It's about 18 pages. I hope that's not too long.
‘For the love of God, pay attention. This is supposed to be a meeting. Mona, stop eyeing that man like a strumpet and attend me.’ He was well aware that Mona was not her real name but addressing her as Madame Gherardini or any other of the numerous names by which she was known would afford her a dignity she simply did not merit.
It had not been a propitious time for the quarterly meeting. What with the unannounced power cuts, and now the plumbing. Unreliable at the best of times, it was in total disarray. Four paintings had already been ruined beyond repair. If things went much further the entire museum might have to close. And they all knew what that meant.
‘Come to order. It has been proposed that the new Degas works be allowed time to acclimatise before commencing their operational duties. Do I hear a second?’ He could hear quite a lot of noise, but none of it signified assent, or even a hint that anyone was actually listening to him.
‘I second the motion.’ Finally, a hand waved timidly over the milling crowd.
‘And you are?’ He towered imposingly over the person, an admittedly nubile young lady with the most wonderful olive skin. Not that a stranger was so unusual these days. The museum was in such flux that he rarely saw anyone often enough to identify individuals.
‘I am Maria, My Lord.’ He relaxed somewhat, partially mollified at the usage of his formal title. ‘I am from The Renaissance School.’
He winced delicately. So they were even letting Post modern influences in now, God rot them. They would be the ruin of everything he’d had set out to achieve.
‘Oh, Very well. In place of any dissent I, Lord Roxbourgh, Principal Secretary, moot it so. Next.’ They were becoming restless. Even the normally attentive Rubins’ woman seemed to be preoccupied with a private conversation. Usually so obsessed about how she was perceived, she would sit, rock-like, basking in the concerted awe. It was time to bring it all to a halt. An outright rebellion was unthinkable. His credibility would never recover.
‘Is there any further business? I warn you that there will be no toleration of time wasters. And that includes you Mona. I am still considering what, if any action to take against you for being discovered with that oaf in the haystack. What Constable would have said is beyond me.’ The lady in question seemed not in the least worried. That smirk of hers had always irritated him. Still, what could you expect of foreigners? No discipline the hallmark of the foreigner. However there appeared to be no further business. Or at least any they were prepared to talk about to him.
‘Then all that remains is to call this meeting to a halt and remind you all of the date for the next. Which is’, he glanced at his notes, ‘three months from this date. From that time on I will take no more dissension. We are all here to do a job and if it must be done then it will be done correctly.’
Diatribe over, Lord Roxbourgh surveyed the assemblage. Fifty different nationalities sweltered under one leaking roof. No wonder discipline was atrocious. It was a damned shame they had voted to abolish corporal punishment. There had been no outright insolence in his day. He turned, shuddering at the sight of that monstrosity with three eyes. How they had ever allowed that absurd Spanish painter’s work in was a complete mystery and surely proof of their moral disintegration.
‘So it falls upon me to announce the commencement of the festivities.’ And thus bringing his gavel down three times in the prescribed manner, he ended the meeting and rose with disdain as the party began. He was going home.
Too much time for enjoyment. That was the root of the problem. No order; no idea of how they should behave before their betters. He stormed away, cuffing the page-boy, dutifully bearing his wig and crop whilst trotting loyally at his side. It was then that the first incredibly disjointed note shook the rafters. Even the delicate strains of the lute had degenerated into that atonal filth that passed for music these days. He fled to his beloved books. A pastime clearly out of fashion in these times of carnal passions.
‘Boring old fart.’ The aforementioned nubilesque muttered, smiling coyly at a handsome knight with the biggest sword she had ever seen. Her companion, a fervent youth with an amusingly tight loincloth, pranced in attendance, eyes fixed lovingly upon her, even in his adoration keenly aware of King Arthur’s strenuous attempts to impress her; and her answering smile.
Things had been different once. Palm trees, long nights of love beneath beautiful ochre skies. Sadly those days were gone along with Friday, his companion of so many years. With resignation he changed direction and headed purposefully towards the drinks; it offered but brief solace though anything was better then the thought of his love and that metal man together. Oh for the sad but compelling call of a gull, the light whispering of the waterfall, the mating cries of the elegant storks towering majestically on their long pink stilts.
