I woke suddenly, my alarm clock showing 3.30am. In my half awake state I wondered what had awakened me so suddenly. It was a flicker of light I decided as another flash of light briefly lit up the black sky outside. The night was like pitch; there was no moon and the stars were covered by a thick blanket of clouds. I climbed out of bed and peered out the window looking down at the garden below. It was dead quiet, no sounds came up to me through the open window. The soft breeze that brushed my face was cool but was not enough to stir the leaves in the trees that my light adjusted eyes could make out in the gloom of the forest bordering the garden. The grayish silhouette of the garden studio, neatly tucked into the corner of the garden, stood like a sentinel block. I turned to get back into bed, could have been a distant flash of lightning I thought the weather had predicted possible early morning thunderstorms. As I was turning there were flashes of light in the window of the studio. Damned intruder, better get down there and investigate.
Careful, you don’t know what you’re up against out there. I knew that Josh had a shotgun but it was safely locked away in his gun cabinet and I had no idea where he kept the key. Josh and Julie had lived in their forest cottage for two years and had never had any reason to feel threatened. The subject of safety had never crossed any of our minds when we discussed my house sitting for them. It had been a win-win situation.
I had been commissioned by the town council to paint a large portrait of one of the village's dignitaries who had passed away a few years earlier. John Fowler’s portrait would hang beside those of his father, grandfather and great grandfather in the foyer of the town hall. The Fowler's had first made their mark in the district when John’s great grandfather had arrived in the district and bought up large tracts of farmland from cash strapped subsistence farmers during the recession. It was said that he took unfair advantage of the poor farmers but to overcome that he had poured money into the town’s infrastructure building a town hall, a school, and public park. Subsequent generations had added a shopping precinct, a small theater and community center.
This all came at great expense to the local community and was a token compared with the exploited riches that came to the Fowler's from their shady dealings using the town as their cover.
Armed with a golf club, the only weapon I could find, I went toward the garden studio. The door of the studio was locked. Must be an electrical fault I thought as I unlocked the door and swung my torch beam from side to side. Nothing here. I switched on the light. The studio was as I had left it. My large blank canvas on the easel angled to the window to capture the best light. My reference board on the smaller easel next to it was stripped bare of the photographs and rough sketches I had pinned there. That’s weird…..what the hell. I looked on the floor and there was no sign of them. Had I taken them inside last night?
Mystified, I turned to the open door as a strong wind swept in and swirled around the studio disturbing papers, magazines and folders on the shelves blowing items onto the floor. My large canvas, acting as a sail in the wind, tipped over crashing onto the floor. I scrambled to the door, shutting it firmly. Dammit it to hell!
I cursed as I restored my easel and picked up the items that had been blown around. I looked through the papers I had picked up and searched the small studio once more. There was no trace of the missing items from my reference easel. Had I taken them into the house when I called it a day last night? Why would I have done that?
Back in the house I looked around the sitting and dining area and there was no sign of the missing items.
Later that morning I went back into the studio for another look around but couldn't find my reference material. I thought that someone had broken in, I had a look around the outside but there was no sign of any forcible entry. Must be someone with a key playing tricks on me.
I like to research my subjects thoroughly before painting them and for most portraits I am able to talk with the sitter but in this case my subject had died a few years earlier and I needed to get a handle on the character of John Fowler who had no living relatives.
The Mayor, who was relatively new to the town had not met John Fowler but did tell me that he knew there was some resistance to having John’s portrait commissioned but he was part of the town’s history and in keeping with tradition all past mayors had their portraits displayed in the town hall.
A number of people I approached refused to discuss the man, most of them saying that it was good riddance to bad rubbish that the Fowler's no longer controlled the town and district, adding that they didn’t know why the council was spending community money on a portrait of what they considered a blight on the history of their town. Josh had warned me of a hostile reception for my assignment as based on his limited knowledge of the background of the family they were not highly regarded and had used their money and government influence to cement their place in the district.
I managed to set up a meeting with Martin who had known John Fowler and his family intimately. He had been married to John’s only sister, Cordelia.
He had her killed, you know, Martin told me. Once her father died he managed to cut her off from any inheritance. She had threatened to expose him for tax evasion and a whole host of other criminal activities including drug trafficking. Cordelia trained as a lawyer, he continued. She worked tirelessly to expose him for what he was, then she was struck by a car in a hit and run. On her deathbed in hospital she told me that it was John’s doing and he would have to pay. I promised her I would expose him, she said all the information I needed was on her laptop with backup files stored safely at home.
The night she died our house was gutted by fire, the evidence was destroyed.
I opened my own investigation and was able to uncover some evidence but John got wind of this and started threatening me to the stage where he destroyed my business and along with it my life. He was an evil man, any one who crossed him was terrorized with their families threatened if they didn’t go along with his scheming and cheating.
Can you portray a monster like this in a painting?’ He asked.
Martin went on to tell me that in the last years of his life John had been under the care of a psychiatrist as he had been plagued by visions of monsters. I think he was haunted by Cordelia. It seems as if she got her revenge in the end. We said our goodbyes and shook hands at the entrance to the aged care home where Martin now lived.
I knew what I needed to do.
My portrait of John Fowler as Satan never occupied the walls of the town hall. All other Fowler portraits were removed and the space handed over to local landscape artists. I never did find the missing reference material.
Before I left the town I presented Martin with a portrait of Cordelia and as I helped him hang it on the wall in his room a flicker of light reflected off the golden frame.