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July 04, 2022

The Black Painting

By Mel Trent

Mr. Ulsh was a mean old man. His face was pinched around a large black pipe, and his blue eyes were a thousand times too large behind the lenses of his clear plastic framed glasses. As he had aged, his hips had grown wider than his shoulders, which made his gait more of a wobble than a walk. It seemed a miracle that he could get pants on at all, but every day, he wore the same sky blue polyester pants clinched mercilessly tight around his waist with a thin black belt. He did, at least, wear a different shirt every day. On Monday, he had worn a dusty pink polo shirt with orange bleach stains on the collar. On Tuesday, it was a buttery yellow button down shirt that looked suspiciously clean. Today, Wednesday, Mr. Ulsh wore a lime green polo shirt with his sky blue pants, and he was the most colorful thing in whole grey and olive drab city.

The kids who lived in the apartment building across the street from the retirement community liked to stand around under the covered entrance of the building and watch Mr. Ulsh totter along the sidewalk. They laughed at him and called him dirty names. He would glare at them, sometimes returning the insults. The kids couldn't see the sadness in Mr. Ulsh's over-magnified eyes. Every so often, a passing adult would tell the kids not to say such mean things, but most of those adults would have been out there doing the same thing if given half a chance. It was an instinct to pick on and attempt to destroy the weak.

On Wednesday, after a good round of making fun of Mr. Ulsh's choice of shirt colors, sixteen-year-old Todd Bailey, whose father was a cop and whose mother might as well have been a figment of his father's imagination, pointed a finger at Mr. Ulsh and said in a harsh whisper, "Look at that belt buckle."

It was difficult to look away from the lime green polo, but the clutch of kids managed to pry their eyes away and focus on the belt buckle. Mr. Ulsh's belt buckle was a huge square of silver. It had ornate designs engraved in its face, and it was much too large for the belt he was wearing. Something inside the belt buckle was screaming, but the kids couldn't hear it.

"My dad says he keeps his dead lover's ashes in that belt buckle," Todd said.

"Ew, that's gross," Lana Nichols said. She was twelve, the youngest of the group. She thought it made her cool to steal her mother's cigarettes and lipstick and hang out with the older kids. "Wouldn't it stink?"

"Ashes don't stink," Riley Anderson said. Riley was a quiet boy. He was fourteen, small for his age, and his eyes were never still, as if he were watching things no one else could see.

"Mr. Ulsh never had a girlfriend," Stacey Torres said. "Look at him. He's gross. I bet he was gross even when he was younger. Unless she was gross, too." Tall, leggy, athletic and beautiful, the word that best described Stacey was 'judgmental.'

"No," Todd said. "It wasn't a she. Mr. Ulsh is a fag."

This revelation brought a moment of silence to the group. They stared at Mr. Ulsh, tracking his slow progress down the damp sidewalk. New possibilities of name calling came into their heads.

"My dad said they used to live together over in Meadow Bluffs back when it was nice and new," Todd went on. "Mr. Ulsh was a banker or something, and his boyfriend was an artist. He did that stupid mural on the cafeteria wall at the Catholic high school. Carlos something or other."

"Marquez."

The new voice startled the kids. They hadn't realized anyone was listening, and they resented any and all adult intrusion in their stories. They turned as one to see who it was. They had all seen the young man before. He had lived in the building for a few years, but they didn't know his name or what he did for a living. He kept irregular hours and lived in an apartment on the fourth floor that was supposedly haunted. People tended to stay away from him.

Stacey thought he was cute. She blushed and grinned. He didn't look at her.

"How do you know that?" Riley asked.

The young man shrugged. "It's my job to know these things," he said.

"What things?" Lana asked.

"Ghost stories. Go on. I'm curious about this version."

"Whatever," Todd said. "Anyway, Mr. Ulsh and his boyfriend lived over there for a long time, and then the boyfriend was killed. My dad said that most of the cops who went out there that night ended up quitting. It was so nasty that even the coroner got sick. Carlos was basically ground meat, and there was blood all over the walls of the studio, and it stank like he'd been dead for weeks."

"Did Mr. Ulsh kill him?" Stacey asked.

"No. Mr. Ulsh was at work. He found Carlos when he got home. No one had broken in. The cops never found a weapon, fingerprints, nothing. There was just his paints and stuff and a few paintings. There was one painting, the one he was working on when it happened, that kinda made everyone who looked at it feel like they were gonna go insane or explode or something. It was a big canvas, and it was painted all black, but it was like there was something inside the painting that was trying to get out. After that, Mr. Ulsh moved out of the house. He had what was left of Carlos cremated, and he keeps the ashes in that belt buckle. They say the belt buckle's haunted."

