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Contemporary Mystery

After my dad passed, I attended my first and only art auction. In my little sister’s living room. Nine pieces in all, staged on the couch, the maple hearth over the faux-birch faux-fireplace, the guest chairs, Grandma Kendricks’ old rolltop desk.

It was a round-robin process, the spoils divided evenly between the three Dodge siblings. I came away with a landscape of hazy western hills and narrow pines, a study of the Alamo, and a still of two lemons and a teapot. Oil on sturdy eighth-inch boarding of the type used to ship provisions in and presumably out of Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl in the late 1920s (the artist signed and dated each piece before scrawling a nickel’s price on the B-side). It was the Depression, and five pennies had been a lot to cough up even if the tuberculosis didn’t get you.

I suspect there was more to it than feeding the family larder. Dad once casually tossed off “burying a lot of bodies” with his preacher father during those years in the sty of the storm, and when you’ve only just hit the double digits, that sure as shit has to go somewhere. Somehow, that stack of fruit crate paintings survived Dad surviving WW2, jumping off the ship in Chicago, riding a desk to Terre Haute, and discovering his life’s love – the move I suspect may be linked to Reverend Grandpa being merely a photographic memory for me and my sisters. Somehow, the remaining works of John Luther Dodge made it from Oklahoma to 1208 South Center and a spot behind the attic rafters, without any of us tripping to desk jockey Dad’s well-hidden layer.

Of course, somewhere along the way, that was on us.

**

Wonder if Dad ever did a self-portrait. My bet was against: Dad for his chipper, gregarious ways seemed to like to keep the onion peel-on. 

That’s what I was thinking when Sarah brought the package in, beyond whether to improvise with the dregs of the cranberry sauce in my cordon bleu sauce. Four days past Thanksgiving, I was only pinkie toe deep into the surplus ham.

“Did you order something?” she demanded as I scraped the last of the berries into the mascarpone.

“If it’s yet another pair of Crocs, I think not.” As with my saucing, I am feckless when famished. I glanced up to see if homicide was imminent, and realized neither Amazon nor UPS had delivered this parcel. Thirteen by nine by maybe a quarter inch, wrapped tightly in the local paper. From the politico’s disingenuous face grinning out at me, the last two or three day’s edition.

I didn’t know bomb shit, but I hadn’t accomplished anything worth getting blown up, if that mattered any more. I ripped the newsprint away, and came face to face with a face. A familiar face, if only because I’d vaguely seen something much like it before.

“And who is that?” Sarah asked. “It looks like a nine-year-old did it.”

“More like 17.” Which as it happened didn’t help. “You remember the fundraising poster I did with the ELEVATE kids?”

“No.”

“The girl who wrote me the thank you email after?”

“No.”

“You want me to refresh you, or you want lunch on the table before 2?”

“The second one.” She left me to my sauce.

**

“I am familiar with her work,” Prof. Saanvi Deshpande informed me with her usual note of Brit-tinged formality, adding a touch more cinnamon to her Mexican hot chocolate. “I received one myself this morning.”

“What the hell?” My big coffee sloshed as my knee thumped the table. There were no confounding, contradictory high-flown units of measure here at the Campus Coffee Commune. Every coffee was just “big” because somebody ordered one size of once-white earthquake-resistant Paul Bunyan mugs somewhere back in ’72, and until a nuclear strike, the hipsters and profs and self-perpetuating grad students and Starbucks-loathing Prius jockeys would just have to work for their java. It was a perfectly narcissistic, portentous environment in which to discuss community affairs without one shit being given.

 “I asked myself a similar question, as Mika is capable of far better work.”

“Mika, right,” I muttered guiltily. “She sent me a draft version last week, which was strange since I hadn’t heard from her in a couple of years. A Google Drive link for this ginormous .tif file -- asked me what I thought, I thought for some competition or something.”

Now, Saanvi shifted abruptly, though the graphic artist/sociocultural studies prof would need a forklift to jostle her Big Cocoa. “I found a similar link sitting in my Inbox when I returned from visiting family in Mumbai. I rather hit the ground running upon my return, and I regret to confess I haven’t responded to her yet.”

“Yeah, don’t regret so much,” I smiled weakly. “I took a quick glance at the file in Drive, and told her it was great. I mean, compared with this” – I tapped the self-portrait in the Big Chair to my right. “I’ll take her word this is her – so long ago, I can’t even place her face. How do you know her?”

Dr. Deshpande sipped her dark chocolate with both hands, nodding. “Mika was one of Millington High’s candidates for the department’s Summer Arts Internship program. Believe me, this is nowhere near representative of her work. In fact, if I recall, I voted her acceptance based on a self-portrait. This, I can’t explain, except perhaps as some kind of expression of grievance.”

