of me. What am I going to do?” “Talk ta whoever sits next to you,” said Joe. “It don't matter. Besides, after we get ta New York, you'll be sittin' next ta someone totally different, ain't that right?” “I suppose,” replied Raymond, as he closed the latches of the big suitcase he was taking and put the other pair of earmuffs on Joe. “Damn, these are hot,” remarked Joe, after about twenty seconds of wearing them. “I hate ta say I told you so,” said Guy. “Look guys,” said Raymond, looking at his watch and back again at the two severed heads on his living room table. “It's six-thirty, the cab should be here soon. You really should get in your case now.” “Okay,” said Joe, as Raymond lifted the head - still sporting a beret - and laid it gently in a waiting suitcase. “By the way, I know ya told me we're takin' a PanAm Stratocruiser outta New York, but what are we flyin' on the way there?” “I think it's a Douglas DC-7,” answered Raymond. “Why?” “Just curious,” said Joe, as Raymond lifted Guy and set him inside the same case alongside Joe. “Them planes are all modeled after the old B-29's we used ta fly. Betcha didn't know that.” “What difference does it make,” said Guy, as Raymond closed the case with his two closest friends inside it. “As long as we get there.” On board the plane, Raymond decided to carry his portfolio with all four famous works of art inside it, and set it in front of his feet. Once there, he could comfortably lean it against the seat in front of his and rest assured that it would be safe. However, when it came to Guy and Joe, they weren't as fortunate and were due to spend the entire flight deep inside the baggage compartment of the noisy aircraft. “Sure,” said Guy from within the large, deep suitcase. “You go first class an we gotta sit inside a dark suitcase. Someone tell me what's wrong with this picture.” “I know what'cha mean,” replied Joe, as the skycap took the two suitcases Raymond carried and placed them on a conveyor belt. “Have a good flight guys,” said Raymond, watching his luggage disappear as it passed through an opening in the wall. “And don't argue too much,” he added, cupping his hands around his mouth to make good and sure Guy and Joe could hear him. “What's that sir?” said the skycap, “I didn't quite get that.” “Nothing,” replied Raymond, “Just saying good-bye to my friends, that's all.” And on hearing Raymond's reply, the skycap turned around and looked behind himself, trying to find the friends Raymond spoke of, but saw no one present. “I don't see anyone sir. Are you sure they were there? There's nothing but baggage behind me.” “Yes, I'm sure,” said Raymond. “But don't worry about it. I'm sure they'll be okay.” “Yes sir,” replied the smartly dressed man in uniform. “Thank you sir, and have a good trip,” was all he said in return, as Raymond handed him a dollar bill for taking his luggage and politely said good-bye. “Wow,” mumbled the skycap to himself. “One of us needs a long rest, but I'm not sure who.” On the plane, Raymond got a seat with a window and as the big DC-7 taxied down the runway waiting to take off, his eyes and mind filled with the anticipation and excitement of leaving the ground and taking flight. Snug in his seat, with his seatbelt firmly fastened around his waist, Raymond dug his hands into his armrests and hung on to them for dear life as the plane was about to begin its final trip down the runway. Upon seeing Raymond's nervous reaction, a passing stewardess on her way down the aisle to her own seat tried to comfort him, and spoke to Raymond in soothing words. “You just relax now dear,” she said. “Everything's going to be fine. Our Captain has ten years of flying experience.” Then, opening a storage compartment from above the aisle seat, she pulled out a pillow and a blanket, tucked the pillow behind his head and set the blanket neatly in his lap. “Here you go,” she said. “This should make you feel more at home.” As she finished speaking, Raymond took his attention away from his window and looked into the stewardess's face with large questioning eyes. “Ten years is a long time,” he said. “Was the Captain in the war?” “Yes, he was,” she replied. “Why?” “Oh, nothing. Just that my friend was in the war too. His name is Joe, Joe Murphy. He's coming with me on my trip to France.” “That sounds like so much fun,” she said. “You must be so excited.” “Oh, I am,” said Raymond. “And Joe's such a good friend. You know how some people just come and go right out of your life? Well,” he continued, “Joe is always there for me. He's always around when I need him. Just like Guy, he's another good friend.” “You're very lucky to have such good friends Mr....,” she said, customarily hesitating after the word; Mister. “Mort. That's my name, Raymond Mort. And yes, I am lucky aren't I.” “Yes Mr. Mort, but right now, I really should be getting to my seat. If there's anything else I can get you during our flight to New York, please don't hesitate to ask. My name is Diane.” “Thank you Diane,” replied Raymond, slightly more at ease now and little by little, letting up on his tight grip of both flanking armrests. Continuing down the aisle to the rear of the plane, Diane met another stewardess who'd been watching her and Raymond, and nonchalantly asked if anything was wrong. “No, no,” said Diane, “just another nervous passenger. He says he brought his friends along but it's strange...” “What's strange?” asked the other stewardess. “Well,” said Diane, “he has these two great, very close friends who made the trip with him and he never once pointed them out to me. It just makes me wonder, that's all.” “What on earth for?” “Oh, nothing,” said Diane. “Just forget it. I've met so many nutty passengers, I'm starting to distrust them all. I could really use a vacation, you know that Alice.” “I hear that. I'll take a white sandy beach anywhere. It doesn't matter to me.” And as the huge tires of the airliner began to roll, sending the plane forward down the smooth concrete surface, both stewardesses fastened their seat belts, leaned back in their seats and watched out their respective windows on either side of the aisle. Gaining speed, the brand new hundred and ten passenger DC-7 began slowly to tilt back and ascend as it reached the end of the runway, and for the first time in Raymond's life, he was flying. Raymond was tired, nervous and worried