Portraits Hung in Empty Halls
By K.C. Ball
THEA CLOCKED AROUND THE CORNER from Eighth Avenue, arms and long legs in synch, breath strong and steady. Her waist-length braid of silver hair swayed across her back. Without a glance west, she turned away from the million-dollar condominiums and high-rise offices of downtown Seattle to begin the long haul up Olive Way toward home.
She slowed her pace a bit, so she wouldn’t have to wait the light at Ninth, and then cranked it up again once she’d made the crossing. A pool of colors up ahead caught her eye.
A man knelt on the sidewalk, bundled in an oversized greatcoat and raveled knit cap against the cold, slashing at the concrete with a chunk of pastel chalk. Next to him, a small, hinged wooden box held more chalk.
A folded-open paper bag had been set beside the box. It was stuffed with dollar bills; donations from passers-by.
“He’s harmless,” Thea muttered to herself. “Go on by.”
She didn’t make it. As she drew near, his painting took on form and almost stole her breath away.
High and swirling clouds floated in a glowing, violet haze above a vast field of yellow grain. A hint of open water in the distance somehow caught and tossed away the light of an unseen sun. Dark bird-shapes filled the sky.
Brown smudges suggested the presence of anxious workers, hurrying to bring in harvest before the weather changed. No sharp edges anywhere, no fine detailing, but the vibrant colors, the flow of elements and sheer power of the work seemed magical.
The kneeling man had talent, anyone could see that, even if he was just a clever mimic riffing on Wheat Field With Crows. Thea had fallen in love with that particular Van Gogh painting in freshman art appreciation at Ohio University, forty-five years ago.
She stopped and stood and watched, her morning power walk forgotten for the first time in two years.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
The fellow didn’t look up from his work. “Thank you.”
Thea heard something old-world to the cadence of his words, something old-fashioned, too, even though under all the grime he looked at least a decade younger than her own sixty-two years.
“Donations are appreciated. I buy paint and canvas.” Thea thought she heard an apologetic note in those five words.
She unzipped the fanny pack around her waist, even though she was certain he would use the money for alcohol or drugs, not paint. As she pulled out a five-dollar bill, a siren whooped a single note.
A woman’s voice. “Is he harassing you, ma’am?”
Thea turned. A police cruiser had eased to the curb behind her. Framed by the open window, the uniformed woman behind the wheel looked no more than thirty. She appeared worried, as if she feared Thea was someone’s wayward granny, unable to fend for herself.
Thea smiled. “Thank you, officer. I’m fine.”
The cop nodded and returned the smile, probably not even close to convinced, but without a damned thing more that she could think to do.
“All right,” she said.
The tone of her voice changed, deepened and grew harder, when she spoke to the sidewalk artist.
“Move along, mister,” she barked, leaning from the window. “Or I’ll run you in for defacing public property.”
She looked at the painting then, really saw it. The hard lines of her face eased. “Sorry,” she said, sounding apologetic, too. “You got to clear the sidewalk.”
The fellow sighed. He returned the chalk to the wooden box, closed the lid, took up the box and paper bag and clambered to his feet. He stood several inches shorter than Thea’s own five feet, ten inches.
“It is finished, anyway,” he said.
He offered up a little bow, as he accepted Thea’s money, then he turned away and shuffled west. The officer tapped her finger to her ball-cap brim before she drove east.
Thea hardly notice. All thoughts of home had fled. She pulled her smartphone from the fanny pack and put a call through to a saved number.
“Hey, Marge,” she said, when her friend’s machine answered. “I’m going to skip card club today. I’ve got something I want to follow up.”
She hit the disconnect, set the smartphone to camera mode, snapped half a dozen photos of the chalk art and posted them to Facebook. Then she hurried west.
When Thea caught up to the faux Van Gogh four blocks later, she offered to buy him a late lunch. She thought he might say no, but he accepted without hesitation. Then outside a coffee shop along Third Avenue, he refused to enter.
“Other customers may find me bothersome,” he said. “It has been some time since I have bathed.”
So Thea stepped inside and collected two lattes, two Reuben sandwiches, two donuts and a paper bag filled with French-fried potatoes, then led the way along Third to a bus-stop bench.
She promptly lost whatever appetite she might have had developed during her morning walk. This close, the fellow’s iron stench was palpable, almost as sharp as the eight-inch clasp knife Thea sometimes carried for protection on the street. The creases of his sun-browned face and gnarled hands showed black with embedded grime.
