Grail of the Summer Stars

Aetherial Tales (Volume 3)

Freda Warrington

Tor Books

1
The Triptych
 
 
Even when the machines were silent, Stevie could still hear them. Ghosts thronged the empty factory: women in long dark skirts and men in overalls, busy in the dusty gloom. Their work clothes had no pockets or cuffs to trap even a speck of gold dust. The workers mouthed soundlessly at each other, lip-reading over the whir of lathes and the steady thump of presses … she wondered at the long hours, the sweaty heat, their overcrowded backstreet homes with shared toilets in outhouses, and no running water …
Stevie shook her head, pushing the ghosts away. Overactive imagination. She “saw things” so readily that doctors had diagnosed visual migraine, or even some odd form of epilepsy. She wasn’t the only member of staff to sense presences, but her visions often went to extremes.
A pounding noise broke her trance.
“Stevie, are you there? Someone can’t read the ‘Closed’ sign.”
“Okay, Fin, I’ll get it.”
The old jewelry firm, Soames & Salter, was a museum now. Over thirty years ago, the owners had retired. Unable to sell the unmodernized business, they’d simply locked the doors and walked away, leaving a time capsule of work methods that had barely changed from 1880 to 1980. Tools had been left strewn on benches, dirty teacups abandoned … this sense of sudden desertion was so carefully preserved by the curators that it made visitors shiver.
Stevie made a last check that all lights and machinery were switched off, then closed the door on the old factory and hurried through the museum gift shop.
The person banging on the entrance door was not a late visitor, but a wet and fed-up-looking delivery driver, his van parked crookedly against rush-hour traffic.
He presented a large packing crate, addressed to Stevie Silverwood, Museum of Metalwork, Hockley, Birmingham. As she helped him drag the case inside, he muttered apologies for the delay, blaming “problems at the depot” over the weekend, and that they’d tried to deliver the previous day only to find the museum closed.
“Yes, we’re shut on Mondays,” said Stevie. “It doesn’t matter, I wasn’t expecting a parcel in the first place.”
She signed his electronic notepad, said her thanks—receiving a curt “Orright, pet” in return—and relocked the door behind him. A note stapled to the crate was close to falling off. Stevie detached the scrap and frowned at it.
The world needs to see this, stated the scribbled handwriting.
“Oh, really?” she said aloud. “Is the world ready for it, whatever it is?”
Outside, streetlamps splashed the rainy grey dusk. Stevie watched the van pulling away into the sluggish traffic along Vyse Street. Although she’d turned off the main lights before he arrived, a parade of car headlights flashed over display cases full of jewelry, glinting on shelves stacked with local history books and souvenirs. Enough light to read by.
Please exhibit for me. Sorry can’t explain. D.
“Who was that?” Fin, her assistant, called from a back room that served as an office-cum-kitchen. Stevie could hear the soft rattle of computer keys.
“Grumpy courier with a parcel,” she called back.
“Didn’t know we were expecting a delivery.”
“Nor me.”
The crate stood waist-high, heavy but manageable. She laid it flat, grabbed a screwdriver from a drawer behind the counter and set to work. Removing the screws and prizing off the wooden lid took only a minute. Inside she found a thick sandwich of bubble wrap, apparently protecting a canvas of some kind. She sat back on her heels, puzzled.
“Surely I didn’t arrange an exhibition and simply forget about it?” Raising her voice, she called, “Fin, is there anything in the diary?”
“About what?”
“Someone’s sent us artwork, I think.”
The sender had sealed the package in overzealous haste, as if to make unwrapping it as frustrating as possible. Stevie took scissors to the job. A sea of bubble wrap mounted around her as she pulled off layer after layer.
“Who’s the artist?” said Fin, emerging from the office.
In her heart, Stevie knew, but she needed to be certain. “See if you can find the documentation.”
Fin inspected the crate and freed a label from a see-through sleeve. “Sent five days ago from a place called ‘the Jellybean Factory.’ North London postcode … Does that ring a bell?”
Stevie frowned. “Oh, yes, it’s familiar. So’s the handwriting.”
“If someone’s sent them on spec, that’s naughty. It is normal etiquette to ask first.”