when he arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Were it not for the two friends he'd brought with him, he would have been all alone in a new and different country where English was only a secondary language, but Guy, and especially, Joe, helped him through this difficult time. Some of Joe's bravery seemed to be rubbing off on Raymond, as he stood up straight and tall, doing his best to hide his fears of the world, and walked from the terminal to claim his luggage. Waiting for what seemed like an eternity, he finally spotted the big black suitcase he used to pack his friends in and couldn't help blurting out their names, as he grabbed it by its handle and removed it from the conveyor belt. “Guy! Joe!,” he exclaimed. “Boy am I glad to see you two. How was the flight?” But some of the crowd of people standing near Raymond who turned their attention to him, expecting to find the two happy travelers Raymond addressed, were surprised when they found no one standing before him. In fact, there was nothing but baggage in front of Raymond and to those who were watching, this presented a most puzzling and surprising scene. Upon seeing this, a Frenchman waiting for his luggage looked back at his wife, and then back again at Raymond, only to shrug his shoulders in bewilderment and remark, “crazy American. Why do they come to Paris to bother us?” “To do business and drink our wine of course,” came his wife's reply. “This one needs more then a drink if you ask me. I'd like to see what he's like after a whole bottle. Who knows?” said the husband. “It might make a whole new man out of him.” “Who knows?” answered his wife, taking her husband by the arm and laughing aloud. “In this day and age, anything is possible. He may even start wearing a beret and learn to paint.” “An American?” laughed the husband. “Now you have gone too far.” “You wouldn't say that if I had two arms asshole!” came an agitated voice from within the large suitcase. “I would, an I'll say it again. You're nothin' but a bug-eyed fathead,” yelled Joe. “All ya do is take up space an stare at me with them big, bug eyes a yours.” “If I were you,” said Raymond, walking up the steps of an apartment building with a room for rent sign in a window. “I wouldn't say things I'd be sorry for later. You two are just tired of traveling so close together. If you give me just a little more time, I'll get you out of there.” “Where are we?” asked Guy. “We're on the av de la République,” answered Raymond. “Whatever that means. Sounds like Republic Road to me.” “I know a Republic Road in Springfield, Missouri,” said Guy. “Reminds me a the States.” “When were you ever in Missouri?” said Joe. “I been a lot a places I ain't told you about, nut-case.” “Shhhh, be quiet,” said Raymond. “I have to talk to the landlord now so be civil would you. We really need this room,” continued Raymond, as he knocked on the door with the word Propriétaire written on it. After standing and waiting for a few minutes, hearing nothing from the opposite side of the closed door, Raymond was about to pick up his suitcases from where he'd set them down to rest, when suddenly, a short balding man with a thick black mustache appeared behind the half open door. “Yes,” said the man, in English. “What can I do for you?” “I was told you have a room for rent,” said Raymond. “My cab driver said it might still be available. I'm visiting here in Paris for a week or two. I'm really not sure how long I'll be staying.” “Do you mind my asking monsieur? Are you on vacation in Paris, or perhaps just doing business? Please don't think I am prying, I ask the same questions of everyone.” “A little bit of both I guess,” replied Raymond. “I'd like to see the sights while I'm here.” “Fantastique,” said the landlord. “I have a brother Alexandre, he'll take care of you. He'll show you all over Paris if you like. Come in,” continued the landlord. “How rude of me, I never introduced myself. My name is Andre, Andre Martin,” he said. Smiling, Andre extended his hand to Raymond in a gesture of good will. “My name's Raymond Mort. I'm sure glad to meet you Mr. Martin.” “Come in,” replied Andre. “You mustn't stand out in the hall. What will my neighbors think of me? Come in and bring in your luggage. You must be tired after such a long journey. Please, sit down.” After Raymond brought his luggage in and found a comfortable looking chair to sit down in, Andre began to explain the way, or ways, that he rented out the rooms in his building. Offering his visitor a drink from a portable bar he kept in his living room, Raymond settled for a glass of red wine and on his first sip, couldn't get over how refreshing it was and how good it tasted. “This is even better then grape juice,” he said after taking another drink of the expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. “A guy could get used to this.” “Ahh, Raymond, that is one of my best. I always save this one for my guests,” replied Andre. “Now then, let me explain. I am one of those people who does not run a very tight ship as you say in America, no? You can rent a room here by the week or by the month, it makes no difference to me. I do require a deposit though, fifty American dollars in advance. At the end of your stay, I give it back to you if you have not thrown a chair through a window, and I don't expect a nice calm man like you to do something of this nature, you see? So,” he continued, “have we got a deal?” “Sure,” said Raymond, reaching for his wallet and pulling out two twenties and a ten dollar bill. “How much for the week then?” “For the week is twenty-five. You can pay me next Sunday, don't worry. You look like a person I can trust. Now,” said Andre, “let me show you you're room. It is on the fifth floor but you have an excellent view of the shops down below and the sun shines in most beautiful in the morning. I know you will like it.” On his way up the flights of stairs to the fifth floor, Raymond was suddenly reminded of when he last had a nervous breakdown and ended up on the fifth floor of a hospital in Evanston, Illinois. Since that time, the fifth floor of any building seemed to represent one of the more unfortunate years in his life, but as the two men stepped off the stairway and onto a narrow walkway, a feeling of calm took hold over Raymond and he began to feel at ease and even welcome in the