A clearly over-worked, under-dressed waiter bumped my elbow as he rushed to the kitchen. His momentum placed my watch squarely beneath my nose, and I saw that Professor Gray was now fifteen minutes late.
Finally, when I was about to start packing my things and call the interview a wash, the professor blew in the door, as if pushed by a particularly unforgiving wind.
“Madame Calau…you must accept my deepest apologies. It’s-well you see…” the professor looked around the mid-sized café frantically before throwing his coat on the chair next to him and sitting across from me.
The professor wiped the corners of his mouth with a shaking hand. “He’s dead.”
“You are joking.” I placed my pen on my notebook and crossed my arms tightly.
“I assure you, Madame. I would never joke about something like this. I have just returned from identifying his body.”
The Professor removed his glasses and began to absently wipe them with his napkin. “I apologize for this, Madame. I know you traveled quite a way for this interview. I should have known…well, I should have been aware of his situation a bit better. You see, Monsieur Kinar had been in ill-standing for quite some time. He died in squalor, Madame. The same squalor he had been rotting in for several years.”
“I don’t believe it. News gets to London quite slowly sometimes but nobody ever heard ramblings of poverty. Last I heard, he had retired to Nice.”
Professor Gray shook his head slowly. “Non, Madame. He never left Paris.”
“But what about his paintings? One fetched several thousand dollars at Southeby’s just last week.”
The professor sighed before removing a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket. He placed it on the table, never removing his hand from what I assumed was garbage.
“Madame, what do they know of Monsieur Kinar over in London?”
“Well, not a whole bloody lot to be honest-that’s what this interview was all about, wasn’t it?” I snapped. I instantly felt horrible. “I’m terribly sorry, Professor. It’s been quite a long trip.”
Professor Gray held up his hand. “It is completely understandable Madame. I promise you will go home with a story. It may not be the story you were looking for, but I believe that it is one that must be told.”
I nodded, and opened up my notebook to a fresh page. “Go on, Professor.”
He took a sip from the water that had been waiting for him for twenty minutes before withdrawing a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lighting it, in an almost hypnotic daze.
“I was Monsieur Kinar’s closest confident for many years. It’s true we had fallen out of touch in the past decade, but when he was just starting out as a struggling artist, painting cans to sell at street fairs, we rarely went a day without seeing one another.”
I jotted down the Professor’s words as he exhaled thick, magical smoke into the air above him.
“We met at one of these fairs when I was passing through on my way to the library. I was obtaining my degree at the time. I remember being in such a rush-until I saw this man arranging a collection of cans into a small pyramid. They had portraits on them. Small, painfully detailed portraits of people.”
“Famous people?” I asked, rubbing my cramped hand.
Professor Gray shook his head. “Non…non. They were just normal people. Neighbors of his, prostitutes, paupers-despair ridden people really. But they were beautiful-all of them.”
He took another sip of water and stubbed out his cigarette. “That’s right, Madame. The reclusive, respected Monsieur Kinar started as nothing more than a caricaturist. But he was happy. Poor, of course, but getting by the way only a young, hungry artist can. You see, Madame, there is a difference between a starving artist and a hungry artist. A hungry artist is moving up the food chain, while a starving artist has been reduced to begging for scraps. Monsieur Kinar was hungry-and getting noticed.”
“And the first day you met-you could tell all of this?”
The professor nodded thoughtfully. “Oui, I absolutely could. You see, I was rushing along and these caught me. They drew me towards the young man and his sorrowful art. We had a wonderful conversation that day, after I purchased a can. For the life of me though, I can’t remember what about. I just remember thinking that this man was a true, modern artistic genius. I used my father’s contacts in the art world to give Monsieur Kinar’s work showcases at museums all over Europe.”
“But why did you take such an interest in him? To go to such trouble, I mean?”
Professor Gray considered his water glass for a long moment. “Because I would have never forgiven myself if I didn’t. It’s incredibly selfish to not urge along talent if you have the means. I happened to have the means so I did what I thought was right. It was all so wonderful for a while. He was popular and young and in demand. That’s when he started to do portraits. See, your art world in London doesn’t know about these portraits, do they Madame?”