“Unless I agreed to something that’s slipped my mind. Am I going nuts?”
“I reserve my right not to answer that,” said Fin, pushing her reading glasses into her curly brown hair.
Stevie pulled a face at her. She liked Fin, who was energetic, blunt and good-hearted. They made a good team. “Seriously. We didn’t, did we?”
The annex housing the gift shop, café and further galleries had been refurbished in sleek modern style, in contrast to the factory. A large open arch led into a second room that they used as exhibition space. A clockmaker’s bench occupied one corner. Fin glanced in and said, “There’s not much spare wall area, and we’ve got the needlework guild next month … Any clues?”
“There’s a note.”
Fin took the scrap, dropping her glasses back onto her nose. “‘The world needs to see this’?” She raised an eyebrow. “Modest. What was the artist thinking? ‘Hmm, shall I submit my masterpiece to a famous institution in London or New York? No, I’ve a better idea—I’ll send it to an obscure gallery in the outskirts of Birmingham.’ Mysterious.”
“Hey, not so obscure! We didn’t win a ‘best small museum’ award for nothing, you know. We’re world-famous.”
“Okay, but still … Who’s D?”
Stevie didn’t answer. As the last pieces of wrapping and protective paper floated away, she rose to her feet with the object between her hands. The weight was unexpected. It was not canvas after all, but a wooden panel shaped like a Gothic arch, covered by two hinged flaps.
A triptych.
Stevie carried the panel to the counter and spread the side leaves at angles so that the structure stood up on its own. She felt a thrill of magic in opening the panel to reveal the artwork inside, like a child with an Advent calendar window.
She saw a vibrant wash of orange and red, lots of bright gold leaf reminiscent of a Byzantine icon, a pair of fiery female eyes staring at her … In the gloom, the effect was luminous.
“Wow,” said Fin behind her. “This is your brain on drugs!”
The central image showed a goddess-like figure in a mountainous red desert. In the foreground lay a tumble of stonework: a fallen temple? The female, stepping from behind the stump of a column, had auburn hair swirling around a pale golden face with glaring eyes. A face or a mask? Her complexion had the sheen of fur, and strong-boned features more feline than human. A regal, feral cat deity. One hand was holding a crystal sphere up to the heavens, the other pointing at a molten yellow fissure in the earth.
The brushstrokes were so precise and detailed that everything seemed to be in motion, vibrating and rushing around the central figure. There was so much light and energy, it hurt the eyes.
The side panels showed equally enigmatic visions. On the left sat statues of a king and queen, side by side like pharaohs in a ruined palace. On the right, a silver globe emitted a beam of light towards the stars. In the background stood a priest-like figure with a severe expression.
Stevie was silent, wondering.
“The artist’s gone a bit crazy with the gold and silver leaf, hasn’t he?” said Fin. “I need sunglasses. The way he’s caught the light is amazing, but it looks like everything’s vibrating. I wouldn’t want it on my wall, would you? Imagine confronting that, with a hangover.” She bent closer. “I can’t read the signature.”
“I can. I know the artist.” Stevie gave a soft laugh. “I went to college with him. Danifold.” A strange shiver went through her. “Well, bloody hell.”
“Who?”
“Daniel Manifold,” said Stevie. “We used to call him ‘Danifold.’ I’d know his work anywhere. He was obsessed by Byzantine religious icons and that was his thing, adapting those methods to his own ideas. He was always arguing with his lecturers, who frowned on his non-modern style, but he stuck to his guns. This is amazing.”
“What’s it supposed to be, though? It’s all sort of … wrong. It doesn’t look like any religious subject I’ve ever seen.”
“No,” said Stevie. “He took the style and played with it. Dreams, folklore, myths … whatever came into his head, I suppose.”
“He sounds very creative.”
“You could say that. Passionate. Driven.”
“So, have you been in touch with him lately?”
“No, hardly at all since we left college.” She smiled wistfully. “Since he’s working in London, why would he send stuff to me? It doesn’t make sense.”