big apartment building. Raymond experienced a sense of belonging as Andre opened the door of the room and invited Raymond through the threshold. Immediately, Raymond realized what a great find he'd made as he looked around himself. He couldn't get over how clean the room was. It had two windows that let ample amounts of light and air into the room; a small kitchen table with four chairs around it; a bed; a couch and even a radio. But best of all, the room overlooked Paul-Henri's art studio, which is what attracted Raymond to the building in the first place. Notified beforehand by Lorin, Paul-Henri was expecting him and they had agreed to meet on Monday, the following day to inspect Raymond's collection of fine art, and hopefully purchase it, thereby bringing Raymond's adventure to its rewarding conclusion. “Well,” said Andre, “what do you think? For twenty-five a week, I doubt you can find better.” “It's super,” said Raymond. “Just what I needed. I feel at home here already.” “Very good my friend. You have a good stay with us, and if you like, my brother can help you find places you wouldn't ordinarily be able to find on your own. He can be very helpful to a visitor. Well worth the fee he charges. But now, I will leave you to yourself. You must be tired, appréciez.” As the door closed behind Andre, Raymond walked to one of the windows, opened it and took a deep breath of fresh spring air. I wonder what those Cubbies are doing, he thought. If they can stay ahead of the Cardinals, they should do alright this season. But before Raymond had much time to really think about the question he raised, a muffled voice cried out from within one of the suitcases and pleaded with Raymond to open it. “C'mon Ray,” said Guy, “get us outta here. We wanna see France too!” Opening the case containing his two best friends, Raymond picked up the severed heads one at a time and set them gently on dishes he'd brought along for the occasion. “Pick me up,” continued Guy. “I wanna get a look out the window. Hey,” he said. “We do got a good view here, he wasn't kiddin'. When ya gonna go down an give our friend a visit, that Paul-Henri guy?” “Tomorrow,” answered Raymond. “Nine o'clock sharp.” “Ya want us ta come along? You might feel better about bein' in a new, strange place if ya take us along.” “I don't think so,” said Raymond. “It's something I think I should do alone, don't you? Besides, don't take offense, but I'll probably be able to get around faster if I'm alone. Also, I wouldn't want to shock Andre.” “Whaddaya mean, shock Andre,” said Joe. “We're in this thing tagether ain't we?” “Yes but, I never told him I was sharing the room with two other people. He thinks I'm traveling alone.” At seven-thirty the next morning, Raymond got out of bed well rested and after getting dressed, he went downstairs to look for some coffee and a croissant. At eight forty-five, he went back up to his room to retrieve the four paintings he'd brought with and, with his heart pumping a mile a minute, he went back downstairs to Paul-Henri's art studio, anxious to find out how much money he was about to make on the four valuable works of art. This is it, he thought to himself. The moment of truth. I might retire after this and live on a beach somewhere next to Lorin and Dan. Crossing the street and walking to the front door of the studio, Raymond pulled on the unlocked door and walked through the threshold. On entering, his eyes wandered everywhere throughout the room at the crowded walls of the studio. So many paintings were hanging and so many were leaning against walls, Raymond didn't know what to look at first, but after all, he'd come four thousand miles to do business with the four paintings now in his possession and refused to take time out to wander the store for whimsical reasons. Calling out the store owners name but getting no response, Raymond wondered if Paul-Henri had forgotten their meeting and was about to give up hope when all at once he heard the sound of footsteps coming from another room behind the studio and watched, as a drapery opened to reveal the dignified looking art dealer himself. “Forgive me,” he said. “I was downstairs and did not hear you enter. You must be Raymond. Welcome to Paris my friend.” “Thank you sir.” “Please, come upstairs to my office where we can do business,” said Paul-Henri, as they walked the flight of steps from the studio to the second floor. “Have you had a coffee yet? I know you Americans are fond of coffee. I have an espresso in my office you must try. Sit down,” he continued, after opening the door to his large but modestly furnished office. “make yourself comfortable.” “Sir,” began Raymond. “I really appreciate your hospitality but I've come such a long way, all the way from Chicago to show you these four beautiful paintings in my portfolio here, couldn't I just take them out now and show them to you?” “Very well my friend. As you wish. No one here is stopping you.” Upon hearing Paul-Henri's reply, Raymond opened the portfolio and removed the famous artwork one by one from its carrying case, giving each painting a separate space on the floor, leaning against a wall. “What do you think?” asked Raymond. “Aren't they great?” he said, pointing to the four paintings lined up on the floor. “I don't know what Lorin told you on the phone, but here we have a Cezanne; a Monet; a Sisley and one of Caillebotte's best. Impressive isn't it?” “Hmmm,” was the only sound the well dressed art dealer uttered, as he looked on at the collection of famous works now at his feet before him. “Mr. Henri,” continued Raymond. “Aren't they terrific?” “Henri is a part of my first name, it is not my family name. My family name is Charbonneau. I am Paul-Henri Charbonneau.” “I apologize Mr. Charbonneau, but you're reacting a lot different then I expected. Is anything wrong? I thought you'd be excited to see all this famous original work.” “Oh,” began the art dealer, “I am impressed. Impressed with at least one of them anyhow.” “I don't understand,” said Raymond nervously. “What about the other three. They're all such great works of art. We were very careful about what we were doing. They come all the way from the art museum in Chicago.” “I can appreciate the long distance you traveled to get here..., Mr. Mort I think it is, no?