A True Representative (Part 3)

Seated on a plain white wooden bench, tilting his head this way and that to consider the painting across from him, Henry found himself wondering if the creature in the image had been painted or photographed for a long moment. Whatever else Sasha Kowen was, she was one talented woman, he thought. It appeared to be a kind of tree-thing, but stunted and grotesque, bloated near its base and slimming out as it rose, its many branches looking more like clawed tentacles than branches, per se. In the painting, it was grabbing a non-descript man and opening its giant mouth, as if preparing to bite the poor fellow in half, streamers of greenish venom dribbling from its maw.

                “Stunning, isn’t it,” said an unfamiliar voice to his right, accompanied by the hollow echo of boots clacking on the tile floor of the gallery. There was also a metallic ‘clink’ to the steps, and as Henry looked over to the owner of the voice, he found himself looking at a walking anachronism. The newcomer was dressed in faded blue jeans over worn down cowboy boots, complete with spurs on the heels. A dusty-looking deerskin tunic shirt covered his torso, along with a floor-length dark blue trench coat, and a wide-brimmed traveler’s hat topped a head that hosted unkempt, shoulder-length hair. The cowboy’s eyes, a piercing iron gray, regarded Henry with what he would later think of as a kind of quiet pity.

                “Uh, yes, yes it is,” Henry replied at last, as the cowboy planted his hands on a cracked, faded black belt looped around his waist. The man wore no firearms, as someone of his visual presentation might be expected to, but he had on his left hip a long knife in a stylized leather sheath. “Are you familiar with the artist?”

                “Very,” said the cowboy fellow, his voice like a wind that spoke by grinding stones together. “I’m one of Sasha’s patrons.” The man turned to face Henry squarely, and offered one callused hand. “Roderick.”

                “Henry Townsend,” Henry said, shaking the man’s hand. There was unexpected gentleness in the man’s shake.

                “I know who you are,” Roderick said quietly, eyes narrowing as he leaned down close. “And I’m going to tell you this in confidence; you should get out while you still can. Things are about to get very bad if you stay on.” Roderick released Henry’s hand and stepped back, still looking hard at him.

                “Now hold on a second,” Henry began, shaking his head.

                “Roderick,” boomed a thunderous voice from behind Henry. He stood from the bench and wheeled about, spotting yet another newcomer striding into the room like the fellow owned the place. Like Roderick, this fellow too was dressed in a way that drew attention, but where Roderick looked like he’d walked out of a spaghetti western, this man looked like he’d come straight from either a comic book about modern day wizards, or from a poorly drawn woodcut of same. Stout and wide, with no hair on his shining pate, this fellow had a wide, scraggly white and gray beard, and a wizened face that spoke of long age and wisdom. He wore about him a dark blue cape of some sort, embossed with all manner of strange, arcane symbols and sigils, and just visible under this as he strode toward the bench Henry had been seated upon before, the older man wore what looked like medieval leather armor, yellowed with either age or textile color dye. “Leave the good Mr. Townsend be to admire our Sasha’s work and await a chance to speak with her, my man,” the older man thundered, scowling at the younger cowboy. Roderick’s head inclined a little, and he seemed to stiffen visibly.

                “My apologies, Marek,” said Roderick. “I just thought it might be good to introduce myself as one of the councilor’s backers.”

                “And I think it might be good to finally get round to making flying cars, Roderick, but we don’t always fully think these things through, now do we,” snarled the man named Marek. Henry sensed a budding animosity between these two fellows, and slid half a step back from them, observing their body language as best he could. “Now, you have some tasks yet to tend to, don’t you, Roderick?”

                “I have, sir,” Roderick replied, his shoulders hunched, head inclined a little further so that his eyes would not meet those of the old wizard. Henry noted for himself that the old man had one green eye, and one brown; heterochromia, he thought. It was a rare genetic condition, one which made each iris present with a different coloration.