Fin began to pick up discarded wrapping, only to stop with a panicked glance at the clock. “Damn, look at the time! I have to collect the kids from the minder. I’ve counted the cash, locked it in the safe and put the figures on your desk. Everything’s done.”
“Yes, it’s fine, you go,” said Stevie, startled out of a semi-trance. “I made the mess, so I’ll clear it up.”
“Okay, let me shut down the computer,” Fin continued as she went behind the counter into the office. “How long since college?”
“Oh … seven years. We drifted apart.”
Fin reappeared in a black overcoat and scarf, settling her bag on her shoulder. “Was he an old flame?” she said, her lips quirking.
“Not really. Well, sort of.” Stevie deflected Fin’s cheerful nosiness with a flick of her hand. “It was a very long time ago. I’m more than happy to exhibit his work, but an email or phone call would have been nice. This is odd, even for Daniel.”
“Is there some way you can contact him?”
“Not sure.” She stood with arms clasped, trying to outstare the fiery goddess. “Probably. I’ll have a think.”
Fin plucked car keys from her bag. Hesitating, she added, “Look, why don’t you come to ours for supper tonight?”
Stevie didn’t mean to be unsociable, even though she felt like the anti-Fin: slightly built, willowy and untidily bohemian in appearance, her hair a long shaggy mess of amber shades—an oddball, in so many ways. Fin was a tall sporty type, dark, chic but … “ordinary” wasn’t a fair description. Fin was simply of the mainstream; down-to-earth, bright and breezy, normal. That didn’t stop them being friends, but …
Stevie thought about Fin’s house. The rooms would be ablaze with light and warmth, cooking smells, two children arguing in front of the television, Fin’s jokey, talkative husband, a couple of large dogs bounding around … The mere thought of all that heat, food and chatter was enough to wake a thin headache behind her eyes.
“I’d love to, but maybe another time? It’s been a long day. I need an early night.”
Fin nodded in resignation. “It can’t be great for you, living alone in that grotty apartment. You’re welcome any time, you know.”
“Thank you.” Stevie mustered a smile. “It really isn’t that grotty. Anyway, I need groceries, and I have paperwork to finish. We’ll deal with Daniel tomorrow.”
“I can’t wait,” said Fin. “Hey, you want a lift to the supermarket? It’s foul out there.”
“No. I’ll walk. I don’t mind the rain, and I do need the exercise.”
*   *   *
And space to think, Stevie added to herself.
With Fin gone, Stevie tidied the sea of bubble wrap, stowed the triptych and packing crate safely in the office, finished her final checks. All was clean and neat in the café, mini-spotlights in the display cases turned off. In the exhibition room, distorted shadows of the wording engraved on the windows—Soames & Salter, Metalsmiths, and in smaller letters beneath, Birmingham Museum of Metalwork. Preserving the industrial heritage of the Jewellery Quarter—slid repeatedly across the polished oak floorboards. She pulled down the blinds, set the alarm and let herself out of the rear exit.
Outside, the wind stung her face. Stevie lived in a small apartment above the museum gift shop, just a few steps across a yard to a fire escape that wound two stories up to her front door. She’d thought of taking Daniel’s triptych upstairs, but decided not to risk rain damage. Besides, she wasn’t sure she wanted those disturbing images staring at her all night.
Rain fell hard as Stevie walked the length of Vyse Street. The street was dark and shiny, awash with traffic on a typically British December evening: wet and piercingly cold. She hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella, so she wrapped her long Indian cotton scarf several times around her neck, pushing her chin down into the folds. She passed the multistory parking garage and a long row of stores selling gems and watches.
The Jewellery Quarter wasn’t pretty, yet it possessed a unique character. The streets had an industrial feel. Buildings of Victorian grandeur were interspersed with rows of old red-brick houses—mainly occupied by jewelry stores, with design studios and repair workshops on the upper floors—and marred by occasional blocky constructions from the 1960s. There were tiny shops stuffed with antiques, glamorous high-end boutiques, contemporary designers, discount gold merchants, clockmakers and more, all nestled side by side along every street in the vicinity.