The kids grew quiet and still. Rain tapped the awning, and the sky was getting green. Mr. Ulsh reached the end of the sidewalk, wobbled himself around and started back the way he came.

"What happened to the painting?" the young man asked.

"Dunno," Todd said.

"Does your dad know?"

"No."

"What's the painting got to do with anything?" Stacey asked. "I bet Mr. Ulsh did it. Why didn't they ever arrest him?"

Todd shrugged.

"Mr. Ulsh didn't kill anyone," the young man said. "The painting did."

"Are you outta your fucking mind?" Riley asked. "Paintings don't kill people."

"You sure about that?"

"You're just trying to scare us," Lana said. "You're not nice."

"Who the hell are you anyway?" Todd asked.

"My name's Jack," the young man said.

"You live in the haunted apartment, right?" Stacey asked.

"Yeah."

"It's not haunted," Todd said. "There's no such thing as ghosts. And paintings don't kill people."

"Yeah. Paintings don't kill people," Lana said.

"Okay," Jack said. "Maybe the painting itself didn't, but something inside the painting did."

"You mean ... the painting had a ghost inside it?" Stacey asked.

"Could be. I won't know until I see it."

"How does a painting get haunted?" Riley asked. "Especially one he was just working on."

"Maybe Carlos was psychic," Todd said. It was a real possibility, but he said it in a derisive tone that meant he wouldn't believe that any more than he would believe the theory that the painting had killed Carlos.

The other kids giggled.

Nothing ever fucking changes, Jack thought. He kept his uneasiness to himself. The kids, though naive, had been a decent source of information. None of the police officers who had been involved with the initial investigation would talk about it. Details like the ones Todd's dad had passed on were hard to come by. Jack had often wondered why the Agency had never investigated Carlos's death. Perhaps they, too, believed that paintings were incapable of murder. There was talk that Carlos had been unfaithful. It was much easier to dismiss the incident as nothing more than a jilted lover trying to avenge his damaged heart, but Jack couldn't help thinking that there was more to it than that.

"Why do you care about what happened to Carlos?" Riley asked.

"It's my job," Jack said.

"Are you a cop?"

Jack shook his head. "I'm with the Agency."

Jack wasn't sure if their silence was from awe or if they thought he was a freak. Probably the latter. Even his co-workers thought he was a freak.

The wind kicked up and sent splatters of rain under the awning. The kids grumbled, stabbed their cigarettes into a sand-filled pot and filed back inside. Mr. Ulsh paused and glanced up at the sky. The green tinge was going black. The coming storm would be a nasty one. Mr. Ulsh hobbled on. Jack headed across the street.

"Mr. Ulsh," Jack said.

"Eh? What? Who's there?" Mr. Ulsh asked. He stopped. His eyes swam behind his glasses. When his gaze settled on Jack, he scowled around the stem of his pipe. "Who the hell are you?"

"Detective Jack Runner. I'm with the Agency."

"A likely excuse."

"Excuse for what?"

"What do you want?" Mr. Ulsh put his hand over his belt buckle. The airy screaming from inside it became muffled.

"I want to ask you a few questions about Carlos."

Mr. Ulsh bared his teeth. "Go away," he said. "I don't want to talk about it." He shoved Jack out of the way and teetered onward.

Jack was surprised at how strong Mr. Ulsh was. He wondered if the shove had been something more than physical force. It was impossible to tell, and if he looked too hard, his head would ache. "Mr. Ulsh, I think I can help you," he said. "Both of you."

Mr. Ulsh stopped. He didn't turn around. His head inched over his shoulder, turning sharp, damp eyes on Jack. "How could you help? You don't know what happened."

Lightning flickered behind the clouds, turning the black to sick blue-green. Thunder, almost too distant to hear, made the ground tremble. The rain got hard and cold. Jack ignored the chill that crawled along his scalp. "I can help," he said. "If you tell me the truth."

"Come inside. It's about to rain."

Jack looked up as he followed Mr. Ulsh. To describe the weather as rainy wasn't even scratching the surface. It felt like the sky was full of tormented spirits, or maybe the sun itself was wailing behind its eternal grey pall.