I shook my head. “No. We have no record of him being a portrait artist.”
“There’s a reason for that, Madame. You see, once Monsieur Kinar had gathered a bit of fame, the elite started to clamor for him to paint them. Commissions were sinful, and hard for any young artist to ignore. It started with the daughter of a count. She was a young, beautiful thing, barely sixteen years old. Monsieur Kinar was thrilled to start his portrait career sans cans, and she was a perfect first subject. The sitting took three months, and by the end, he had produced the most beautiful portrait that anyone had ever seen. It was both hyper-realistic and fantastic. But you see, as soon as he dragged the last stroke across the canvas, the girl crumpled in her chair, dead. The doctors said it was heart failure, but a child?”
The professor held his hands out to me, pleading.
“It affected Monsieur Kinar, this death. But he pressed on with his work. His next sitting was with a banker, who wanted his portrait to hang in the lobby of his bank. When the painting was done, so was the banker who died only a week after it was hung. Next, a young bride sat for him, and she too succumbed shortly after completion of the portrait. Shaken, Monsieur Kinar vowed never to paint again.”
“Did you keep in contact with him when he stopped painting?” I asked.
“I did. It was getting increasingly difficult to track him down, as his money was disappearing and he was slipping down the ladder, as we say. He was still selling his paintings, but not producing anything new. I thought it would all change for him when he met Maribelle. She was a dancer at one of the noir jazz cafes. He fell in love with her immediately, according to his letters. She was just what he needed to mend the years of despair he had deluded himself into having. Maribelle made his guilt fall away, and he no longer believed he was somehow responsible for those deaths.”
I swallowed hard, and motioned to the waiter for more water.
“And you know what she begged of him, the night before their wedding, Madame? She begged that he paint her.”
“No.” I whispered.
“Oui, Madame. They were married the next day, and on their wedding night, she fell asleep but never greeted the day. That is when I stopped hearing from him altogether. I would receive updates from my artistic friends on him. He completely stopped living, according to them. He took to wandering the streets, drunk, sick and starving. I have no idea how he stayed alive, but I feel as though his guilt must have worked as a tonic for a long life. A curse, really.”
I put my pen down on my filled notebook, as the professor dabbed at his eyes and pulled out another cigarette.
“He died in the attic of a boardinghouse. The maid found him, next to this.” The professor finally loosened his grip on the crumpled paper that he had been guarding.
I picked up the paper and unfolded a crude picture, drawn with what looked like a crayon. The picture was of a man-a hollow, terrifyingly skeletal man with patches of hair missing from his beard.
“That’s a self-portrait, Madame. Of Monsieur Kinar.”
I turned the paper over and noticed a date on the back. It was dated April 2. Yesterday.
“He finally broke the curse.” The professor attempted a tired smile.
I turned the portrait over once more to look into Monsieur Kinar’s eyes. Even though they were crude and sketchy-with runaway lines and blurred edges, these were the most real eyes I had ever looked into. Bubbling pain brought them to life on the last page he ever touched.
“I’m afraid that is all I can tell you, Madame. I must get to the university to teach a class but I feel I must apologize for not being able to secure the interview with the Monsieur himself. I feel somewhat responsible. I just thought foolishly, that I could pull him out of the gutter for one last hurrah. A bit stupid, no?”
I looked up at the professor, who had already retrieved his coat from the chair next to him.
I shook my head. “No, professor. This was the story to be told.” I handed the picture back to him, but he held up his hand, refusing. “No, Madame, you may keep this. It was his only personal effect and I prefer it go home with someone who can truly appreciate the Monsieur’s work.
With that, Professor Gray threw down some bills, smiled and turned to leave. Before he reached the door, he turned back around.
“Be sure to tell them back in London, Monsieur’s work is beautifully cursed.”
With that, the professor vanished into the softly falling rain drops outside the café, leaving behind his only existing burden, just as the serpent did when he left paradise in ruins.
Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s horror stories, ghost stories, monster stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre dark fiction, classic horror literature or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.
Become a patron today and support the online magazine!