“ “Yes, that's my name, but you act as if there's a problem and I can't imagine what could be wrong.” “Please Raymond,” said Paul-Henri. “Have a seat and I'll tell you what I think, but before we go further, what about the espresso I offered you? The invitation is still open. Let me pour you one.” As Raymond sat back down in his chair, facing Paul-Henri's desk, he watched the art dealer walk to his espresso machine and come back moments later with a piping hot cup of the dark, powerful brew. Handing it to his guest, he began to explain his thoughts to Raymond on the matter of the four pieces of stolen artwork. “You see,” he said. “I have the unfortunate task of telling you what I see, and what I see are forgeries. Not all of them mind you,” he went on, as Raymond's jaw dropped practically to the floor. “But three of them are not original works. This one, the Sisley you've brought. This one is real.” “What?” said Raymond, agitated and shaking with nervous tension. “After all we've been through, you're telling me they're copies. That can't be,” he continued. “We took them right off the walls of one of the biggest museums in America. We planned this and worked on it for weeks. That can't be. You must be wrong.” “You can get a second opinion if you like. My cousin, Cordell, you may ask him if you like but he'll probably give you the same answer. There is no doubt in my mind. The other paintings are copies. They are very good, but copies nevertheless.” “How can you tell?” asked Raymond, growing numb to the situation as the shock of Paul-Henri's words sunk in. Sitting back in his chair, Raymond's whole body began to go limp and his eyes appeared glazed over as the art dealer began to speak again. “I have been looking at work such as this for the better part of my life, but if you like,” he said, “I'll give you a few of the more technical reasons that I've based my opinion on. Number one; I can tell from the pigment of the paint and the shades of colors that the true artists never painted them. The pigments are clearly not from the regions in which they lived. It's highly unlikely the artists would have purchased supplies so far distant from their homes. Number two; look at the signatures. Here, look at this,” he continued, bending at the knees to get a better look at the signature on the Sunrise painting by Claude Monet. “The variation is slight, but just the same, that is not the signature of the real Claude Monet. He never crossed the “t” at an angle like that, and the other letters in the name have far too much curve to them. And last,” said Paul-Henri. “Last but not least, I can tell just by looking at the canvas. This is not an eighty year old canvas. Look at this, come here,” he said to Raymond, turning the Monet around. “Can't you see? Look how white and new the canvas is. I doubt this is even a thirty year old canvas. I am afraid my friend that what we have here are three very well executed copies. Not your fault of course, but just the same, they are counterfeit.” “Okay,” said Raymond, doing his best to recover and come to his senses enough to strike a deal with Paul-Henri. “I came here to sell the four paintings together. Now you're telling me I have only one to sell.” Leaning forward in his chair, Raymond bent at the waist and put his head in his hands, hiding his face. Tears welled up in his eyes as he fought to control himself in the presence of the unyielding art dealer. “How much will you give me for the Sisley?” “I am prepared to offer you twenty thousand U.S. dollars, no more, and if you leave the other three with me, I may be able to sell them off as copies and return a small commission to you. What do you say? Have we a deal?” “When can you pay me?” asked Raymond. “I need the money to pay for my room. I came with very little.” “I can pay you right now my friend,” said Paul-Henri, reaching into his pants pocket to bring out a key ring with a number of different looking keys on it. “I do not trust banks, do you? Besides,” he continued, “when I need money quickly, I do not want to wait in line and then wait even more until the teller makes up his mind to move his ass. This is all so much more convenient, don't you think?” Searching for the smallest key in the bunch, he inserted it into the lock of the large desk drawer he used to keep cash in, and asked Raymond if he preferred to be payed in francs or dollars. “Dollars please. Mostly dollars anyway. I could use a few francs to pay my landlord if it's not too much trouble.” said Raymond. “God, I can't believe this is happening. Are you really, really sure about it?” “Am I sure?” said Paul-Henri, counting dollars as he spoke. “My friend, many of the paintings in the museums of America and Europe are copies. These so called originals have been stolen so many times over - not just by Hitler and his colleagues - but by others as well, all throughout different times in recent history. It takes a true expert to tell these copies from the originals. It takes someone like me, for example.” “But if that's true, then where are the originals?” “Under your nose, that is where. In the homes of the rich and famous. Most of them are here, in Europe.” “I can't believe it. I just can't believe it,” said Raymond, as Paul-Henri laid the large amount of cash in front of Raymond, on the edge of his desk. “Believe it my friend. There is nothing more I can tell you.” “So where are the other three paintings?” asked Guy, “I missed that.” “I left them with Paul-Henri,” answered Raymond. “Hell, if they're worthless, who needs them.” “Hey,” said Joe, “if I was you, I'd keep an eye on that guy.” “Why?” asked Raymond. “Why would I waste my time? At least I've got the twenty thousand. It's not as much as we thought we'd get, but it beats what I came here with - practically nothing.” “I don't buy it,” said Joe. “He's hosing ya. I just know it. Just watch him, watch where he goes. Get over ta the window, pronto,” he continued. “Whaddaya see?” “Nothing,” said Raymond in reply. “Nothing but people passing on the street and a few cars going by. What am I supposed to see?” “I just gotta a hunch is all,” said Joe. “Be patient an sit there for a while till Paul-Henri comes out. When ya see him, I want'cha ta go downstairs an follow him, got me?” “I got you,” said Raymond. “But what's it going to prove?” “You're sendin' him on a wild goose chase,” interrupted Guy. “Whaddaya expect him ta find?” “I