Mr. Ulsh led Jack to a small apartment on the ground floor of one of the retirement community's four residential buildings. It was a tight, dim space with stainless steel railing along the walls and carpet in the miniscule kitchen. Despite its cleanliness, the apartment smelled like dust and rot. Jack figured the smell came from the inhabitants, both former and current, rather than from the apartment itself. He wondered how many people had taken their last breaths in that room.

Mr. Ulsh waved his arm in the general direction of the living room area which contained two armchairs that had seen better days, a tall halogen lamp and a round coffee table. "Sit," Mr. Ulsh said.

Jack sat down while Mr. Ulsh waddled into the kitchen. He stared at the window in front of him. Blue-violet lightning strobed between the thick black clouds. The thunder was closer that time but still far. Rain knocked at the glass.

Mr. Ulsh came into the living room with two beers. He handed one to Jack and then heaved himself into the armchair Jack hadn't taken. For a moment, they drank in silence. Jack kept his eyes down. He could feel Mr. Ulsh watching him with those huge eyes. Being under the figurative microscope stopped bothering him years ago, but something about Mr. Ulsh was setting him on edge.

Mr. Ulsh took his pipe out of his mouth to take a swig of his beer. Jack noticed that there was no tobacco in the pipe's bowl. "So," Mr. Ulsh said. "Why?"

"Why what?" Jack asked.

"Why now? Granted, forty years ago, the Agency was new. But why now?"

"Actually --"

"Not an official investigation?"

"No."

"So why?"

Jack chugged down half his beer. He didn't have an answer for that.

"Are you crazy or just stupid?"

"That depends on who you ask."

"I'm asking you."

"I can still hear them sometimes, and I always feel them."

"Voices in your head? You are crazy."

"Spirits, Mr. Ulsh. I was psychic."

Mr. Ulsh settled back in his armchair. His face pinched tighter.

"I hear Carlos sometimes."

Mr. Ulsh let go of his pipe and put his hand on his belt buckle.

"I don't want to take him away from you, but he's not at peace."

"And you think you can give him peace."

Jack nodded.

"How?"

"I don't know. I have to know what happened before I can figure out how to fix things."

"All right then." Mr. Ulsh put his beer down on the coffee table and took off his glasses. Without the magnifying effect of the lenses on his eyes, his face looked more relaxed. "I met Carlos when I was twenty-four. I'd gone to an art gallery with a girl I was dating at the time for her cousin's show. Of course, Joy and I both knew I wasn't into her, and we were both hoping I'd find a man to take home that night. Carlos was working at the gallery at the time. As soon as I introduced myself to him, I knew I wanted to be with him forever. I would have done anything for Carlos. I would have given my life for him. Have you ever loved someone that much? Can you even fathom that kind of emotion?"

Jack finished off his beer. "Yes," he said. He studied the foam at the bottom of the bottle, but he had no practice scrying with beer bubbles. All he saw in his future was another beer.

"Bullshit. How old are you? Twenty? You can't possibly have felt love like that."

"I'm twenty-three."

"Go and get yourself another beer, son. I think you need it."

Jack did as he was told, and when he sat down again, Mr. Ulsh continued.

"Carlos and I were very much in love. We moved in together after two months. We were married, such as it was, a year later. We had difficulties, just like every other married couple. And of course, difficulties every couple of same gendered people has. Less so, these days, I guess. You kids are lucky. You still with this person you love so much?"

"No. There were ... complications. I can't see him any more."

Mr. Ulsh shook his head slightly. He understood that there was more to Jack's statement, but he didn't quite catch the implication.

"He wasn't human."

"Ah."

"So what happened? What killed Carlos?"

"Carlos was never unfaithful to me like some people think. He was raped. Some soulless woman who bought one of his paintings thought she could buy him, too. He was too gentle a man to fight her. It threw him into a horrible depression and very nearly ruined our marriage. Then he started working on that painting."

"The black one?" "Yes. But it wasn't just a black painted canvas. There were figures in that black. Shadows, demons. He was painting his despair. Everything that haunted him was painted onto that canvas and sealed behind more black paint. He seemed to be getting better. He went to a therapist. I thought we would be fine. Then I came home one night and found him ... " Mr. Ulsh paused to blink tears out of his eyes. He put his glasses back on, and his face pinched closed again.

Something didn't feel right about Mr. Ulsh's story. Everything he said made sense. Jack had heard about incidents where people, even those without psychic powers, had somehow called up tangible manifestations of their emotions. But something was missing.

"Was Carlos psychic?" Jack asked.

"No."

