Chapter One: The Girl in the Picture
He was walking along the fringe of Central Park, the side which fronted on Fifth Avenue, as he debated with himself as to whether or not he ought to enter the bucolic anomaly located within this most urban of environments. A quick glance at his cell phone assured him that there was plenty of time before his train. The station was only a quick cab ride away and this very afternoon marked the last day of his protracted stay within the seductive confines of this intoxicating city. Yet, the reason for his sojourn here was no longer valid. The case he was involved in had come to a satisfactory conclusion for all parties involved. In truth, there were no further rationalizations to be made about his dawdling any further, no matter the myriad of reasons he could easily conjure up for doing so.
He was needed up north where his partner was buried under a veritable blizzard of missing person and cheating spouse cases. Even his roommate’s usually calm and collected tones were taking on a more frazzled sounding air as he sharply inquired on the phone yesterday, “When the hell are you coming home?”
So, he didn’t intend to waste these last few precious hours of solitude wherein he could indulge himself without regard to another living soul. He didn’t have to apologize if he wanted to ramble through the famed park and quote the immortal poetry of John Keats. Perhaps another equally enticing option would be to rent a rowboat and take it out on the lake. There, floating serenely on the water, the boat’s mirror image reflected in the calm sheen of the surface, he could envision all the romantic comedies in which he had ever seen that very scene enacted. Though of course, by definition, those selfsame boat rides usually involved a couple and he didn’t really think the same effect could be attained if he attempted the activity on his own.
Just then the first rain drop plopped onto his head. He looked accusingly up at the May sky which seemingly a mere moment ago appeared clear with white scudding clouds but now abruptly loomed gray and storm freighted. Unlike himself, the vanguard drop was not of a solitary disposition and soon hundreds and then thousands of its companions were beating down on upon his unprotected pate.
Ever apt, he substituted the bard for Keats as he quoted, “The better part of valor is discretion,” and suiting actions to words, he made a headlong dash for the nearest available shelter to avoid the onslaught of a veritable deluge. “For chance is a fair mistress,” he opined happily as he shook off the excess water and looked around himself awe struck to be within the echoing, marbled immensity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art lobby. “Tis a more than fair exchange to trade one afternoon idle for another just as equally if not rather even more vaunted.”
He knew his time was limited and, after perusing the map of the museum’s various displays, chose to visit the permanent series of galleries dedicated to one of his favorite artists, the American impressionist, Childe Hassam. Mesmerized, he wandered into the first of several interconnecting rooms, reveling in the chance to see so many of the artist’s work in their true form rather than displayed in the two dimensional pages of art books and calendars.
“Mere reproductions don’t do her justice,” he breathed out as he reverently perused the French Peasant Girl.
“No, they don’t, do they?” The voice was light and airy and he looked around the room, startled at the intrusion into his private artistic musings.
He swallowed convulsively saying the first thing which leapt to mind. “You appreciate Childe Hassam?”
He blushed fiercely at his stupidity and wished he could reclaim the words leaving them unsaid, salvaging the letters and syllables for something worthy of the moment. If he could perform a do over, he would produce a statement suave and sophisticated that in all its witty sophistication would serve to mark him in her mind forever as ‘that intriguing, mysterious man I met one rainy day at the Met…’ Barring such an unlikely opportunity, he fervently wished the shining luster of the floor would spontaneously open itself up and swallow him whole. He would then rapidly tumble down to the pits of hell where he could deservedly pay for his transgressions against the sacred art of seductive conversation.
Yet, she appeared unperturbed by the lack of originality of his opening gambit and answered him with a pure simplicity which in the instant won his ever labile heart. “Indeed I do, very much.”
She smiled shyly at him and he immediately fell even further beneath the spell of hazel eyes, silken hair of a chestnut hue and olive skin with the faintest underlying tinge of roseate coloring. She was the match of any siren contained within this colossal reservoir of art, he was firmly convinced of it.
Emboldened, he bowed slightly and gestured toward an entryway into another gallery. “I am not sure if Mademoiselle is aware or not,” he peered at her face and was delighted to see a telltale flush as she reacted to both his actions and words, “That there are yet another eight galleries of the inestimable Mr. Hassam to peruse and time is fleeting.”
“Eight galleries,” she echoed faintly, her eyes widened in stupefied amazement as she stared at the opening he had just indicated. “So many paintings, I had no idea…” she trailed off weakly as she darted a quick glance at a thin gold watch wrapped around her slender wrist.
He suddenly felt extremely anxious as he actually could feel the dull thuds of his heart trapped within in his chest. Each rapid beat was imploring him not to let this delicate creature depart from his side, at least not until it was absolutely necessary and never seemed a good time for that unlooked event to occur.
“Do you have a prior engagement?” He inquired attempting to generate an air of sophisticated indifference and instead realizing he merely appeared miserable and hangdog.
A girl like this would have plenty of beaux and most likely she was simply passing the time with a fellow aficionado of American impressionism while waiting for her true date to arrive and sweep her away. He would more than likely appear in a sleek limousine and take her out for a night at the opera. His ever fertile imagination helpfully supplied the details not only of the evening’s events and the method of transportation but also conjured up a mental image of the already hated rival. He would be Nordic looking he was sure so that the two would make the perfect study of contrasting beauty, the culmination of which would eventually come to fruition in the surpassing loveliness of their genetically superior children.