wouldn't expect you ta know,” replied Joe, in answer to Guy's question. “Just promise me you'll play my hunch, will ya Ray?” “I promise. He's walking out now.” “And...,” asked Joe. “And he's carrying a portfolio.” “I thought so. Quick Ray, go follow him.” “I've got to get my coat on Joe. Give me a second,” said Raymond. “It's a little chilly outside, but I've got to tell you, I think he's just selling the other three paintings I brought along. He told me he'd sell them and try to get me a small commission.” “Sure Ray,” replied Joe, “and keep all the dough for himself. Don'tcha see Ray? I'm bettin' those paintings are authentic, an our man Paul-Henri is gonna make a bundle on ‘em. Then he gives you nothing at all, or practically nothin'. What's the difference. Just humor me,” continued Joe. “Run downstairs an shadow him, follow him wherever he goes, but don't let him know you're on his tail.” “Okay,” answered Raymond. “If it'll make you happy. “ By the time Raymond got downstairs, Paul-Henri had turned a corner and was just about to walk into a café when Raymond caught up with him. Standing across the street in a niche of a wall, with the collar of his coat turned up around his neck, Raymond observed from afar as Paul-Henri calmly ordered lunch. Some minutes later, another man showed up and sat down in Paul-Henri's booth. He also ordered something to eat and as they sat, Raymond watched them exchange what appeared to be some very casual conversation, laughing every now and then, gesturing with their hands as they spoke, and talking as if they'd known each other for a very long time. After a while of this, Raymond noticed Paul-Henri slide his portfolio along the floor until it lay next to the other man's feet, and leaned against his legs. Raymond watched as the man opened the leather strap of the case without hesitation, peered inside and nodded his head up and down in agreement. Reaching into the inside pocket of his suit coat, Paul-Henri's acquaintance handed him an envelope and smiled as he noticed their waiter approaching with their order. Looking away from the two men as they sat eating and talking, Raymond's gaze turned skyward, and he looked on for some minutes as some of the low passing clouds above him began to gather and turn darker and darker until finally, it began to rain. A light, slow steady rain at first but as Raymond stood watching and waiting, the light rain soon fell harder and harder. Pelting his shoulders with large droplets of water until the hair on his head became rain soaked, but as Raymond stood, leaning his weight against the ancient Parisian building that shielded him from view, one thing became clear. He now knew what he must do. Passing time as the two men ate their lunch, Raymond bought a newspaper, folded it neatly and put it in the inside breast pocket of his trench coat where it wouldn't get wet. He estimated that at least an hour had passed since he began his vigil. Both men had finished eating, and the man who met Paul-Henri had walked out of the restaurant and left. Not long after, Paul-Henri put his napkin down on the table, paid his check and got up to leave. It'd grown darker outside now, and many of the people who filled the streets with clamor just hours before had disappeared, seeking shelter from the storm. Watching Paul-Henri pass through the front door of the café, Raymond unfastened the leather strap that held the Nazi dagger in its sheath and pulled the knife out into the dim light of the stormy afternoon. Unnoticed, he doggedly walked after his prey until the time was right, and when Paul-Henri walked past the opening of a narrow passageway between buildings, Raymond ran to catch up. Using the weight of his body as a driving force, he crashed into Paul-Henri and pushed him up against a wall in the narrow alley. Quickly and with precision timing, Raymond pressed the sharp edge of the dagger to the dazed art dealer's throat, as anger and aggression took control of his body and mind. “You tried to put one over on me, didn't you?” asked Raymond, now nearly nose to nose with Paul-Henri. “Joe told me what you were up to.” “Who is Joe? What are you talking about? I paid you didn't I?” “You paid me alright. You gave me only a quarter of what I should've been paid. I want the rest. I'm not going to let my friends down. How much did the man in the restaurant give you?” “I don't know what you are talking about,” said the shaken art dealer. Pulling Paul-Henri's coat open, Raymond removed the envelope he saw him receive in the café and ran his thumb over the currency. “How much is here?” said Raymond, urging Paul-Henri to answer as he pressed the edge of the knife deeper into the neck of his victim. “Twenty five thousand U.S. dollars.” “For what?” asked Raymond, digging the knife deeper into Paul-Henri's neck, drawing tiny droplets of blood that washed away in the rain almost as quickly as they'd appeared. “What did he give it to you for? Is it for my paintings? The ones you told me were worthless copies?” “It's a retainer,” said Paul-Henri. “Please, put the knife down. He wants the paintings. We can work it out. I have money, I'll give you my money, but please don't kill me.” Cutting Paul-Henri's pants away as he lay dying from his stab wounds, Raymond quickly removed the quadriceps from each leg and carefully wrapped them in the newspaper he brought along in his coat, like fresh meat from a butcher shop. Dragging the rest of the body to a nearby dumpster, he searched through Paul-Henri's pockets for the keys to his office before pushing the corpse up and over the side of the large trash bin, closing the lid with a thud. Then, with Paul-Henri's portfolio in hand, Raymond dashed off down the street to his victim's studio. Through the front door and up the stairs to the office he ran, eager to unlock Paul-Henri's cash drawer to take what he felt was rightfully his. Once there, Raymond sat down in the dead art dealer's desk chair and began counting the money he found. “Two, four, fifteen thousand U.S. dollars. Now that's more like it,” he said to himself. “Wait'll I tell Joe an Guy, they'll be so proud of me.” Walking swiftly from the office to the building where he stayed, Raymond called the airport and a cab, and booked himself and his two close friends on the next flight back to New York. Retiring to his room, he was anxious to