His wiry hair below his knit cap was rusty red, as was his beard, and both shot through with gray. Every piece of his outfit had faded to dirty brown from constant wear, except for a yellow and green hand-knitted sock. It slid down in tattered folds to the sandal that he wore, revealing his pallid ankle.
The artist’s hands quivered as he took the offered sack. He had eyes only for its contents but he ate with polite restraint.
“Thank you for your kindness,” he said between bites.
His English was almost perfect, but Thea could still hear an underlying accent. He hadn't grown up in America. Maybe northern Europe, if she had to guess. Pinning down a country might prove more difficult.
“You’re welcome,” she said. “My name is Thea.”
He stopped in mid-bite, chin almost to his chest. He stared at her; she stared right back. Beneath the dirt, he was handsome in a rough-cut way. His eyes were his best feature. China blue. They shone with keen intelligence and perhaps a bit of wildness.
“Call me Vincent,” he said at last.
Thea choked back a laugh. Vincent, indeed. She decided to play along.
“Hello, Vincent,” she said. “I’m pleased to meet you.”
“And I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
He began to eat again. Within minutes, nothing remained of the first sandwich and two donuts but paper bags and crumpled wrappers. Most of the fries were gone, as well. He eyed the third sack, untouched on her lap.
She handed it to him and risked a question. “You weren’t born here, were you?”
He touched the bench, glanced across the street to the storefronts and looked north toward oncoming traffic.
“The United States, I meant,” Thea said.
“I am Dutch,” he said, grinning. “And I understand what you meant. I have been in your country, in this city, for just a few months.”
Thea felt the heat of rising color in her cheeks.
He had been teasing her.
It had been longer than she could remember since someone had managed to make her blush. She couldn't even think of a man who had done it, except for her Uncle Delbert, who died when she was ten. She returned the grin to show Vincent she had a sense of humor, too.
“Your chalk work is beautiful,” she said.
He wiped his dirty sleeve across his mouth and shook his head. “A trifle, something I do in hopes of obtaining money.”
“Even so, you have a gift.”
He shook his head again. Crumbs flew from his beard. “Talent is not a gift. If one wants to paint, one must reach out and take it, not wait until it manifests of its own accord.”
Vincent stood, set the remains of the second lunch onto the bench. Thea popped to her feet as he adjusted his knit cap and bent at the waist, hands tight to his side.
A formal bow.
As he straightened, he covered his mouth and coughed, a thick and hollow sound. “Thank you for feeding me,” he said. “I must go now, I have been out too long.”
“Perhaps another time?” she said.
“I shall watch for you.” He took his box of chalk from his pocket, held it to his chest over his heart. “Do you know you are a gift of God?”
Thea blinked. “How’s that?”
Vincent smiled. He was being playful once again. “Your name. In Greek it means God’s gift. I know that is so because my brother’s name is Theo. So farewell for now, kind Gift of God.”
He stepped away and shuffled west.
That night, Thea dreamed of Vincent. The next day turned cold. She bundled against the weather and took her daily walk, this time with a neighbor, a man in his mid-sixties who had ambitions of courting her. Thea wasn’t really interested, but she gave him points for keeping up with her. Not many could.
She walked every day and set a heady pace. She’d promised herself two years ago that she wouldn’t let herself grow fat and old, just because she’d been let go from her job. Thirty years. She’d worked for that damned company from its beginning, had helped to make it a success, but when the economic downturn came, someone above her decided sixty was too old to be of use.
“We need to hold on to the younger people,” she was told.
They’d offered a nice pension package, she’d give them that, and she’d done well over the years, investing in the business when it boomed, managing to hold on to much of what she’d saved. She owned a two-bedroom condo, free and clear, had money for shows and concerts, a season ticket to the baseball games. Every year, she went to Hawaii for a couple weeks.
Hers was a nice life. Financially secure and healthy, and although she’d never married, she had a lot of friends. All the male attention she required, too.
“What more could you want?” her best friend Marge seemed fond of saying.
Thea asked herself that same question from time to time, whenever she felt bored. But now this business with Vincent had come along. Don’t get involved, her mother had often said. It doesn’t pay to be too curious.
Over the years, Thea had worked hard to follow that advice, to mind her own business, but she often failed. The mystery of Vincent picked at her imagination. He had mental problems, anyone could see that. Even so, he had a talent. He shouldn’t be grubbing on the street for dollars.
Three days later it was still cold and had begun to rain, a frigid, all-day drizzle that was so like Seattle in mid-March. Thea continued to think of Vincent, had watched for him without success on her morning power walks.
