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The Crimson Stain
When Victoria opens the door, it gripes every inch. The hinges haven’t been oiled since John Turner resigned as the Liberal leader in 1989, twenty-five years ago, the same day her grandfather died. The first level of the three-storey building has been closed, sealed and forgotten ever since. The two upper levels, divided into four apartments, have their own entrance. Last year Victoria became the new owner when her father passed away. But since she had no time then to manage a hundred and fifteen-year-old edifice, she had it boarded up. Sentenced it to solitary confinement. Tenants evicted. There were too many memories for her to part with it though so now the boards are down.
Victoria’s father was an only child and his father’s death took a heavy toll on his well-being. She remembers the days her father walked around in a miasma, sunken cheeks and a faraway look. After enough time passed, he was able to deal with what remained of his father’s legacy. The merchandise was removed from the store, the first level locked and forgotten.
A whiff of lost time snags her senses as soon as she steps in. Musty scents stir in the open door where fresh air barges in with no resistance. She hears something skitter in the corners, probably mice. Looking around gives her shivers. Cobwebs hang from corners like small kites. The early morning light gives the ones in the window edges a yellowish hue. Thickened by years of dust, the small dark bodies of the spider’s victims dot the surface like pepper. She hates spiders. The only thing she dreads more is seeing the stain on the worn wooden floor. She hasn’t thought about it for years. Only when she decided to renovate her grandfather’s haberdashery did she realize that she’d have to look at it.
Four tentative steps into the old store takes her to the base of a circular rack of dull and unpolished chrome which once held a selection of men’s hats. Victoria recalls trying them on when she was a kid and her grandfather teasing her about looking like a little boy with her short hair and the oversized hats resting on her brows. For a moment, the ghost of his memory shimmers in the light. His bushy eyebrows, the gap between his front teeth and the half-rim glasses perched on the tip of his nose is how she remembers him. Now she must face an unkind memory. The crimson stain.
She had come home for the funeral although she was living in another city when her grandfather died. Right here in the store. Right where the faded blotch on the floor remains. Struck on the head by someone, he laid unconscious and bled out. An undignified death. All for the seventy-five dollars in the till. The details in her memory can’t reach around the fact that her grandfather’s life was only worth such a measly amount of cash. No one has ever been apprehended or held responsible for the terrible deed.
Motes flitter carelessly in the dim sunlight which penetrates the dirty patina of the windows. Victoria takes another three steps and she’s beside a counter. Close by lies the stain. Visible still, under a soft layer of dust the color of baby powder. Its irregular shape looks like an odd shaped boot with a small foot. Victoria bends to sit on her haunches and wipes the dust away, covering her mouth with her other hand. The blood puddled on the left, thick and hard. A round bare spot in the center where her grandfather’s head may have lain. Thinking of all the times he let her play in the store, she misses him so much. Tears come in a gush. They drop to make plop marks on the gritty floor.
A firm voice from the open door startles her and she wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.
“Mrs. Delvecchio. Is that you?”
Victoria rises to face a rough looking character, lanky frame in bib coveralls which looks like they’re trying to swallow him. A lower tooth is missing but the smile could generate electricity and the eyes are enthusiastic. This man doesn’t look anything like she expected but he comes highly recommended.
“It’s Ms. Devereaux now. And you must be Hector?”
“Hector Hastings at your service, Ms. Devereaux. How about you call me Heck? Everybody does.”
“Fine then… uh, Heck. Call me Victoria.
“I’ll do that, Victoria. Gosh darn but that’s a lovely name.”
Victoria eyes him with an amused smile. She doesn’t think she’s ever heard the words gosh, darn and lovely used in the same sentence before.
“Thank you, Heck. Now, do you have a writing pad?”
He smiles widely again and sticks out his chin.
“Don’t need one.”
Taps his head.
“I don’t forget things, Vicky. I mean Victoria. See.”
He looks around, smug with his recovery.
“So, what we doing here, Victoria?”
She takes a deep breath and with one hand behind her back and her fingers crossed, she waves him toward the center of the store. There are several clothing racks where they stop. Fixed displays line the two side walls and part of the back wall where another door opens into a room that looks cluttered with more racks. Victoria waves her hand around to encompass everything.
“I want all of this, and I mean all of it, gone. As part of our earlier conversation, Hect… Heck, whatever you take must be inventoried and we’ll decide if anything has value. Then I want the whole space spotless. I want to be able to eat off the floor.”
Hector is waving both hands and his head is shaking.