confide in his friends and tired from the full day he'd spent. “Look you guys!” exclaimed Raymond, pulling out wads of cash from his pockets to show Guy and Joe. “Ever see so much money in your lives. We're rich!” “Fantastic!” said Guy. “You're right. I never seen so much. Lets celebrate! Get some wine Ray, lets do this right.” “Ehhh,” began Joe. “What happened ta Paul-Henri? How'd ya get him ta cough up all the dough?” “It's a long story Joe,” answered Raymond. “I'll tell you sometime, but right now, we have to leave. We got lucky,” continued Raymond. “I got us on the next flight out of Paris and it leaves tonight. We have to pack now. Why don't we celebrate when we get home. I'll throw a party for all of us, and Dan and Lorin can come over and pick up their share of the money.” “He's dead isn't he?” said Joe. “You killed him.” “I did what I had to do Joe,” answered Raymond. “You told me not to get cheated didn't you. I thought you'd be proud of me.” “You didn't have to kill him Ray,” said Guy. “You solve all your problems with that damn Nazi knife. I thought you were getting better too.” “I'll work on it when we get back home Guy, I promise. I just didn't know any other way. C'mon you two, help me pack up, we have to go.” “Hey Ray,” said Lorin, as he walked through the door of Raymond's apartment. “That was much faster then I expected. Why'd ya come home so fast?” “Cops after ya?” asked Danny, laughing at his jest. “My business was done,” replied Raymond. “There was nothing left for me to do. Look,” he said, pulling out bundles of cash from his pants and shirt pockets. “We're rich. You can buy whatever you want now. Isn't it great!” “Yes,” said Dan, “it's great, but at what cost?” “Don't go getting all guilty feeling on us now,” replied Lorin. “There must be twenty thousand apiece for us here at least. We're rollin' in dough! Party!” screamed Lorin, grabbing a bottle of wine he brought for the occasion and uncorking it. “C'mon you nuts! Help me drink this. Lets go back ta the strip club on Wells Street, whaddaya say?” “But I made dinner for us,” replied Raymond. “I made something French, just for the occasion. It's a recipe for spring veal with new vegetables.” “Bring it on!” answered Lorin, in the mood for a celebration. “I could eat a horse.” “Don't worry,” answered Raymond. “It's not horse. I'll go get it. It's still hot.” “Terrific,” said Lorin to Dan, after Raymond had walked into the kitchen. “After dinner, we'll go downtown. I feel lucky tonight, don't you?” “Yeah, I guess. I don't know,” said Dan. “There's just something about the whole thing Lorin. I can't explain it. It's just a gut feeling I have.” “Forget it,” replied Lorin. “Don't start regretting things now. It's too late for that. Hey,” he continued. “That's Raymond's portfolio there isn't it?” he said, pointing to Raymond's black case leaning against the wall. “It looks like its got something in it doesn't it.” Walking over to the portfolio, Lorin opened the top of the black carrying case to look down into it. “Damn,” he remarked. “He came back with the paintings. What the hell's goin' on?” “Hey Ray,” said Lorin, as Raymond walked back into the living room with a large pot of stew in his hands. “What's goin' on? You came back with the paintings. I don't get it. How'd you get paid if you brought the paintings back?” “It's a long story Lorin,” said Raymond. “Why don't I tell you later after dinner. But don't you see?” he went on. “We can sell them again, now that I brought them back. We can double our money.” “Wow, he's right,” said Lorin, acknowledging Raymond's advice. “Brilliant! But I sure would like ta know how you did it.” “Don't worry, I'll tell you. But for now, I propose a toast,” said Raymond, setting the pot of stew on the living room table and taking his wine glass in hand. “To the three of us, and to our new found luck and good fortune.” “I'll drink to that,” said Lorin. “Me too,” said Dan, beginning to smile at the thought of his sudden new wealth. “To Raymond,” he continued. “I wish I had more friends just like him.” “You can say that again,” remarked Lorin, sipping his wine and counting the wad of bills on the table in front of him. “I wish I had more friends like Ray too. Hey c'mon, lets eat. We got a big night ahead of us. Mmm, this is good Ray,” he said, biting into the meaty main course. “It's different. Kinda hard to describe. I don't think I've tasted anything quite like it Ray. You gotta do this again sometime.” “It is good,” said Dan, nodding his head in agreement with Lorin. “I'm glad we came tonight Ray. You guys are right too, I should be a lot happier then I've been acting. Just think of all the fun we can have now that we've got some money to spend. I don't have ta worry about payin' bills now.” “You finally see the light, dont'cha,” said Lorin. “I told you, life's gonna be great now. A whole new world just opened up to us. Hell, I don't have time for regret. Ray,” he continued, pushing himself away from the table and standing up. “I could use some ketchup. I'll be right back.” “It's a gourmet meal Lorin,” said Dan in response. “You don't need ketchup with this.” “Yeah I know,” answered Lorin. “Ketchup's just a habit. I can't help it,” he said, looking back over his shoulder at Dan as he opened the clean white door of the refrigerator. “I eat a lot of it.” But after Lorin finished his sentence, it was as if he'd suddenly fallen down into some great abyss, as not another sound could be heard coming from the kitchen. Silence fell, and wondering why, Dan looked up from his meal to find out what had happened and to question his suddenly mute friend. “What's goin' on in there? You fall in a hole or what?” Walking out from the kitchen, face ashen white and horrified, Lorin looked at Dan and then at Raymond. “You're sick Raymond. You're real sick. Dan,” he continued, “get me outta here.” wine he brought for the occasion and uncorking it. “C'mon you nuts! Help me drink this. Lets go back ta the strip club on Wells Street, whaddaya say?” “But I made dinner for us,” replied Raymond. “I made something French, just for the occasion. It's a recipe for spring veal with new vegetables.” “Bring it on!” answered Lorin, in the mood for a celebration. “I could eat a horse.” “Don't worry,” answered Raymond. “It's not horse. I'll go get it. It's still hot.” “Terrific,” said Lorin to