“Excuse me,” she was looking at him expectantly, and he was jolted out of his unpleasant daydream to find that he had entirely missed her reply to his own fretful inquiry, “Do you feel all right? Do you want to sit down or something?” She pointed at a plain wooden bench meant to rest the weary feet of museum goers as they unwarily tackled the two full city blocks the building encompassed.
“No, no,” he hastened to deflect her concern, “I must apologize for not hearing what you said about your plans for the afternoon. I was just lost in envious contemplation of whomever my challenger for your time might be.”
The speech was perfectly phrased and he was further enthralled as a radiant smile spread across her features and made her more luminously lovely than ever. “It’s not a whom, it’s a what,” she explained earnestly as though she didn’t want him to worry unnecessarily about fictional significant others, “I have a train to catch later on this evening.”
“Oh,” he responded, grinning idiotically in his relief, “Well, then that is coincidental for I also must regretfully leave this city before my wont as I too have a train to catch.”
“When’s yours leaving?” she asked curiously, her eyes shining at him with some unfathomable emotion that if hard pressed to name, he would have labeled as mischief.
“Uh, seven-thirty,” he said, as he tried to ascertain what she could find so humorous about information which was not only dry and mundane in its recitation but which also threatened to tear them asunder in the much too near future.
Giggling, she responded with an unconvincing show of surprise, “Mine too, what a coincidence!”
“You are toying with me!” He accused her, his eyes narrowed and his lips falling into an unconscious pout as he had a sudden flash of enlightenment, “You knew my answer before ever you asked the question, did you not?”
Looking slightly shamefaced, she nodded her head, “It’s true, I’m afraid that I did.”
“It would seem you have me at a disadvantage. You would appear to know who I am but the reciprocal is most unfortunately not the case.” He peered even more intently at her pixie-like features, it was a far from unpleasant exercise, as he tried to ascertain where he might know her from. His only success was the slightest echo of familiarity but nothing he could concretely claim as an actual memory. “I can not believe I would not recognize one as fair as you.” He murmured contritely, his irritation quickly lost in his embarrassment at being unable to recall meeting the beautiful young woman. “It is an unforgivable breach of etiquette for which I most sincerely apologize.”
“It’s all right,” she was smiling at him again. Her countenance was bright and blithe as she freely gave her absolution, “It was a long while ago and I dare say I have changed, hopefully for the better.”
The blatant seeking for a compliment went neither unnoticed nor unacknowledged as he responded with quick gallantly. Raising her small hand to his lips he gently kissed the back of it. Holding it still, clearly reluctant to release any connection he might share with her, he spoke with plain sincerity as he gazed mesmerized into her beguiling eyes, “Whatever might have come before, if it t’was a case of the awkward signet metamorphosing into a swan, I can vouch for the successful transformation. It is now a most definite case of perfection being impossible to improve upon.”
Again a delicate flush of color traveled up her slender neck and spread across her cheekbones. She could do little more than stare at him overwhelmed as she was by his words. “That is without a doubt the most remarkable thing anyone has ever said to me.” Her voice was small but she spoke clearly as she paid him the signal honor of not shying away from his impassioned words.
“Well, then I shall make it my life’s mission to make sure it that there will be many more occasions for you to feel that precise way again.” He looked down at the small hand lying in his and acting decisively, nestled it within the crook of his bent elbow. “Allow me to escort you through several more of these galleries and then as the time grows nigh perhaps we can partake of a light repast before heading to the station. During our time together I shall endeavor to tease out information so as to solve the mystery of how we are acquainted.”
“Well,” she said happily turning with him and heading for the next gallery, “After all, you are a detective.”
He gaped at her in astonishment, “You are indeed acquainted with me then to the extent of knowing of my chosen vocation.”
“I am,” her tone was teasing, “I know a lot about you, Mr. Spinelli but how much do you know abut me?”
“Remarkably little,” he conceded, “As I don’t even have a name to bestow upon you.”
With her free hand, using her small and flat patent leather handbag as a pointer, she indicated the next gallery, “Lead on Macduff.”
“You not only are an informed lover of the representational arts but of the bard himself,” he exclaimed with delight as they entered the next room and began to stroll around the gallery examining the paintings spread out and hung with best effect upon the walls.
Again, her lips curved in that delicious smile and he found himself dreaming of what it would be like to gently take her face between his palms and kiss those sweet and tempting lips. “A long time ago, a certain someone imbued within me an everlasting love of Shakespeare. I think it was one of the sonnets. Let me see, how did it go?” She paused in the middle of the room, her eyes pensive as she attempted to remember the quote.
“O, never say that I was false of heart,
Though absence seemed my flame to qualify.
As easy might I from my self depart
As from my soul which in thy breast doth lie.