The morning of the fourth day, when she lost track for an instant of where she was, she decided it was time to track him down.
Thea stalked the streets, talking to every homeless man and woman she could find, every cop she thought might be friendly. If anyone got the wrong idea, if they asked if she was a social worker, she smiled and nodded.
Everyone said the same thing. Know who you mean. The chalk dude, right? Haven’t seen that guy for a couple days.
But a fellow about her age, wrapped in a weathered Army field jacket, a big, shambling man all whiskers and eyebrows, added something that got her thinking.
“You working with the guys in the silver jackets?” he asked. “Or are you a cop?”
“I’m just a friend of Vincent.”
“He could use one.”
“Tell me about the silver jackets.”
“Big guys. Hard. They’re looking for your friend, too.”
He held out his hand and Thea passed him a twenty-dollar bill. She gave up the search just before nine p.m., well after dark, and made her careful way home, already determined to begin again early the next morning. She would find Vincent.
The all-night drizzle let up just before six a.m. and the sun peeked out now and then from behind the clouds, but the air held its chill.
It was Saturday and downtown streets were free of heavy foot traffic. When Thea turned the corner onto Ninth from Stewart Street, a black van sat outside Urban Rest Stop, its engine idling. A big man in a silver jacket, wearing mirrored shades, sat hunched over the steering wheel.
Another man, a clone of the fellow in the van, worked the thin line along Ninth Avenue, talking to the men and women waiting to use The Rest's public facilities.
Thea waited at the corner, not certain why her heart was tripping, until the second man squeezed into the van. She drew back into a doorway as the vehicle crept past her, each of the men watching his side of the street.
When they were out of sight, Thea hurried to The Rest. The whiskered gent from the night before was in line. Thea slipped him a ten-dollar bill. He offered a nod of recognition.
“Were those the fellows you mentioned?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Whiskers said. “Told me they was cops. I don’t buy that for a second.”
“Saw their kind in Detroit when I came home from Nam.”
“What did they want?” she asked.
Whiskers snorted through his nose, hocked phlegm onto the sidewalk. “Muscle like that works for money. Hell if there ain’t a lot of that around Seattle.”
Thea found Vincent just after noon, huddled behind a dented dumpster in a Belltown alley in a puddle of his own filth. He clutched a plastic bag to his belly. His eyes were closed.
Thea held her breath and stepped close.
She laid her hand upon his arm. “Vincent?”
He swung at her, sent her wind-milling back. She staggered, almost fell, but managed to keep her balance.
“U klootzakken, laat me met rust,” he muttered.
He sat up straighter, opened his eyes and stared at her.
Thea wondered who he saw.
He raised his hand as a shield. “Ik zal geen verf voor u.”
She moved close, leaned in and touched his forehead. He was burning up. “Vincent, it’s me, Thea. Are you all right?”
His blue eyes focused at the sound of her name. “Thea?”
“Yes. Let me take you to the hospital.”
He pushed away. “No. You must not take me there.”
She knelt next to him. “You’re running a high fever. You need—”
He wobbled to his feet. “I need to be left alone. They will be looking for me at the hospitals. I would rather die in some damned alley, upon the bricks, than let them capture me again.”
“Who’s chasing you, Vincent?”
“De stralende mannen.”
He closed his eyes and coughed, a wet and hollow sound. He drew a ragged breath and when he spoke, his words lacked focus. “The shining men came out of the light with another me.”
“What do you mean, another you?”
“Een dubbelganger. They left him behind, shot dead, carried me away.”
“Why?” Thea said.
“Who knows?” He studied her for a moment. “You are so kind to me. You are more than you appear to be.”
“I don't know—”
“I know. You are an angel in disguise.”
“Then let me help you.”
He lurched down the alley, stopped and turned to her. “It is best you stay away. It is dangerous to know me. You might be swept away from home, too.”
As he staggered off, Thea shivered. Either the man was a total lunatic or she’d pushed into something very strange. She stood and watched him go. When he turned a corner, she followed. Her damned curiosity had gotten her into jams before and here it came again.
Thea tracked Vincent south to Pine Street, but lost him in the crowds near Pacific Place. Frantic, she hurried along the sidewalks, yammering at every beggar and hustler she saw.
They offered no real help. The chalk dude, right? I saw him yesterday, ain't seen him today. He just went by, I think. What you want him for?
The afternoon slipped past. The temperature plummeted, the rain came again and darkness drew ever nearer. As she hurried along Third Avenue, not far from the entrance to the underground transit tunnels, she saw a familiar face.