Dan, after Raymond had walked into the kitchen. “After dinner, we'll go downtown. I feel lucky tonight, don't you?” “Yeah, I guess. I don't know,” said Dan. “There's just something about the whole thing Lorin. I can't explain it. It's just a gut feeling I have.” “Forget it,” replied Lorin. “Don't start regretting things now. It's too late for that. Hey,” he continued. “That's Raymond's portfolio there isn't it?” he said, pointing to Raymond's black case leaning against the wall. “It looks like its got something in it doesn't it.” Walking over to the portfolio, Lorin opened the top of the black carrying case to look down into it. “Damn,” he remarked. “He came back with the paintings. What the hell's goin' on?” “Hey Ray,” said Lorin, as Raymond walked back into the living room with a large pot of stew in his hands. “What's goin' on? You came back with the paintings. I don't get it. How'd you get paid if you brought the paintings back?” “It's a long story Lorin,” said Raymond. “Why don't I tell you later after dinner. But don't you see?” he went on. “We can sell them again, now that I brought them back. We can double our money.” “Wow, he's right,” said Lorin, acknowledging Raymond's advice. “Brilliant! But I sure would like ta know how you did it.” “Don't worry, I'll tell you. But for now, I propose a toast,” said Raymond, setting the pot of stew on the living room table and taking his wine glass in hand. “To the three of us, and to our new found luck and good fortune.” “I'll drink to that,” said Lorin. “Me too,” said Dan, beginning to smile at the thought of his sudden new wealth. “To Raymond,” he continued. “I wish I had more friends just like him.” “You can say that again,” remarked Lorin, sipping his wine and counting the wad of bills on the table in front of him. “I wish I had more friends like Ray too. Hey c'mon, lets eat. We got a big night ahead of us. Mmm, this is good Ray,” he said, biting into the meaty main course. “It's different. Kinda hard to describe. I don't think I've tasted anything quite like it Ray. You gotta do this again sometime.” “It is good,” said Dan, nodding his head in agreement with Lorin. “I'm glad we came tonight Ray. You guys are right too, I should be a lot happier then I've been acting. Just think of all the fun we can have now that we've got some money to spend. I don't have ta worry about payin' bills now.” “You finally see the light, dont'cha,” said Lorin. “I told you, life's gonna be great now. A whole new world just opened up to us. Hell, I don't have time for regret. Ray,” he continued, pushing himself away from the table and standing up. “I could use some ketchup. I'll be right back.” “It's a gourmet meal Lorin,” said Dan in response. “You don't need ketchup with this.” “Yeah I know,” answered Lorin. “Ketchup's just a habit. I can't help it,” he said, looking back over his shoulder at Dan as he opened the clean white door of the refrigerator. “I don't know how many bottles I go through in a month. I stopped counting.” But after Lorin finished his sentence, it was as if he'd suddenly fallen down into some great, deep abyss, as not another sound could be heard coming from the kitchen. Silence fell, and wondering why, Dan looked up from his meal to find out what had happened and to question his suddenly mute friend. “What's goin' on in there? You fall in a hole or what?” Walking out from the kitchen, face ashen white and horrified, Lorin looked at Dan and then at Raymond. “You're sick Raymond, really sick. Dan,” he continued, in a low, monotone voice. “get me outta here.” “Why,” said Dan. “What's wrong?” “Go look for yourself. There,” he pointed. “The refrigerator. Look.” Getting up from his chair, Dan walked to the kitchen to peer inside the refrigerator. There, he found something much worse then anything he could possibly have imagined. There, sitting on shelves were two severed heads with hats on, and the bloody remains of a large human extensor muscle of the front thigh. “Wholly shit!” screamed Dan. “He's nuts! I knew it! I told you he was nuts. I'm getting the hell out of here. Raymond,” he went on, now aiming his dread at their strange, bewildered host. “Don't come near me. Don't you ever come near me!” Running down the steps of Raymond's apartment building to their car, Lorin and Dan didn't look back, but as they opened the doors of the practically new, nineteen forty-eight Buick sedan, Lorin couldn't help remarking on the events of the night. “You know,” he said to Dan. “As sick as that poor bastard is, he makes a really good spring veal dish. Think he'd give me the recipe?” “Yeah sure,” said Dan. “If they trust him with pencils in jail.” “Wait just a second there Dan,” replied Lorin. “We got some thinkin' to do here. You know as well as I do we can't turn Raymond in.” “Oh, we can't can we? Just watch me.” “That'll blow everything,” answered Lorin. “Everything we worked for, up in smoke, just like that.” Lorin illustrated his explanation with a quick snap of his fingers as he finished speaking. “He's sick Lorin. How much more evidence do you need? How many people has he killed anyway? Two, four, twenty? It's anyone's guess. He can't spend his life around normal people. He should be in a prison hospital somewhere, strapped down to a bed where doctors can keep an eye on him.” “You blow the whistle on him, an we could wind up next door, breakin' rocks in the hot summer sun. Get my drift? How many years can we get for grand larceny, five, ten? That was no petty theft we pulled you know. Where I come from, they call it a felony.” “Well...,” began Dan, taking his hands from the steering wheel of the car and folding his arms across his chest. “Maybe I am acting a bit rash.” “Yes, you are,” replied Lorin. “Just stay cool. There is one thing I'd like to know though.” “What's that?” “You think Raymond would let us back in ta finish dinner? I'm really hungry an that was the best spring veal I ever ate.” “You see that,” said Raymond to Guy, as he pushed the vegetables in his dish aside and cut into the thick meaty quadriceps he'd carved from the body of Paul-Henri. “I just can't keep a friend. That's just the way it is. I must have some awful luck,” he continued. “If it weren't for you two, I'd have no friends at all.” “Cheer up,” answered Guy. “We're not goin' anywhere, are we Joe.” “Nope,” replied Joe. “Hey, how's my hat? I think it