                “Then I might suggest you turn your considerable talents toward those tasks, my young friend,” Marek intoned. Roderick gave Henry a quick look, darting his eyes to Marek, then nodded and turned on his spurred heels and clang-marched out of the room, toward the gallery’s front doors. “I apologize for the inconvenience and interruption, Mr. Townsend,” Marek said, swooping around the bench and now offering his own greeting handshake.

                When Henry took the older man’s hand, he could have sworn he felt a tingle of electricity there. “It’s no trouble, really. I’m just wondering why I’m waiting out here when Sasha said it was so important to come down and see her immediately.”

                “She does that,” Marek said with a roll of his rheumy eyes. “Don’t take it personally, my good man. She flies off into these artistic fugues sometimes, and no matter what you have planned with the woman, she will make you wait until she’s finished whatever’s got hold of her at the moment. We’ve all become accustomed to it. Please, have a seat. I’ll go see what’s taking her so damned long to call you in,” Marek said, shuffling off without another word to him.

                Henry sat down again, watching the wizard shuffle off stiffly to the left, toward a curtained-off area in the gallery where Sasha was, ostensibly, hard at work on something at that moment. Her assistant had been quite polite about telling him to wait out here, but the young lady had also been strangely insistent that he was not to go beyond the curtain until he was sent for. He suspected that the artist’s assistant might physically detain him if he tried, maybe even hurt him.

                A few quiet minutes passed, and the curtain twitched aside, Sasha poking her head out and smiling over at him. “Come on back, Henry. I’ve just finished up my newest installation, and it’s always good to get a first look from someone who isn’t deep in this world.” Henry rose from the bench, taking one last quick look at the tree monster painting.

                He could have sworn that for a moment, its eyes blinked at him.

                Shaking off this momentary hallucination, he headed toward Sasha, who held the curtain wide open for him to pass into the next area of the gallery. The section of the building he stepped into was brilliantly lit up with standing construction-style work lights, and off to the left side stood Sasha’s latest piece:

                The image was of a kind of throne room, darkened background with obsidian blue-black steps leading up to a throne composed of various bones and stretches of lacerated flesh. Sat upon the throne was a queer creature, a raven-headed thing in a black-and-white checkerboard suit, a dark pink button shirt worn beneath with a solid black tie, a metallic kind of tie pin centered upon it. Instead of a scepter, it held in its hand a slender silver cordless microphone, resting in its hand upon its crossed knees. A madness swirled in its too-human eyes, and its smiling beak was full of needle-like teeth. Strewn about the steps and at its feed were slain, half-naked humans, torn apart in various states of gore and obliteration.

                Along a plaque below the painting were embossed the words, ‘THE 26TH THRONE’. The sight of the painting was somehow enhanced by these simple words, sending tremors of vague unease quaking through Henry’s soul. There was something deeply, existentially ‘wrong’ about the whole thing.

                “You, wanted me to see something,” he asked Sasha shakily, unable to pull his eyes from the leering raven-thing.

                “Ah, yes, over here,” she said, pulling his attention by physically grabbing his wrist and tugging him over to one wall where she had set up a couple of folding deck chairs. She snatched up a silver-gray laptop, opened it up, and offered it to him, guiding him down into the other chair as she did so. “Just hit the space bar, I think this is a good first run.”

                Henry did as he was instructed, and watched a quick 60-second advert announcing his bid for the Congressional seat. The ad was simple and straightforward, composed of snippets from his podcast interview and some statements from folks he had worked with in the District Attorney’s office over the years. It seemed to focus on his ‘law and order’ portfolio, which made sense, and ended with a black-and-white photo of him with his head bent over a file folder of some sort and the message, ‘Henry Townsend: The Sane Choice’ stenciled over the screen image.

                “So, what do you think,” Sasha asked. Henry nodded, lips pursed.

                “I wouldn’t use that fourth picture your people have of me in there, with my arm around Sally Wentz. She and I dated for a bit, that’s when the photo was taken.”