Stevie loved the place. She’d fallen in love the moment she stepped off the new light railway at Hockley station, looked up and saw the station sign: a modern sculpture of cogs, like a giant skeleton clock. An air of dilapidation persisted in places, but historical conservation projects were restoring the area into a prime heritage site. Stevie was proud to be playing a part, however modest.
She wasn’t her own boss as such. She’d been deputy curator/manager for five years, officially supervised by tiers of city council administrators. Fortunately, they left the day-to-day running to her. The pay wasn’t great, but Stevie was happy. The job came with an apartment, and the museum was her life. There was nothing more she needed.
On the opposite side of the road, a cemetery lay dark and peaceful, untouched by the bustle around it. Reaching the Jewellery Quarter clock—a handsome green and gold tower—she crossed the road to a small supermarket on the far side.
The store’s harsh lighting made her blink as she bought basics: milk, bread, a ready meal and a bottle of wine. Soon she was on her way back, with rain blowing into her eyes, half her shopping list forgotten. All she could think about was Daniel.
Tall and skinny, with spiky brown hair, bright blue eyes shining through his crooked glasses, a permanent grin … the memories were vivid and fond. She still missed him. He’d been her first lover, the first person she’d ever allowed close to her.
Art college had been a great time in her life. Although her talent for fine art proved minimal, the college let her transfer to a jewelry-making course of study that suited her better. The curriculum covered all kinds of metalwork, allowing her fascination with clocks and other mechanisms to blossom alongside her love of gold and gems.
When college ended and her fellow students went their separate ways, she felt bereft. For those four years, she’d been part of a large, flamboyant family.
With Daniel at the center, like a flame.
Fin had guessed right: she and Daniel had been an item at college, although it hadn’t exactly been a grand passion. The initial excitement of sexual discovery faded within a year or so. Affection remained, but sheer physical chemistry seemed to be lacking between them. He’d always been eccentric, verging on unstable, and Stevie had her own interests, so they poured their ardor into work rather than each other. Yet there had been a sweetness in their mostly platonic love that still made Stevie smile. By the end, they were more like brother and sister.
Then the search for work took them in different directions. Daniel’s mother hadn’t helped, of course; she disapproved of his career choice and disliked his friends, Stevie in particular. Really, it had been easier to let him go than fight his mother or cope with his driven self-absorption.
Still, Daniel was special. She would always love him. Sending artwork with an urgent, cryptic note attached … even for him, that was damned weird.
Something was wrong.
As she passed the cemetery, she felt an ominous prodrome, a fizzing in the top of her head … No, not now, she told herself, but couldn’t push the feeling away.
The world changed around her in a horrible, indefinable way. Reality tilted. Traffic faded to silence. A cobalt glow replaced the darkness and sparks danced in the corners of her vision. Static tingled on her skin. She was dizzy, holding her breath with an overwhelming sense of a presence behind her … watching her … something dark and slithery, so close she could feel its breath on her neck.
And in front was a white shape, kitten-sized, like an animal specter. It kept glancing back, drawing her onward.
Stevie kept walking, willing herself not to run or otherwise behave crazily in the street. This feeling could last for half an hour or more. And every time, it was no less terrifying.
Migraine. Epilepsy. Some kind of neurosis. We’ll try you on this drug, or that … She no longer spoke to doctors about these episodes. Their drugs had only made her worse. It couldn’t be the world that changed, revealing weird hidden dimensions. Therefore it must be her own malfunctioning brain.
A horn sounded, headlights flashed. Shock jolted her back to herself. She’d stepped into the road without looking, straight into the path of a car. The handles of her grocery bags bit into her palms. The driver swerved around her, gesticulating angrily, and the street was normal again. The spooky cobalt glow and malevolent stalkers vanished. Stevie let out a shaky breath and strode on.
A security man in a dark suit, standing in the doorway of a large diamond merchant, greeted her with a friendly “Evening, Stevie,” as if nothing had happened.
Nothing happened, nothing. Where was I? Daniel …
She quickened her pace along the slight downhill curve of the street until she reached the museum, a handsome nineteenth-century building fronted by a row of imposing arched windows. The sight of the place she loved steadied her, gave her a surge of pride, every time.