He was going to drink himself senseless.
Soon the party was in full swing. Perhaps a collective consciousness told them that this was not destined to last. That their peace, their isolation from humanity was drawing to a close. And perhaps that unspoken thought spurred them to even further excesses.
Soon, wild acts of abandon made a mockery of the austere surroundings. Couples made love with a heedless abandon, in complete disregard of their unfathomable social and ethnic gulfs - or even disparities of age. Anything, it seemed, was better then contemplating what was to come. Thus within minutes the floor was an undulating sea of bodies, some copulating wildly, uncaring of anyone they disturbed in the frantic desire for gratification. Others, most in fact, unconscious, the alcohol quickly imparting the release they sought.
Until, less than to hours later, all was silence, save for the occasional snore or the nightmare-spawned cry.
Roxbourgh, roused from a pleasantly recurring dream of thrashing a pheasant beater for startling his hounds, was momentarily startled but breeding took over. Climbing to his feet, he kicked his page with an oath and demanded mead. He peered out from his quarters. The piercing shriek was everywhere, the calm somnolence of the scene now shattered by the unearthly sound. He had only experienced the unearthly sound but once before and that had been for a test. There had never been a test in the middle of the night.
‘Everyone, get up. Get up now. There is a fire!’
At first only one, then two heads groggily rose, eyes unfocused, bodies unwilling to respond as their alcohol induced stupors fell away. Then the dreaded word began to percolate through the twitching crowd. With a satisfying speed ten, twenty, then forty people scrambled to their feet, adding to the first wave of screams, which low at present, would quickly rise to a panic that Roxbourgh knew he could not allow.
And as if to matters worse, from the ceiling a solid fusillade of water began to pour, instantly soaking everyone and rousing anyone not unconscious.
‘Quickly, Get back inside, now!’ Roxbourgh cowered, breeding forgotten as people slipped and fell in the wash of water cascading onto the floor. Screams, cries of alarm, shouts of pain and anguish turned the calmness of before into bedlam. ‘Get back, now!’
He rushed forward, shoving the ungrateful Mona aside, elbowing the yokel with whom she had been lying. She fled, just in time as the deluge seemed to intensify. All around him, people dashed, slipped, fell, screamed. He shoved and shouted. Hitting out at bodies to make them move before the unthinkable happened.
But finally people had begun to make it home. Roxbourgh began to relax. They would all be wet but at least-. He stopped congratulating himself as something new began. At first he could not believe it. The night sky did not flash blue and white in short scintillating patterns. Then, he knew.
But it was too late. Other people, seeing the lurid pulsating light, changed direction, not caring whether they scurried, simply seeking safety wherever it lay.
And within a minute they had done just that. The floor was empty, any and all trace of the party gone in the torrents of water that still poured from the ceiling. Roxbourgh looked about in horror. It was too awful to contemplate. He closed his eyes, willing it not to be true. But it was. He turned for home, hearing the voices shouting from behind the locked outer doors. It was all over. Everything he had ever done ruined in one fell swoop. He lowered his head, climbing in. All over. All of it, finished.
‘Well thank god it was only a fault in the system. Two more minutes and all the paintings would have been destroyed.’ Andrew McNeil, the museum’s curator rubbed his eyes wearily. Yet another near catastrophe. He didn’t know if he would be able to stand much more. Thank God that fire engine just happened to be passing. ‘If they hadn’t given the all-clear the whole place would have been ruined.’
‘Aye, I s’pose.’ Rafferty agreed sullenly. It was a first; the older man’s animosity towards his younger boss had never been far from the surface. ‘But it’s still your fault. You should have got more money from the council.’ McNeil held himself in check. One more “I told them you were too young and I should have been given...” and he might lash out.