“Grievance?”

“Department funding took a big hit in the aftermath of COVID, and the General Assembly in turn slashed arts funding at the high school level. The internship was a dual casualty.” Saanvi looked over her mug expectantly. I sighed.

“OK, you know ELEVATE, the youth training group on the West Side? They recruited me to help three of the kids who were into the arts design some promotional material -- teach them a little graphic design, placement, composition. So we all sit down, and it’s like a meat locker set to Siberia. I mean, look at me.”

“You do appear rather of a type.”

“The one girl, think her name was Danielle, wasn’t hostile or anything. Just, I don’t know, scared to speak up. The guy, Marcus maybe, was more challenging, like the whole thing was just some liberal feel-good exercise. Mika just sat there mutely, clenched like a fist, no expression whatsoever.”

“None of those unusual reactions for young people in their socioeconomic situation. Your appearance would engender distrust, cynicism, even resentment – the would-be white savior who looks more like the white interloper. Don’t look so crestfallen – I know you to be a man of layers.”

“No, I get you. I spent 45 minutes trying to pry one idea out of them, then I sketched something up and Danielle finally spoke up, said I was getting too fancy, could we do such and such? And then Marcus joined in, helped flesh out Danielle’s concept, wound up scolding Mika. ‘He’s asking your opinion,’ he told her.”

“She isn’t used to it meaning anything,” Saanvi suggested. “She isn’t accustomed even to being seen.”

“Well, that’s the thing. It was clear Marcus thought I was going to shitcan their ideas, go my way anyway. When I sent ELEVATE the flyer, it was Mika who wrote me how much she appreciated seeing her ideas in print. I’d seen some of her work at the ELEVATE offices, and at the time I was working with the West Side local market project, so I promised to put in a word for her helping design the storefront mural. I did, but I never followed through, and you know where the whole project went.”

“Hardly your fault,” Saanvi murmured. “But I suppose from Mika’s standpoint, we’re two in a chain of disappointments.”

“Now, I feel so much better.”

**

There were, as it turned out, several additional links in that chain. Bryan Penzler, the local street artist commissioned to coordinate “youth-driven” murals at the Public Library, Millington Park, throughout the downtown, who’d wound up going his way, leaving only a few interstitial spaces for his young West Side prodigies and a late-entry sprinkling of the local gentry’s offspring as well. Ward 5 Councilwoman Jackie Goettles, who’d fought tooth and nail to rip out a Campustown mural featuring the work of several Millington High students that “didn’t fit the vision” of the sleek new Millington Intermodal Hub. Millington School Superintendent Edmund Jefferson, who apparently had wielded the final ax stroke that severed Mika’s summer internship. Ralph Symons, the Beltway jeweler who’d flatly, loudly, and litigiously refused to allow “his” strip plaza to be “polluted with lowlife ghetto art.”

There were others – my buddy Curtis gave me the whole list. Now, you can’t prosecute somebody for distributing art to the unwilling – 11 pieces in all, all of inexplicably equal quality. Even Millington’s “King of Diamonds” would be hard-pressed to call it a threat, though he likely would with a few more choice micro- or full-blown macroaggressions.

When one of the “patrons” gets blown to shit by the artist, that’s a different matter. Bryan Penzler wound up gracing the walls of his East Side dining room after the neighbors spotted Mika dropping an objet d’art on his condo doorstep. In that part of town, if you’re a Mika Joyner, there’s little concern about being “seen.” Shit, Det. Curtis Mead had to flash his badge to avoid the neighbors calling an impromptu MPD picnic.

**

“And to think you just ripped into the thing like a kid at Christmas,” Sarah nodded.

“Where would she have hid the bomb?” I challenged, hacking into my Denver omelet. “It was flat, cheap dollar store canvas glued to a cardboard backing -- she wasn’t planning on a Louvre exhibition. It was a simple statement. Why would she punctuate it with a bang? As Curtis pointed out, she’d have been pretty conspicuous in Penzler’s neighborhood.”

“I thought he was a graffiti guy or something.”

“A muralist. Who’s done walls in Peoria, Springfield, Champaign, Chicago, no doubt on commission or with some suh-weet grant funding. I think he sells more portable shit on the web, too. Why would she kill a muralist?”

“Is that any of your concern?”

She knew better. Or should have.

**                       

I went literally to the wall on this one — to be precise, the retaining wall just east of the Market Street rail overpass. It was a bold pop of color in a gray corner of Millington — the last peripheral greens along the corridor had passed with the season, and the few economic pedestrians seemed to have coordinated for the dying fall in grays and browns and over-bleached olives.