“I ain’t no cleaning service Victoria. I mean… “
Victoria was meek once, but her ex-husband fixed her of that. She turns to face Hector direct, her dark eyes as forceful as her voice.
“Are you or are you not a project manager, slash contractor? I was told you were a man to get things done.”
“Yes, but… “
“Well then manage it, Heck.”
She doesn’t like being pushy. So, she offers him the brightest smile to win him with charm, and softens her voice.
“The basement will need the same treatment as well. Except a room in the back. That was my grandfather’s get away when I was younger and I want to do that myself. I’m actually starting on the room tomorrow. When your people are done up here, you and I will meet and decide what renovations to do. Now follow me upstairs and I’ll show you the changes I want in the apartments. The top floor can wait until the fall or winter.”
On the second level, she gives Hector the tour of the two units that will be turned into one – to create a large enough space for her to live. She points out the walls she wants down, the carpets she wants removed, the floors she wants sanded. Repairs to drywall and plaster. One kitchen removed and refinished into a den. They’ll discuss painting the rooms later. When they return to the sidewalk where his truck is parked, he digs through the center console looking for a business card.
The day is mild and she removes her jacket to fold it over her arm while she waits. Looking up at the building, she feels a sudden rush of warmth as she thinks of the joy her grandfather would feel at her being here. She’s doing the right thing. She only hopes she can be as honest and thankful with her clients as her grandfather was.
The sunlight adds gold streaks to her auburn hair and a shine to her face. When Hector sees the glow emanating from her, he can tell how happy she is.
“Here’s my card, Victoria with my email address too.”
“So, when do you think you can start?”
He’s looking off into the sky, rubbing his chin.
“Let’s see now. I can get a truck and I have a couple of men I can spare tomorrow morning so I’ll send them early, around seven-thirty and they can empty out the basement. That way you can be sure they don’t take anything you don’t want taken. Know what I mean?”
He doesn’t wait for an answer and Victoria is thrilled. She didn’t expect help so early. She’s smiling and bobbing her head.
“Today’s Thursday, so how about I get the cleaning and moving people here on Monday. I’ll put all the contents in my warehouse for now. Then you and I can meet here again on Wednesday and have our sandwiches off the floor. And I can have a gang working upstairs in another week.”
“I hold you to that Heck and I’ll bring the sandwiches.”
“Same here. And if you do bring sandwiches, bring baloney with ketchup, that’s my favorite.”
And then he’s off. Victoria moans softly and shakes her head as she watches him go. She can’t remember the last time she ate baloney, as he calls it. She shrugs and says to nobody, “What the heck?”
She’s laughing at herself as she locks up. Two old ladies strolling by look at her oddly and hasten their step.
The next day, she meets the two men. They surprise her by bringing her a coffee with sugar and creamers in a paper bag. They’re sipping their own steaming cups as they listen to what she wants done. She likes them already. Daryl is the younger one, with the flirting eyes, kinda cute. She guesses he’s in his early thirties, a few years younger than her. Pierre, about ten years older, is married with two little girls and a Doberman. She chats with them for a few minutes. She loves the curiosity of small city people but offers nothing of her background and evades any personal questions. They leave their empty cups on the counter and proceed toward the basement.
To get to the basement, they proceed to the back of the store and maneuver through a room where there was an area for a tailor and a seamstress, a pressing station, a small office and storage. Then they go out another door, which leads to a covered porch at the rear of the building containing stairs going to each level. Where they are standing in the back porch, there is a wide exit door that leads to a parking lot and delivery area. A set of steps lead to the underground room.
Unlocking the door, Victoria enters first and from memory reaches into the darkness on her right and finds a light switch. Four, hundred-watt bulbs hang naked from the ceiling. The glare makes them blink until their eyes adjust to the bright lights. An odor of furnace oil and old cardboard drifts toward them. A quick scan makes Victoria realize that the basement is for things that nobody wanted or had nowhere else to put them. The only thing clear of dust and debris and cobwebs are the oil furnace in the center, the electrical panel on the right and a path leading to both. Clutter everywhere else. She waves around the room as she did with Heck yesterday.
“Everything goes, gentlemen. Sort it out later. Keep what you want and toss the rest in the dump. Don’t touch anything beyond that door in the back until I see what’s in there.”