"Did he have a family history of psychic powers?"

"I think he mentioned a crazy great-aunt who claimed to be a practitioner of Santeria, which is something like voodoo, if I'm not mistaken."

"I know what it is."

"But no one believed her. Or believed there was any real magic in what she did."

"What happened to the painting?"

Mr. Ulsh opened his mouth to answer. Lightning washed the room in neon blue, and the crack of thunder came before the lightning faded. Rain assaulted the window, and somewhere, an old tornado warning siren wailed. The noise wasn't enough to drown the shrieking from Mr. Ulsh's belt buckle. Jack wished his head were clearer. The medications kept Carlos's voice from being coherent.

"I think the power may go out here soon," Mr. Ulsh said. "There's a flashlight under the sink. Grab that for me, son."

Jack had just found the flashlight beneath some empty plastic bags when there was a flashbulb burst of lightning and a crash of thunder that left Jack's head ringing. He switched the flashlight on. The light was dim, but it didn't flicker. He made his way back to the living room.

"Do you have any batteries, Mr. Ulsh? I think ?"

"Do you want to see the painting, Jack?"

Jack froze where he was, half seated and reaching for his beer. He looked at Mr. Ulsh. In the darkness, he couldn't see much more than the glare off Mr. Ulsh's glasses. Lightning flickered again. Mr. Ulsh's pinched face looked like that of a hideous monster in that blue light. Cold spiders scurried across Jack's skin and began to burrow deep inside him. He got the feeling that he should leave, screw the storm and get back to his own apartment where it was safe. Go now, he thought. While he can't see me.

Jack couldn't move. He was shaking. His mouth was cottony and bitter from the beer.

When Mr. Ulsh spoke again, his voice was very close. "Do you want to see the painting or not? Isn't that why you came here?"

"I ... yeah, I do want to see it. But --"

"Now. While the storm's here. You won't hear them howling."

"What?"

Mr. Ulsh's bony fingers clamped down on Jack's elbow like a vice grip. There would be deep bruises there later, and Jack wouldn't quite remember how they got there.

Mr. Ulsh led Jack down a short, narrow hallway and flung open the last door he came to. Inside the closet was a shrouded canvas on an easel. The grey drop cloth was covered in splashes of paint. If the flashlight had been any stronger, Jack might have noticed that some of the stains weren't paint at all.

"There it is," Mr. Ulsh said. "What are you going to do about it?"

Run away! Jack thought. He felt like a mountain. The earth itself would have to move if he was going to try to get out of that apartment. He didn't think he was lifting his arm or grabbing fistful of the drop cloth of his own volition, but he didn't have any idea what might be making him act. He couldn't feel Mr. Ulsh standing beside him. All he felt was the thrumming, crackling storm and cold menace. He pulled the drop cloth off the painting.

There was nothing around him at all. He stared into the black of the painting, and it swallowed him. He could feel the demons cavorting around him, felt their cold claws ticking across his skin, heard them shrieking. However these things had gained life, they had pulled Carlos in and torn him to pieces. Carlos had never had a chance to deal with his pain. The things Jack felt surrounding him were too angry.

Jack turned to face Mr. Ulsh, but he had no sense of where the old man was standing. All his perspective had shattered. He reached out anyway, stumbling and dropping the flashlight. "You did this," he said.

"I told you," Mr. Ulsh said. "I'd do anything for Carlos. I wanted to take his pain away from him."

"You didn't. These --"

"I won't let you take Carlos away from me."

Jack clawed at the darkness, trying to pull himself out of it. He saw light somewhere in front of him. He realized too late that it was the flashlight smashing down on his head.

Detective Sam Winston stabbed the end button on his cell phone. "Damn it," he muttered. "This makes no sense."

"Maybe he needed a break," Detective Cathy Sanderson said.

"I think he would've mentioned a vacation. He's been missing for three fucking days now, Sanderson. Something's wrong."

Cathy shoved her hands into her coat pockets as they walked out of Jack's apartment building. Jack's disappearance had everyone nervous, but Sam seemed to be more worried than was appropriate. It wasn't like Sam to be that concerned about anyone, much less show it. "Have we checked everywhere?" Cathy asked.

"I've been to every damn bar in the city," Sam said. "Every club, every pool hall, every goddamn liquor store. His folks haven't heard from him. His neighbors haven't seen him. It's like that freak storm just swallowed him up. Damn it. When I find him, I swear I'm gonna ... I don't know what I'm gonna do."