“Have you seen Vincent?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He held out his hand.
She handed him a five. He gestured. More. She frowned but handed him another five.
Whiskers nodded. “Saw him about an hour ago headed toward the Cascades.”
“That old hotel off Pioneer Square?”
“That’s the place. And I just saw those two dudes in the van, too.”
Thea’s heart skipped a beat. “Where?”
“Down near the Market, talking to the tourists.”
Thea turned away and hurried west toward the waterfront.
The old hotel’s once-grand entrance, its mullioned ground-level windows had been hidden behind plywood sheets held in place by giant hinges and secured by padlocks. A lattice of steel scaffolds reached up the face of the condemned building to the third floor. A wooden deck rested upon the steel, ten feet above the walk, providing cover against falling brick and stone.
Near the far end of the building, at deck level, one of the windows gaped open. Thea approached the scaffold, eying the framework as she moved, and began to climb, not looking up or down.
The steel tubing proved cold and slick, the gaps between crossbars a stretch for her arms and legs. Her stomach was doing flip-flops when she reached the deck, but she teetered along the rattling planks to the open window. Gray shadows filled the space beyond the frame.
“Dear God, what am I doing?” she muttered.
Thea drew a breath and crawled inside.
Ten minutes later, she stood before a rusty metal door at the top of the service stairs. She pushed, it creaked open. She pushed again and a narrow gap appeared, wide enough for her to slip through. She stepped out onto the roof.
Vincent stood across the graveled deck, his back to her. He leaned on the parapet that ran around the roof, studying the northbound traffic on the top deck of the elevated roadway of the viaduct.
Thea moved toward him, her shoes crunching on the gravel. When she was two arms’ length away, Vincent spun around. He held a pistol and he aimed it at her chest.
“How did you find me?” His voice sounded rusty and broken.
If possible, his face was even more gaunt than when she found him in the alley. He had removed his knit cap. The lobe of his left ear had been sliced away. Droplets of rainwater fell from his nose and chin. He coughed, a deep ratcheting sound. He shoved the pistol into his coat pocket, fumbled out a dirty handkerchief to wipe his mouth and blow his nose.
Thea sighed in relief. The muzzle of the weapon had looked enormous from her vantage. She handed him the sack of burgers she had brought along. He opened the sack, brought it to his nose to sniff the contents, then unwrapped a burger and began to wolf it down.
“Vincent, someone I know saw you coming in here,” she said. “I came to warn you. Two men have been snooping after you. They can’t be far away.”
Vincent shoved the remains of the sandwich into his mouth. “Did you see them?” he asked, as he pulled another burger from the sack.
“Not today, but I’ve seen them before. They’re strong-arm types wearing silver jackets that look like uniforms.”
“The shining men. They brought me here.”
“To this place and time.”
Her scalp tingled as she drew a stuttering breath. “From ... Arles?”
Vincent shoved the remains of the second burger into the sack and struggled through another coughing fit. At last, he spoke. “Yes, from Arles. You know who I am, don’t you?”
“You’re a mystery. I’m not sure of anything but that.”
Vincent stood up straight and squared his shoulders. “I am Vincent Van Gogh. It was July, outside the city. It had been clear but the light had begun to fade. I was working at the edge of a wheat field when they appeared.”
“Who are they?”
Vincent shrugged. “I have no idea. All I know is that they appeared out of a sudden flash of light. They said they worked for a wealthy man, that they had come for me using a machine he commissioned.”
“A time machine?”
“That’s not possible,” Thea whispered.
“And yet here I am.”
“They told me he wanted me to paint for him, that he could use his machine to sell my work, that he would make me wealthy.”
Thea took a step closer. “Who is he?”
“I have no idea and I have no interest in working for him. When we arrived here, I managed to escape, but what good did it do?” Vincent began to weep. “I cannot find my way home and they hound me constantly.”
“But you said you’re painting.”
“I have to paint, just as I have to breathe.”
He sounded as if he was explaining something simple to a child. He began to cough again, hacked up chunks of pale-green phlegm flecked red with blood.
Thea took another step toward him. “You’re very ill. I want you to see a doctor.”
“I want to see my brother,” Vincent said. “I want to see Arles again. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, but you have to go with me now.”
“I want to go home! I have already said—”
Distant, hurried footsteps echoed from the stairwell.
“They’re here,” Thea said. “We’ve got to go—”
“But not together. It’s time for me to leave this city.”