It had remained pristine even after four years in a town where the Abe Lincoln on the side of the Main Street yoga-and-gift shop had sprouted a spray-on mustache and the downtown alleyways formed a Tagger’s Hall of Fame. I was at the dedication, and witnessed a neighborhood buoyed at least momentarily by simply being seen. It wasn’t the local green grocer dangled then yanked away, nor the asphalt patch reserved for East Side streets.

“Bryan”s kids had crammed the spaces amid the particolored family groupings and West Side landmarks with identity and pride and hope, making the wall their own — the West Side’s own — and the young artists were commemorated in a scroll on the east end of the installation, below Penzler and the non-profs and merchant donors and city mucks including Councilperson Goettles who’d generously signed off on the deal. Everything in its place, I supposed as a string of container cars thundered overhead.

Mika was second in the Millington Youth Arts listing, but another name a few inches above the cracked sidewalk caught my eye. It was perhaps the only time Alison Symons would get billed below the West Side kids. Buried at the bottom like a guilty secret —a concession to privilege even here.

But something jaggedly illogical pricked my brain, and by the time I returned to the land of smooth pavement and plentiful greens and reliable broadband, I’d peeled back a few more layers. After depositing the groceries and pecking Sarah, I took the stairs two at a time to the basement laptop, nearly wrecking myself in the process. I glanced at the Alamo as I fired up the Dell.

**

“It wasn’t the paintings themselves,” I explained. “I think she was after something more. To be seen, really seen, you know what I mean?”

Saanvi frowned, nodded. “I believe I do. I would. But, and I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious, I’m not sure I can find much additional meaning in this work. Mika’s self-portraits are consciously superficial, effortless, mocking, a bit petulan, if understandably so.”

“Exactly,” I said. “She wanted us to look beneath the layers of something that seemingly had only one layer. But that isn’t true.”

Prof. Deshpande glanced back to the easel beside her desk, rescanning the canvas, Mika’s dead eyes and banal grin.

“You’re getting colder,” I informed her. “Think about it – is this the only portrait Mika sent you?” 

Saanvi’s brow rose. Then she wheeled back, flashing a small smile. An 11X17 monitor was chained to the Dell, and she turned it toward me while tapping in a password. Within a few clicks, a familiar loading screen appeared onscreen, and within a few more, a window framed by rulers and tools and panels materialized. The file Saanvi opened depicted the same consciously crude face on the easel at her elbow.

“She wanted not only to be seen, but for us to go the extra mile she feels we didn’t bother to take before, for us to work for her real meaning.”

“The hidden layers,” Saanvi murmured, locating a multi-paned window to the right of the image. “I was grateful when Photoshop enabled layered .tifs – so much easier to share than Photoshop files.”

“Yup. I wondered why Mika sent me such a huge graphic file just to eyeball. A.jpg would have been fine and small enough to attach-- a 100-plus megabyte .tif seemed like overkill. Unless there was physically more to the image.” I tapped Saanvi’s screen lightly and respectfully. “And there’s our hidden layers.”

Nine layers in all, including the scan of Mika’s original oil. Saanvi clicked off the portrait layer and clicked up one of the invisible text layers. Nine-point Arial Narrow filled the file window. I leaned in.

“Ah, my,” Prof. Deshpande finally said.

“Yup.”

**

“Manifesto’s a loaded term,” I admonished Curtis as he nursed his fries. I was on the McCafe Diet until all the ham was gone. “Mika wanted to grab our attention with something flashy and confusing, but she also wanted to prove she was no dumb, marginal kid. She wanted to be seen and heard. About low social expectations and institutional racism and bureaucracy and privilege. And about the grooming and exploitation of young women by trusted mentors.”

“Joyner woulda been, what, 13 at the time?” Curtis said, swiping his fry through the honey mustard he’d fought the bureaucratic cashier to release for non-McNugget use. “You think Penzler molested her?”

“I don’t think it was Mika.”

**

“I wondered why you were so adamant against the Youth Arts project,” I told Bryan Penzler’s killer. “Especially when you’d allowed your daughter to work on the Market Street mural just a few years ago.”

Curtis had advised Millington’s King of Diamonds as per Miranda-Escobedo, and now he leaned back on a case full of silver and platinum and gold and diamonds that set off their navy velvet setting. It felt like the Marianas Trench here, submerged in deep royal blue. Symons glared predatorily at me.

“Your vehemence seemed personal. Ironic that your beef was with Bryan. Just how is Alison doing?”

Symons’s wattage subsided. “That monster.”