‘Well let’s just get on with it, anyway.’ McNeil sighed, surveying the last half inch of water slowly draining through the floorboards. Of all the things to happen right now, this was conceivably the worst. That malicious swine of an inspector was arriving in just a few hours. Though with luck they might have the place cleaned up without even alerting him. It was touch and go, but just possible.
‘You start with Renaissance and I’ll begin with Cubism. We should be able to slop out within two hou-.’
‘Not me. This is your problem.’ Rafferty smiled at the curator’s dismay. This is one you’re going to fix on your own. I’m going, and before I do, I’m just going to make a little call.’ He smirked. McNeil knew exactly to whom the call be. It was the older man’s first and probably best shot to get rid of him.
He waved the Irishman away, determined despite the man’s threat. To hell with him. He might still be able to get it all mopped up. After all, none of the paintings seemed to have been damaged this time. Turning back he surveyed his wing of the museum again, then stopped mid step, mid groan. Something was wrong; terribly wrong. He blinked, praying that it was an illusion, even peering at the nearest painting to make sure. One of his favourites, actually. He had always loved that Constable of the wagon fording the river while laden with golden straw.
He didn’t want to believe it, yet the evidence was there before him. There was a… His brain refused to complete the thought. He gulped and shook his head in a vane attempt to make it go away. There was a woman in the picture. There had never been a woman in it before. And certainly not a woman doing something disgusting with the farm worker who should have been driving the cart. He peered closer, aghast but strangely fascinated. The woman’s face was familiar.
He jumped back. No, it couldn’t be. The face of the woman, clearly exposed, mouth open wide with rapture was one he had seen many times since the famous French painting had been loaned to them. But it couldn’t be true. Mona Lisa, in a constable painting.
He executed a quick tour of his charges, his mouth opening wider in dismay with each discovery. Within minutes he was finished. Tottering and nearly falling he span and ran as fast as he was able back to his office, the black horror following him like a pack of rabid dogs.
There was a very large and very full bottle of whisky in his desk. First he was going to drink a large portion of it then he was going to decide what to do. Because for sure, the sight of Mona Lisa apparently fornicating atop a huge pile of hay on a wagon forging a river in a Constable painting was enough to prove to him that he had gone totally mad.
He sat listlessly at his desk. A lifetime’s discipline forbade him to loosen his tie. A working life spent within the confines of this orderly place had effectively closed his mind to the inconceivable. Order and structure. That was the very linchpin of a museum, and his life. Care for the exhibits; ensuring they were retained in the best possible condition. Even exchanging their position every couple of years to make the place seem fresh and vibrant was the closest thing to lateral thought that he had been called upon to make for the last decade or so.
In less than two hours the most uncouth, the most patronising, in fact the biggest philistine McNeil had ever had the misfortune to encounter, was coming for his yearly inspection of the museum. That a total cretin who could barely string five words together without an expletive had ever been put in charge of a city’s cultural background was an incalculable enigma.
And what was more; he would be fired and probably arrested for theft. If that weren’t bad enough, there was the question of three hundred paintings, all gone. Oh, admittedly there were still three hundred painting in his wing of the museum. But these works were known to the public. Had been known for hundreds of years. Even a professional moron like Gerald Measly would ascertain that something was amiss when faced with a painting of Mona Lisa cavorting with a yokel in an English painting produced two hundred years later. And that was without other paintings he had spotted on his way out when his hesitant footsteps had turned into a full scale stampede.
Even a total illiterate like Measly would spot the flaw in a three eyed Dali female cavorting with a stick-like miner in a painting full of equally stick-like figures. Or the spitfire in full battle dress arcing across Renoir’s field of poppies. Or Tretchikoff’s green cavorting with Hals’ Laughing cavalier.
He was finished. There was nothing more to say. How someone, no surely an army of men had gained access, stolen all his paintings and had time to replace them all with those hellish designs from the lunatic musings of a hundred insane artists, was beyond him. No, he was finished.
An hour later the bottle was half empty, or half full. No, half empty, he was decidedly not in an optimistic mood. Less than an hour before the official moron began his tour, now an almost calm Mc Neil decided to take one last look at what had been his world for his entire adult life. He decided to try to remember the paintings as they had been and not the horrors they had now become.