She’s pointing to a wooden, six panel entry to another room. There is a path cleared to the door amidst the debris. No footprints disturb the dust near the door and she guesses no one has been in there for a long time. The men don gloves and start removing the junk. Victoria makes her way to the back and stands in front of the door, staring at the glass knob. She’s never been in there before. She recalls, quite clearly, her grandfather telling her he was the only one allowed in the room, not even her grandmother had access. Through all the years of curiosity she assumes it to be locked. After reaching for the knob, she turns it to find the door opens easy. Entering slowly, she has to bat away small spider traps to clear the doorway. The hinges hum a similar tune as the front door does. Assuming there is a switch close, she reaches in and finds one on the right to reveal only a table lamp to brighten the room. Stepping in, she stares at the contents with a blank look. It’s not what she expected.
The room is the size of an average bedroom, maybe a little bigger, she thinks. All the walls are bookcases, except the one with the door. That one has pictures, posters, newspaper clippings, pages torn from magazines stuck on the wall with dozens and dozens of thumb tacks which look like a small brass army of beetles.
Hardly any of the light blue wall right up to the ceiling is visible. The photos catch her attention and she shuffles over to look closer. Set in groupings, the middle one is of him and her grandmother. One larger section is dedicated to her father. Another assemblage is of her and her younger brother. There is only one of her brother’s funeral. Her grandfather was not a huggy-huggy person but she always knew he loved her. She feels flushed at the display, and feels his presence so real it disturbs her enough to look around. She only sees remnants of her grandfather: the chair, the pipe, the no-nonsense lamp and the books.
All the walls are a continuous set of shelves and they’re full. In the center of the room is a large, overstuffed chair that would look fine in a rich man’s living room. The cushion is the only part that looks used. It’s indented in the center and lumpy like the bottom of an egg carton. On the right is an end table with the lamp which is a spindle of burnished wood and a plain beige shade. It rests beside an ashtray the shape of a frog with a Briar wood pipe in its mouth and a box of wooden matches. A coffee table with a blue glass bowl, empty except for a few dried-up popcorn kernels that looks like dead insects, and several magazines. Everything sits on a dark blue area rug.
She strolls along the book titles, not recognizing most except for the Ernest Hemingway, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury novels. Considering her grandfather, Bradbury is a surprise.
Running her finger along the spines as she walks by, she leaves a narrow trail of parted dust. As she’s doing so, an idea hits her. Going back to the main room, she sees Daryl leaving with a couple of boxes.
“Daryl, can you set that down for a minute and come here?”
The young man, puts his load aside and joins Victoria in the room. She passes him a ring of keys.
“Can you and Pierre start here next, please. Leave the furniture. Take all the books to the third level, apartment number four. Set them anywhere.”
“You bet. It won’t take us long.”
“Thank you, Daryl.”
At ten o’clock, Victoria leaves for coffees and doughnuts, asking what the men want. By the time she’s back, the books and back wall in the basement has been cleared. After the refreshment, she walks back into the room. Something seems odd. She steps back into the basement and looks at the wall where the door is located. It’s at least several feet longer than the same wall inside the room. She didn’t notice it before when there was so much debris in the corner. Going back inside she walks up to the wall left of the doorway. It’s just shelves. No openings or hints of anything behind them. She goes back out and checks again. Definitely a difference. Returning to the shelves, she studies them closer.
The wall is divided in three sections, three cases side by side. Victoria scrutinizes each one. Nothing seems out of place until she gets on her knees to look closer at the bottom shelves. In the center one, close to the right side, is a hole, three-quarters of an inch wide. Worrying about what might be in there, she pokes her finger in cautiously up to the second knuckle. A hard surface denies any further entry. She pushes against the blockage and she hears a clicking sound. The center cabinet moves forward by an inch. She jumps back, startled by the sudden shift in the shelves. Standing up to see better, she grabs the exposed sides and finds that the shelving unit slides freely ahead toward her until it stops when the back portion is even with the front of the others. She still can’t see behind. Trying different grips and motions, she finally finds a release switch on the side panel and the shelving unit creaks open to her right.
Dust particles and a blast of cold air encompass her and she backs off, coughing. She only sees shadows inside the cavity. The table lamp doesn’t have enough cord to bring it closer. She checks to see if one of the men has a flashlight. Pierre nods at her when she asks.
“Yeah, there’s one in the truck. I’ll go get it. Back in a sec.”
When he returns, he gives her the flashlight and tells her that he and Daryl should be done in an hour or so. She returns to the room. Flashing the light into the opening, she sees more cobwebs and an old trunk. The kind with a rounded top, a large latch hanging down.
It looks ominous and out of place, like a hammer in a first aid kit. Metal corners and wooden slats make up the frame. Two heavy leather straps are riveted to the sides. Why was the trunk hidden? A rushing thought visualizes a dead body. Imagining the gruesome image of a skeleton pimples the skin on her arms.