He grabbed her hand, pressed something small and metallic into her palm. He took out the pistol again and pointed toward the far parapet with his free hand.
“There are fire stairs,” he said. “Go to the top floor. The key I gave you will open one of the rooms.”
The footsteps grew louder now, very close.
Vincent’s hurried his words. “I have destroyed almost all of it, but I left one piece. For you.”
“You must. As a last kindness, take my gift.”
It was too late for more words. The stairwell door burst open and the two men in silver jackets stepped through.
Vincent pointed the gun at them. “Do not step any closer.”
The men slowed, held up their hands. “Come on, pal,” one of them said. “Come with us.”
Vincent waved the pistol. “I swear I will shoot.”
“You’re not gonna shoot,” the man said. “It ain’t in you. And if you start something, your friend’s gonna get hurt.”
Both men advanced. Vincent gave a little cry that sounded like a sob. He dropped the pistol to the gravel, wheeled about and lurched toward the roof’s edge, ignoring the five-foot gap that lay between the old hotel and the elevated highway.
“Damn it, come back here,” the first silver man shouted. He and his companion hurried after Vincent.
Vincent didn’t slow when he reached the parapet. He hurdled it, pushed off with his back foot and launched himself across the gulf onto the top deck of the roadway. He tumbled across the traffic lanes. A horn blared. Lights flashed across him and a yellow taxi hurled past.
Not looking back, Vincent pushed to his feet and limped off south, moving near the far rail. The silver men stopped short at the parapet.
“We gotta get him,” the first man yelled.
“Go after him,” the second said. “I’ll get the van.”
The first man prepared to jump. Thea scooped up Vincent’s pistol. Without thinking, she turned the gun upon the two men and pulled the trigger. The bullet struck the parapet between them and they spun around.
She clutched the pistol in both hands, fighting to hold it steady. “Stay where you are,” she said.
The first man looked over his shoulder toward the viaduct. Thea fired again, wondering even as she did it where she’d found the courage. The man grunted and blood spurted from his leg.
“God damn you,” he snarled.
The second man took a step toward Thea.
“I’ll shoot you, too.” She didn’t recognize her own voice.
“What’ta you think you’re doing?” the second man asked.
“Giving my friend a chance to get away.”
She gestured with the pistol barrel, hoping the silver men wouldn’t see how much her hands were shaking. “Use the stairs. I don’t care where you go, just get out of here.”
Neither man moved.
“I still have four more bullets.”
They moved toward the door then, the second man supporting his companion. It didn’t appear the first man’s wound was life threatening. Thank God for small favors. Just before they slipped through the door, the first man turned to Thea. “We’re gonna catch him,” he growled through gritted teeth.
“Maybe,” Thea said. “But not tonight.”
She stood in silence for a time, listening to their fading footsteps, waiting. Below, an engine finally coughed to life, the heavy-throated growl of a truck or van.
Thea stood for a time, pistol pointed at the door, afraid the shining men would come sneaking back, hoping Vincent would return to say he was okay. No one came.
Much of the daylight had faded into dusk by the time Thea found the door that matched the brass key Vincent had given her. Beyond lay a ruined suite; French doors stood open to the west.
Thea heard the traffic on the elevated highway, saw the fast-passing lights on its lower deck. It felt colder in the room than on the roof and reeked of unwashed cloth and flesh, of sickness and turpentine. An old mattress with a nest of blankets sprawled in one corner.
Brushes and tubes of paint covered a bare table top. The suite’s fireplace was fire-blackened, filled with bits of ashy canvas and splinters of charcoaled wood. An easel sat next to the open French doors. A covered frame rested on the easel. Thea cross the room and tugged away the cotton sheet; the heavy pistol slid from her fingers and she began to cry.
The Seattle twilight lay on the canvas in vibrant, swirling brush strokes. Beyond the gray lines of the viaduct, past the skeletal gantries of the shipping yards, stretched the long, low-running thumb of the West Seattle peninsula.
Street and house lights flecked the dark rifle-green of all the trees. A hard orange line of street lights and softer red and green neon followed the pale stroke of Alki Beach. The bright smudge of a departing ferry sliced the easy, still waters of Elliott Bay.
And spread above it all, a deep blue/black and brilliant starry night.
K. C. Ball is an active member of SFWA. She is a 2010 Clarion West graduate and a 2009 Writers of the Future winner. Her stories have appeared in “Flash Fiction Online,” “Analog,” “Lightspeed,” and the British magazine “Murky Depths.”