The night had fled almost in glee at what was about to transpire. With trepidation, he unlocked the door and walked in. The silence was absolute. In the rapidly diminishing darkness the paintings hung silently, majestically, the remaining gloom still sufficient to obscure their contained lunacy.
Luckily, the last of the water had drained away and now the only sound was the gentle swishing of the mop as he dried the floor, not really seeing the abortive things that passed for his paintings. Until, on the last wall, the tallest, reserved for the largest canvasses, he stopped mid-step before the castle which should have been obscured by a laughing Lord-.
A noise from behind startled him. Now, the alcohol, usually a buffer between him and reality made it easy to turn, to face whatever horror lay there for him.
Before him was a man. A tall man, regal of bearing, regarding him with something akin to sorrow. The man’s dress was unusual and even with the obtuse fashions he saw every day, he was out of place. The long frock coat, the powdered wig, the monocle, the cane, the nervous page boy cowering near his heel. Wasn’t that...
‘Mister Mc Neil. My name is Lord Roxbourgh. I think a few words between us would be most opportune at this moment.’
It was to no avail. Mc Neil had fainted.
‘Boy. Pinch his cheek - hard!’
The page rushed to his duty, his ferocious grasp of the curator’s cheek a witness to the fear of his master. McNeil grunted then convulsed as the agonising pain in his face roused him. ‘That is enough, let him go.’ Roxbourgh dismissed the boy with an imperious wave, a strange smile fluttering over his face. From utter ruin, to potential salvation. Some good just might come out of all this after all.
‘Sir, now that you are awake, I feel the need to explain some facts of life. Then, I believe that we can come to an understanding of mutual benefit.’ The curator shook his head groggily. This had to be a dream of course; or a hallucination.
‘Now, perhaps we should go to the seat over there.’ He pointed solicitously to the chaise lounge, situated beneath what should have been Romeo and Juliet professing undying love, but who were now shrieking silently at the blood smeared lance of a lunging Don Quixote. Whoever this man was he appeared to be a part of this whole nightmare.
‘Perhaps my office would be more comfortable.’
For the first time Roxbourgh’s smile wavered.
‘I may not leave the confines of this wing.’ Roxbourgh frowned in irritation. Damn. He had not wanted the man to learn of that. No matter. He gestured to the imitation chair which, as expected, was uncomfortable as well as an eyesore. ‘Now, listen to me very carefully.’
‘Ah Mister, er, McNeil.’
Measley knew his name perfectly well but as usual he was playing his part to perfection. First would come the pseudo politeness but today the enthused patronisation would be gone. There was no need. He would go straight for the jugular.
‘Time’s come for the annual inspection. ‘ad a strange phone call a couple of hours back.’ McNeil gritted his teeth but kept his face calm as the man sneered. Through the glass door he could see four acolytes, milling restlessly. ‘Already bin for a quick reccie to see for myself. Oh, and I’ve got a film crew coming. I couldn’t let this go, could I?’ The curator cringed inwardly. The inspector hated him even more than Rafferty did. His loathing of all university graduates was something he had never bothered to conceal.
Seeing no apparent reaction. Measley opened his battered briefcase that the curator knew full well held nothing more than the fool’s sandwiches. ‘Your mate was raving about paintings being all fu...messed up.’ He smiled in that peculiar way which always reminded Mc Neil of an alligator with wind.
The smile took on a more predatory air. ‘So let me tell you that if this museum isn’t in the spickest of spans,’ he grinned innocently as if this were a quip he had unconsciously made even though he’d said the same thing for the past three visits, ‘then I’ll have the greatest pleasure in advising the board to shut it down and give you your marching orders. ‘Cos’ to tell you the truth, I’m fed up with you.’ His eyes were black pin-pricks of raw malice.
‘I’ll tell you another thing as well. I’m sick of your attitude. Always looking down at me like I was a bleeding piece of crap. So this time I’m going to get you. We’ll just wait for the film crew.’