That is my home of love; if I have ranged,
Like him that travels I return again,”
She paused and looked up at Spinelli, “Do you remember the rest?” She asked him softly. She awaited his response with bated breath as though his answer was some type of test, some affirmation that he was still as she remembered him from the unknown whence of their acquaintanceship.
Spinelli nodded his head quickly. His green eyes were aflame with a fierce joy at being tasked to remember that which was no type of privation in the least as all the sonnets were forever engraved upon his mind and enshrined within his heart. “Tis one of my favorites,” he said before completing the proscribed fourteen lines:
“Just to the time, not with the time exchanged,
So that myself bring water for my stain.
Never believe though in my nature reigned
All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,
That it could so preposterously be stained
To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;
For nothing this wide universe I call
Save thou, my rose, in it thou art my all
“That’s it,” she exclaimed breathlessly not surprised in the least at his ease of recitation.
A while later, they stood mindlessly in front of the pure radiant light spilling forth from Summer Evening where a woman dressed all in white, sat with her back to the viewer as she stared out through an open window across a field of gold at a distant sea. A potted geranium plant, with red blooming flowers, sitting on the window sill contrasted perfectly with the more neutral surrounding tones and provided the finishing flourish to the painting. Yet, they were as oblivious to this lovely picture as they had been to all the preceding paintings located in the galleries before this one which was the fifth in the procession.
The two only had eyes for one another while the poor Metropolitan and its glorious offerings was reduced to little more than a glamorous stage prop in their ongoing game of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘I won’t tell but here’s a clue…’ Dazed and enamored though he was, Spinelli finally gathered his remaining wits about him long enough to check the time on his cell phone.
“Oh, look at the hour!” He was mournful but painful as it was to admit, their idyll must come to an end as the real world and all its demands once more inexorably intruded. “We must leave now if we are to grab some sustenance before moving onto the station and our communal train. That is,” now he was hesitant as he looked down at her, his shaggy, air dried hair falling artlessly across his brow, “Of course, assuming that you haven’t regretted your time spent with the Jackal and do wish to continue our ongoing dialogue.”
She laughed, it was a delicate, joyful sound, and placing a small warm hand on his cheek, said fervently, “This has been the best afternoon of my life, bar none, and I don’t want it to ever end. So, dinner, train ride, and whatever else might you have on offer, Mr. Spinelli, I will take it all and still want more.”
The walked out of the museum hand in hand, Spring had reclaimed her crown and the afternoon sun was out busily drying up rain puddles and glistening on the surface of the still damp museum steps. They ran down them hand in hand, their great breadth and shallow draft drawing the eye ever upward to the imposing edifice of the museum. Yet, the ageless stone and mortar was as nothing in the face of their breathless laughter. They skimmed down them together, feeling untroubled and confident in their youth and in the wonderful serendipity of their encounter.
Time was elastic, indulgent in her treatment of this flush of attraction, this insatiable need to look, to touch, to ask. They wandered the streets making a generic, desultory stab toward getting to the station. The only thing positive to be said about their peregrinations was that they weren’t moving in the wrong direction but otherwise, they were neither speedy nor effective.
Spinelli looked doubtfully at the plain façade, at their twinned reflections visible in the narrow glass door, their hands still melded as though it was a permanent condition, a fusing of flesh and bone. “Are you sure?” He asked, his voice communicating his reservations. This would be their first meal together and he wanted it to be a memorable occasion marked by damask, candlelight and a charmed intimacy that would bind them tightly to one another as they shared their histories and their secrets. None of that, except perhaps the intimacy due entirely to the obvious space limitations of the cramped café, appeared to be attainable in the slightest at Pierre’s. “We still have time,” he urged, tugging at her resistant hand, “Let’s keep looking.”
She shook her head in obdurate stubbornness. Slight as she was, he couldn’t budge her. She was planted on the sidewalk and Spinelli was intuiting a first possible flaw in her perfection, a potential willfulness that at this nascent stage in their relationship he would generously chalk up to a sense of destiny rather than a need to get her own way.
“No,” she looked up at him and his objections melted away as he took in the intoxicating sight of her shining eyes, her heart shaped face earnest in the attempt to convince him she was right. “In Paris, it was always the little tucked away places that had the best food and atmosphere. This is such a one as well, I can feel it.”
Spinelli capitulated readily, he didn’t need food anyway. It would all be as dust on his tongue, subservient to the soul inspiring nourishment provide by the nectar of her sweet laugh and the honey of her dark glance. “Okay,” he agreed, reaching over to tuck a dark strand of wind tossed hair behind her ear, “Just promise me that you’ll visit me when I come down with food poisoning.”
“Silly!” She pronounced with a wind chime giggle tugging at his hand to get him to follow her adventuresome lead into the unwelcoming narrow gloom of the restaurant.
“Paris, eh?” He said, following her readily, “So that’s one mystery solved, you’ve been out of the country.”
“Yes,” she responded, they were standing in the minute foyer of the tiny room, there were as of yet no other diners at this early hour. An elderly man in a white and black waiter’s uniform wended his way unsteadily toward them. “Don’t worry, I’ll do the ordering for both of us.” Spinelli could just make out a wicked gleam of mischief in her dark eyes as they awaited the arrival of their host.