Setting the flashlight down on the table, she balances it so it will shine in the opening. Tugging on the straps, she is able to slide it out into the middle of the floor. Dust everywhere. She waves her hands to clear the air. The smell is stale and makes her think of moldy bread. She steps back for a moment and gapes at the trunk, leery of what she might find. Even more puzzling is that her grandfather would hide something. Bolstering up her courage, she gives herself a pep talk.
“No sense fretting over it. Can’t be anything dangerous. Get it done, Victoria.”
The clasp has a keyhole and Victoria worries she wouldn’t know where to find a key. There is a perturbance on each side of the circular latch. She squeezes them and the latch pops open. At first glance, the trunk appears empty. Victoria has to lean forward to see inside. Standing upright and propped against the lock side is a rectangular package wrapped in plain brown paper. A brownish twine hugs all four sides with a tidy bow in the center. She handles is as she would a new born. The paper is old and crinkles when she lifts it. Turning it over, she discovers an envelope attached to the brown paper in the center. She brings the package out closer to the lamp. Wipes off the cushion with her free hand and sits in her grandfather’s chair.
About the size of an opened three-ring binder, the packet has perfect square edges. The letter is glued to the paper and with a light tug, it comes off. She sets in on the table and unwraps the package. The paper is brittle and flakes on the edges where she unfolds it. Inside are two paintings, canvases stapled on narrow wooden frames. She holds them up to the light. The images look familiar to her, the style of painting. What surprises her the most is they are of a similar image and yet different. Fluctuating light patterns spill over what looks like a tree with hanging branches. It reminds her of Impressionist paintings she saw last year in a travelling display at the museum in Ottawa. Why her grandfather would hide works of art for so many years is an enigma. She scratches her head and studies the paintings for a few moments before she sets them on the carpet and opens the envelope.
Inside is a single page. She recognizes her grandfather’s neat script. It’s written in fountain pen and the words have faded over the years but still legible.
January 13, 1939.
I hope I am dead when you find these paintings, whoever you are. I can only hope it is one of my relatives, someone who cares enough to clear my name. Rather, I should say, to right the wrong I have done.
The paintings are originals by Claude Monet. I expect this will come as a surprise to you, dear reader. Would your first question be, why are they similar? Monet often painted the same scene but with different light patterns or in different seasons. These two were never publicly displayed. Titled Weeping Willow, they were completed during the First World War as an homage to fallen French soldiers.
Your second question, no doubt, will be, why are they locked in a trunk and hidden behind a bookshelf? The answer is simple, I stole them when I was a teenager, back in France, before I moved to Canada. Are you shocked? This coming from a man that honored his word, made sure his child knew right from wrong, a man who was known as an honest upstanding individual. (At the very least, I hope I was regarded as such). I have no answer as to why I stole them. The opportunity arose and Monet was quite famous when he died in 1926. On impulse, I had to have them.
But what good has it done me. Not a moment has passed since then when I don’t hang my head in shame when I think of what I’ve done.
Whoever you are, it is now your duty to restore them to the rightful owners. Let your conscience be your guide.
Staring at the letter, she trembles with the thought of her grandfather’s admission. It seems impossible. The letter falls to her lap. Sitting back, she sighs heavily and glares at the paintings at her feet. The first thought that comes to her mind is how valuable they must be. If she remembers correctly, one of Monet’s paintings sold a few years back for over eighty million dollars. How could she possibly restore them to their owners without implicating her grandfather? Worse yet, how could she explain their presence on a property she now owns? Where would she take them?
Sinking down in the chair, she contemplates what she must do. An hour passes as she remains like a statue, the rising of her chest the only movement. The paintings create a dilemma. Only when Daryl knocks on the door to tell her they are finished, does she rise from her deliberations. Before responding to Daryl, takes the time to remember the look of joy and satisfaction as her grandfather’s clients walked out his shop sporting a new hat, the respect they all paid to him for his skills. She then recalls the crimson stain on the main floor, and wonders: hasn’t her grandfather suffered enough indignity? Gathering up the paintings and the letter, she sets them gently back in the trunk, slides the trunk back in the empty space, resets the inner shelf, shuts the light off and closes the door.
As she climbs the stairs to the first level, she feels someone is watching her. She pauses and looks back. A vapor, ghost-like, rises from the edges of the door, and dissipates.
I enjoyed writing this story. It was an idea that stuck in my mind for a long time before committing myself to it.
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