got messed up in the fridge.” “You look fine,” replied Raymond. “Well,” he said, reaching for the bottle of wine on the table. “Waste not, want not. Anyone for a drink?” After Raymond poured out large amounts of the wine for his two loyal, but immobile friends, now perched comfortably on the table, he heard the familiar buzzer sound of the door downstairs and walked to the intercom to find out who it could be. “It's us Ray,” came a familiar voice. “Me an Dan. You think we could come back up and finish dinner?” “I thought you hated me,” came Raymond's reply over the tiny speaker. “The way you left and all.” “No Ray,” answered Lorin. “We don't hate you. You are a little different though, you have to admit.” “I know,” replied Raymond, feeling remorse over what he felt was his cross to bear in life. “Come on up, and I'll tell you all about it.” Once upstairs, Lorin and Dan sat themselves back down at the table and resumed where they'd left off, indulging themselves in the delicious meal Raymond had prepared for them. “I just wanted to say...,” began Lorin, cutting a piece of the meat in his dish, holding it in place on his fork as he spoke. “I just wanted to say, I think I acted a little rashly back there Ray. But you gotta admit,” he said, biting off the chunk of meat from his fork. “It's not every day you go to some guy's house an find two heads in his refrigerator. How exactly did ya come across ‘em anyhow? I'm just curious. They were bastards right, an you killed ‘em outta revenge, am I right? But why would'ya wanna keep their heads around? That's the part I can't understand.” “Well,” began Raymond, clearing his throat and picking up his wine glass. “You see, I...” “Never mind Ray,” interrupted Lorin, before Raymond could get much involved in relating the history of Guy and Joe. “After thinking about it, I'm think'in some words are better left unspoken. Whadda you think Dan?” he continued. “You need the gory details on those two bums? Just tell me they had it com'in Ray. I'm satisfied with that.” “Yeah Ray,” agreed Dan, speaking as he picked at the food in front of him with the tip of his fork. “You probably did the world a favor, getting rid of two assholes and all, right? Did they pound you, or threaten you?” asked Dan, looking back and forth at Raymond and then at Lorin, searching for a clue. “If it's too painful to talk about it, why don't we just let it rest. Tell us some other time Ray, when you're in the mood to talk about it. We don't have to know right now.” “Sure Ray, no hurry,” replied Lorin. “What I really wanna know is...,” “Yes?” asked Raymond, with an inquisitive expression on his face, setting the wine glass he held in his hand down on the table, and narrowly avoiding spilling its contents. “Got any ice cream? This is a celebration isn't it? How about it Ray? Pie a la mode sounds good doesn't it? You got any more surprises in the ice box I should know about so I don't have a seizure look'in for dessert? I don't mean to hurt your feelings now but, It is over right Ray? I mean, the heads are it, right?” “I guess you could say that,” answered Raymond. “But to me, they're more then just heads. They're my friends.” “Friends?” asked Dan, coughing, and spitting up some of the wine he was drinking upon hearing Raymonds reply. “Wait now,” continued Dan. “Just a minute. I don't think I heard right. Did you say friends?” “No, you didn't say friends did ya Ray,” interjected Lorin. “That is, I think he said it, but he didn't mean it, right?” “No,” said Raymond. “They are my friends. They keep me company. They talk to me and give me advice and everything. I don't know what I'd do without Guy and Joe. Those are their names,” explained Raymond. “This is Guy,” he said, pointing to the head wearing the french beret tipped fashionably to the side. “Say hello to Lorin and Dan. Don't be shy.” “Hey,” answered Guy, in Raymond's mind. “Glad to meet'cha. This tough look'in mug beside me is Joe,” continued Guy. “His bark's a lot worse then his bite. He's really a nice guy when you get ta know him, aren'tcha Joe?” “Course I am. What a crazy thing ta say. Don't believe a word he says,” replied Joe. “He makes me sound like I'm hard to get along with or somethin. Ray,” he continued. “You gonna let him talk that way about me?” “Ahh, I'm sorry,” said Raymond. “They're not getting along well today. Some days are like that. We have our ups and downs, don't we boys.” “Ray,” asked Dan. “Did they just say something to you? You're scaring me Ray. Tell me you're not hearing them. They're just a couple of severed heads Ray. Dead as a doornail.” “Hey you,” replied Joe. “I resent that remark. Watch your mouth.” “This is one time I have to agree with Joe,” added Guy. “I haven't felt this humiliated in many a year. I thought they were your friends Ray.” “They are,” said Raymond, in answer to Guy. “But I...” “They are what?” asked Lorin. “What are you talking about Ray? Are you hearing voices? That's schizophrenia Dan. Shit, he's worse off than I thought. Ray,” he said, as he walked toward the door. “You gotta get yourself to a doctor. There's nothing we can do for you. Dan,” said Lorin, looking in Dan's direction. “Lets get the hell outta here.” “Wait!” exclaimed Raymond. “Don't go. We have to talk. I'm not schizophrenic, really I'm not. I just...,” “You just what,” asked Dan. “I just need friends. They're my friends can't you see that. So they talk to me, so what. You're my friends too. Hey,” continued Raymond, stalling for time and searching for words. “I got a great idea. Why don't we go back to that strip club. You know the one...on Wells Street, wasn't it?” “Some other time Ray,” answered Lorin. “C'mon Dan.” “Hold on,” said Raymond. “Just one more thing. I've got something I want to show you guys.” “Okay, okay,” replied Lorin, stepping back, away from the front door. “What is it?” “You'll see.” “Well now,” said Raymond, admiring the view of his friends, neatly spaced around the dining room table. “Isn't that better? I knew if we tried, we could all get along.” “So far, so good,” replied Guy. “All's well that ends well,” added Joe. “Never felt better in my life,” said Lorin. “How about you Dan?” “I'm good. Just a bit heady, get it? Heady.” “Yeah, yeah,” said Joe. “I never woulda known from the looks a things. Hah, hah, hah.” Tweet
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