And as if on cue, four men dragging a variety of equipment stumbled noisily through the front door.
‘Want every painting shown. Every one.’ Measley harped unnecessarily. ‘Goin’ out live so I want the whole country to see what this bloke’s done to my museum.’
‘Live?’ Mc Neil felt his bowels quiver. Measley smirked unmercifully. ‘Yer. Got a live gig. Didn’t tell you about it last week cos’ I wanted everyone to see how a superior little git like you has wrecked this place.’ The inspector’s men quailed visibly. Mostly drawn from the arty intelligentsia, they were all obviously appalled at the man’s behaviour, but also mindful of the influence he wielded at the town hall.
‘This is Martin Martindale, live at the Imperial Art Museum, with a special broadcast. This undercover reporter was granted special privileges since my,’ the balding outside broadcast anchor-man permitted himself his small but famously self deprecatory shrug, ‘er, small reputation for investigative journalism, has proved the downfall of not a few, shall we say, shady operators.’
Measley seemed to be aping the newsman’s movements as if practising for the role. He turned briefly, smirking maliciously at the curator.
‘It has been brought to our attention that a crime of heinous proportions has been visited on the denizens of this illustrious city...’ he continued in this vein for a time, allowing the populace their customary respite to make a cup of tea before he finally got down to the nitty gritty.
‘Nay, an atrocity from which all true art loving mortals will totter in sheer revulsion.’ Even Measley seemed to be getting bored, tapping his foot impatiently to the reporter’s obvious annoyance.
‘Here is the evidence. Three hundred beautiful, nay, sacred works or art, stolen and replaced with these...’ he flung his arm wide with a theatrically gesture which, fortunately was of camera range, but almost broke the nose of the sound man, ‘abortions!...Behold!’
Warming to his theme now, he brandished a nicotine stained digit at the first offending ex-work of art. ‘Mona Lisa forni.’ He halted mid-vociferation. ‘Er, I mean this,’ courage returned with a rush, ‘A Gainsbourgh thoroughbred with a Spanish Conquistador...’ His resolve began to crumble. ‘No, this,’ one final steely glint remained, ‘a world renowned depiction of the virgin Mary sitting on a Harley….’
Time had passed quickly. It barely seemed twenty minutes since Martindale had been dragged screaming incomprehensibly into the ambulance that waited solicitously for the police car conveying the convulsing Measley to wherever it was the criminally insane were incarcerated. His embarrassed cohorts, the film crew and the last of the trauma team had dissipated quickly. The curator allowed himself a small congratulatory smile.
He gulped then choked convulsively on a mouthful of whisky for long moments before he was able to look up, to see, Lord Roxbourgh.
‘Quite a satisfying outcome, don’t you think?’ McNeil could only nod, his throat burning, his eyes streaming furiously. ‘So for now I shall bid you goodnight.’ He barely had the energy to wave a limp hand. ‘And I shall see you when the hounds arrive.’
McNeil shot up, smashing his head into the nearest painting to the low cry of indignation from its inhabitant. ‘The hounds?’ Roxbourgh nodded complacently.
‘Well of course. My fee for the safe restoration of the museum, and the permanent tenure of your employment. Yes, I see a good future here. The bray of the horn, the howl of the dogs, the cry of the fox beaten to earth.’
‘But...but,’ McNeil paled, ‘we gave them time to get back it so the world wouldn’t know that you were alive and the museum would be alright.’ He was babbling and knew it.
‘Yes, but that was merely the first part.’ Roxbourgh smiled blithely. ‘That was your fee. Mine is to be a weekly hunt through the museum. The natural science area will make for grand hunting grounds.’ McNeil felt an even colder sensation in the pit of his stomach that even Measley had been able to produce.
‘But you can’t leave here for the dogs; and we haven’t got any.’
‘That is correct. However, the museum in Luton has. Moreover, I believe this museum owns a large cargo vehicle. Need I go on?’
He strode out, already picturing the scene once McNeil had delivered the invitations to his relatives in New York, Rome and Berlin and...