“Lot of tragedy avoided you’d just reported the monster,” Curtis rumbled. “You know, the houses across from Penzler’s have those Ring video setups, and we got you on video. Even without the markings, your dark blue van passed for Amazon. Not uncommon in that neighborhood – not like…”

He trailed off, and I didn’t complete the thought. There are places you don’t want to be seen, and places where invisibility has its rewards.

“You had no idea Mika would happen along before you with her delivery,” I added instead. “But it worked out for you, at least until it hit us that Mika’s self-portrait shouldn’t have been intact. Bryan opened your bomb in the dining room hours later. ”

“Guess is your fancy ‘delivery van’ has a sophisticated GPS system we can crack to put you at Bryan’s condo, even if you weren’t careless enough to leave traces of your bomb makings in your garage or basement,” Curtis said. “You ready to go?”

Symons placed a bracing hand on the glass over an array of Rolexes. “All those girls, and he picks the one…”

“Now,” Det. Mead said, calmly enough to send a chill through me.

**

They hung the 11 self-portraits of Mika Joyner in a University gallery with a dozen other by her collegiate sisters, under the exhibition banner “SEEN.” Art wasn’t as big a draw for rank-and-file Millingtonian as, say, Taylor Swift or monster trucks, but Saanvi’s successful bartering for reinstitution of the Summer Arts Internship salved any disappointment Mika might have felt.

I revved up the old Photoshop and brought up my Mika Joyner. I deleted Layers 2 through 9 -- Curtis had everything he needed, and I needed more hard drive – and once again examined Layer 10, which had been absent from Prof. Deshpande’s file.

I contemplated the second image Mika no doubt had composed from memory, finding it difficult in the moment to look myself in the eye. 

November 24, 2023 07:51

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14 comments

Chrissy Cook
06:26 Nov 29, 2023

Amazing that you managed to fit a genuine whodunit into so few words! Judging by the title, you've got several of these, so I'll have to have a look at your backlist. :)

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Martin Ross
14:31 Nov 29, 2023

Thanks, Chrissy — I’ve got a (minor) procedure today, so this really picks me up! I love mysteries — been reading them since the ‘60s. One great thing about Reedsy — the word limit’s taught me to plot and write tighter. Have a great day!

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22:47 Nov 27, 2023

Interesting take on the prompt. 1st time reading one of your stories. Lots of reading in between the lines. What did she mean by sending inferior portraits of herself? Rhetorical question. They figured it out. As what happens in this site, I've read many stories based on this prompt and they are all very different from each other. I've discovered that writing to prompts is addictive. Sometimes I'm not inspired. This one inspired me as well. I liked reading Ellery Queen too.

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Martin Ross
02:30 Nov 28, 2023

Thanks so much, Kaitlyn! The three teens at the training session were almost as described — a real lesson for me — and the real overpass mural truly is inspiring. The prompts have really energized me — I hadn’t written a story for years until I found Reedsy. I’m having more trouble coming up with mystery clues and plots these days, so I may try some different things. But having loads of fun, and everyone here’s so nice and encouraging. Hope you’re having fun, and I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.

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20:02 Nov 29, 2023

Thanks to you too. Sometimes I only roughly follow the prompt. As in, I write the story I want and the general idea of the week's theme is there, the prompt is noticeable in it, but the other small print part of the theme is sometimes not strictly adhered too. The Halloween prompts I didn't enter my story as I didn't realize all the prompts had Halloween next to them and I never wrote a Halloween story, then had no time. Some readers thought I could have put the story in. Another example; When life is Better than Fiction mentioned the word ...

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Martin Ross
21:25 Nov 29, 2023

I have been lucky being accepted so far but have not yet been even shortlisted. I think part of it may be that nearly everything I've written has been a mystery or humorous horror -- a little shallow for the judges' tastes. I did get a very nice comment from one of the judges a few stories back -- maybe the "deepest" stories I've written -- but I don't mind. I'm writing more than I've ever, and having lots of fun. Plus, Reedsy's helped me compile four books of Mike Dodge stories (and I'm finishing up on a fifth collection). The stories that ...

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Joan Of Arc
13:56 Nov 27, 2023

Very good story.

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Martin Ross
14:21 Nov 27, 2023

Thanks, Joan!

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Aoi Yamato
02:32 Nov 27, 2023

very good again. well done Martin.

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Martin Ross
03:30 Nov 27, 2023

Thanks!

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Aoi Yamato
01:08 Dec 18, 2023

welcome.

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Mary Bendickson
22:44 Nov 24, 2023

So much depth in your writing as in the art work.

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Martin Ross
03:15 Nov 25, 2023

Thanks, Mary!

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Cassie Finch
09:55 Feb 13, 2024

Ah, GPS, gets you every time!

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