                “Things not end well there, I presume?”

                “To say it was acrimonious would be an understatement; she tried to set my car on fire,” Henry replied with a snort. “I didn’t press charges; she had a sort of emotional breakdown around that time, some weird stuff happened with her family, and she didn’t handle it well. I didn’t want to make things harder for her.”

                “Smart, handsome, and compassionate,” Sasha said, taking back the laptop and closing it, setting it on the second chair and stepping back from him, arms folded over her chest. She had on a kind of smock over simple blue jeans and a cardigan, the sleeves pulled back and arms and hands spotted with paint. “Hard to believe you haven’t been tied down yet.”

                “I’ve tried, Ms. Kowen,” he said with a wry grin. “It’s not easy in my field, though.”

                “I more than understand dating troubles, councilor,” she replied with a smirk of her own. “I’ve had more than a couple of guys get real upset when they realize the girl they’re on a date with has a penis. But it hasn’t hurt my career any,” she said, turning to admire her latest work. “And really, that’s what most important to me.”

                Another newcomer slipped through the curtain then, a tall, slender fellow in a sleek black suit with barely visible white pinstripes, his dark red hair slicked back over his head, sallow, sunken cheeks and eyes drawn down in a dour scowl. He wore some sort of leather driving gloves, and he managed a tight, subtle half-grin as he looked to Sasha. “Sasha, darling, Trask tells me you’ve finished your latest piece,” the newcomer said, his voice a pleasant, rolling tone with a hint of English accent threaded through it. “May I see it?”

                “Of course,” she said, fairly bouncing on her feet. “And oh! Henry,” she said, reaching out for Henry’s hands. He took hers, rose up, and smiled at the newcomer, who stood a good two inches taller than he did, an unusual circumstance; Henry himself was a goodly 6’4”. “This is Jago, one of my finest patrons and a true connesieur of arts. Jago, this is Henry Townsend, our man for Congress.”

                Jago raised one skeptical eyebrow at him, and Henry could practically feel a kind of subtle heat radiating from around the man. He reminded Henry somewhat of a cobra if it was given a human form and wrapped in a clearly expensive suit. “Hmm. We shall see if that proves out. Tell me, Mr. Townsend, what did you think of the advertisement our people put together? I assume little Sasha showed it to you?”

                “She did,” he replied, feeling a kind of nervous sweat budding up on his forehead and on the nape of his neck. Being around this man, he felt as if someone had turned on a blast furnace in the curtained-off area. “I already pointed out the one issue I had with it, a photo still that should be pulled.”

                “Hmm,” was all Jago offered in reply, leaning back. Henry hadn’t realized that the man had been practically looming over him until he backed off, and the moment he did, that terrible heat withdrew. Sasha certainly seemed to surround herself with some interesting characters, to be sure. Jago stepped away, toward the painting, and a broader grin creased his features. “Positively stunning, my dear,” he commented, one hand under his chin, thumb and forefinger pinching it.

                “Okay, so, I’ll talk to my folks in the production area, we’ll make that change to the ad and get it running on some of the local stations as soon as we can,” Sasha stage-whispered to Henry quickly, shuffling over to Jago’s side to admire her own handiwork with him. Henry saw himself out of the curtained area, heading back for the gallery’s entrance. When he got outside, he felt a shift in the air, a kind of chilly blast of wind that perfectly matched the season.

                As he headed toward his car, he spotted a pale fellow in a Vietnam-era veteran’s jacket, smoking a cigarette and leaning back against the fence surrounding the gallery. A quick look at the veteran’s name patch revealed that this was the aforementioned Trask, whom he hadn’t caught sight of inside the gallery before. Henry just gave the man a nod, and Mr. Trask, a corporal from the stripes on his sleeve, gave one in silent return. The man looked like he belonged in the grave.

                “Interesting people indeed,” Henry thought as he turned his engine over and drove away from the gallery.