Cathy spotted a group of kids huddled at one end of the awning. The kids were staring at her and Sam and shooting whispers at each other as if trying to decide whether they should say something. Cathy saved them the trouble. "Hey guys," she said as she walked towards them. She flashed her badge, hoping it might calm the kids down a bit. If anything, they got a little more jumpy. "Detective Cathy Sanderson," she said. "You guys know Jack Runner?"

"Is he the cute Japanese guy?" one of the girls asked.

Cathy thought she heard Sam growl behind her. "Um ... I guess that's an apt description. He lives on the fourth floor."

"Yeah. He was the one we were talking to about Mr. Ulsh the other day. He was an Agency detective, too," the oldest boy said.

"Mr. Ulsh?"

"Creepy old guy who lives across the street. My dad says he keeps his dead lover's ashes in his belt buckle."

Sam stepped a little closer. "Ulsh?" he asked. "Cecil Ulsh?"

"I dunno his first name."

"He lived with that painter Marquez who was murdered by ... something that probably wasn't human."

"Um ... yeah. There was a painting or something. And Jack said the painting --"

"Shit." Sam took off running across the street, and Cathy followed him.

The manager of the retirement community was somewhat reluctant to take Sam and Cathy to Mr. Ulsh's apartment. She didn't quite understand what Mr. Ulsh could possibly have to do with a missing Agency detective, but she did as she was asked. They all noticed the smell before they got to the door.

The manager knocked. "Mr. Ulsh?" she asked. "Mr. Ulsh, are you --"

"For God's sake, just open the fucking door," Sam said. "Can't you smell that something in there is dead?"

Cathy put her hand on Sam's arm. "Take it easy," she said.

Sam shrugged her off, and as soon as the door was unlocked, he pushed his way inside. "Jack?" he called. He didn't stop to look at Mr. Ulsh's corpse in the armchair.

Cathy called for an ambulance. Mr. Ulsh looked to have been dead for about three days. His eyes and mouth were open as if he had seen something terrifying as he died. His hands were frozen claws hooked around his belt buckle, the front face of which had popped open. Ashes spilled out onto Mr. Ulsh's lap.

Sam opened every door he could find. He looked under the bed, in the shower, the kitchen cabinets, and then he opened the coat closet in the hallway. "Oh my God," he said. The black painting loomed out at him.

"Sam? Did you --" Cathy asked.

"No. The painting ..."

Cathy went to stand beside Sam. "It's just ... black," she said. She tried to be nonchalant about it, but it scared her.

Sam shook his head. "No, it's not just black. It's ... full of something, like it's a gateway." He started to reach out to touch the painting.

"Maybe you shouldn't do that."

Sam paused, but he couldn't drop his arm.

A bloody hand punched through the canvas. Cathy screamed and backed away. Sam grabbed the hand. Whatever was on the other side of the painting didn't want to let go. Sam dug his heels into the carpet and pulled as hard as he could. The blood was making his grip too slick to do much good.

"Sanderson, help me," he said.

Still a little shaken, Cathy took hold of the arm above Sam's hands. She put one foot on the wall and pulled.

The canvas ripped down the center, and Jack stumbled through the frame into Sam's arms. Sam fell back against the wall and sat down hard. He wrapped both arms around Jack. Jack was covered in deep cuts and trembling so hard that Sam could hear his teeth grinding.

Cathy took out a pocket knife and began to cut up the rest of the canvas.

"Jack, are you okay?" Sam asked.

Jack shook his head.

"What happened?"

"Ulsh made the demons, not Marquez." "What the fuck were you doing here anyway?" Cathy asked. She took the frame off the easel, thought about it and then took the easel out of the closet as well. "You weren't assigned to this case. There was no case."

"Just curious," Jack said.

"You're lucky you're not dead."

"You've been gone for three days," Sam said.

Jack took a deep breath, trying to stop shaking. He couldn't. "I'm still bleeding," he said.

"You'll be okay."

Cathy sighed. She called for another ambulance.

"Jack, what happened in there?" Sam asked.

"It was black," Jack said. "Just black. I don't remember."

"I wonder if your computer recorded anything."

"I don't want to remember."

"But there might be --"

"I don't care. I don't want to remember."

"Okay. It's all right. Just relax. You're safe now."

Jack closed his eyes, but he couldn't keep them closed. He could still see the demons in the darkness. He knew they weren't there. He knew Sam was right. He was safe, but it would be a long time before he believed that.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-05-28
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