At the far end of the building, Stevie let herself through a steel gate to an alley that brought her into the rear yard. She climbed the fire escape and let herself into her apartment. Luxurious it wasn’t; she always felt a frisson of dismay at the brown linoleum and a tiny kitchen cramped under sloping ceilings. To the right, the small sitting room resembled student digs, with a threadbare carpet and sagging sofa. The colors were mostly faded browns and greens set against dingy white walls. However much she cleaned, a musty scent of damp hung around, reminding her of an attic.
Stevie had made no effort with the place, because it came with the job, and was not truly hers. Since she’d never had a proper home, she wasn’t sure how one should feel … With a brief shudder, she blocked out her murky memories of foster homes. The past was over, firmly rejected as if it had happened to someone else. The museum was her anchor now; the rooms above were merely somewhere to sleep.
She flicked lights on, turned on the television for background noise, discarded her wet outdoor clothing and wrapped herself in a thick cardigan. While her lasagna heated in the microwave, she sat on the sofa with a glass of white wine and booted up her laptop.
Danny might have a website. He might even have sent her a message.
She waited impatiently for the laptop to pick up a Wi-Fi signal from the museum office. Soon she was balancing a plate full of lasagna on her knees, eating with a fork in her right hand while manipulating the keyboard with her left.
She scanned a long list of spam, searching for the rare gem of a personal message. From Daniel, nothing.
There was only one address she recognized. From Dr. Tom Gregory, the message was headed, “Our meetings.”
A thin breath escaped between Stevie’s teeth as she clicked Read.
Dear Miss Silverwood, I’m dropping you a line to see how you are. I’m sorry that you couldn’t make our six-monthly follow-up—glancing at my calendar, I see that it’s nearly a year since we last spoke. Please do drop me a line or phone the office to make an appointment so I can fit you in before Christmas. You’ve made wonderful progress but I must emphasize the importance of continuity. It’s all too easy for clients to slip back into difficulties, so this is just a friendly reminder that I’m always here for you, a phone call away. I appreciate you are busy, but it is so important that we keep up our regular chats. I look forward to seeing you soon.
Yours,
Dr. Gregory
Stevie paused, feeling a small flame of annoyance in her stomach. She closed the message and pressed Delete.
The lasagna was a disappointing mush. She mentally kicked herself for forgetting to buy chocolate cookies. There might be a can of peaches in the cupboard. Perhaps she could mix the juice with her wine to create a sort of cut-price peach Bellini. Grimacing, she washed away the fatty cheese taste with more wine, undiluted.
She paused to watch the television news. There were floods devastating a Caribbean island, an earthquake near Pakistan’s mountainous border. Film was shown of people wandering about covered in dust, weeping, devastated. She changed the channel. Her throat tightened and she felt guilty for turning away, but there was so much devastation every day that her emotional reservoir was dry.
She opened her web browser and tapped Daniel’s name into the search engine.
There weren’t many results, but the most useful appeared at the top: a website for the Jellybean Factory, an arts and media cooperative in North London with studios, offices and function space to rent. It was so long since she’d heard from Daniel, over a year, she’d forgotten he worked there until the parcel came. She clicked the link, clicked again on “Daniel Manifold” in the list of artists in residence.
There was only one example of his work: a thumbnail of the triptych he’d sent her. The auburn-haired sorceress stood in all her mystical glory, one hand raising a crystal globe to the heavens, the other pointing to a boiling-yellow crack in the earth.
The title was Aurata’s Promise.
The accompanying text was minimal. “Daniel Manifold is a twenty-eight-year-old from the Midlands who works with a mixture of materials to create ‘Icons for the New Age.’” A few more words described his background, and noted that he’d been at the studio for two years. He was just a name in a long list of artists, designers, filmmakers. The only contact number was for the Jellybean Factory itself.
Stevie put her dirty plate in the sink, picked up the telephone. She dialed, but got an answering machine; of course, they were probably closed by now.
Was it his own decision, to offer so little information? That was hardly great publicity. If he wanted the world to see his work, surely there were better ways. Websites, exhibitions … She took the folded note from a pocket and reread it. Sorry can’t explain. D.
Just not right. Crawling anxiety threw the world off-kilter. The ceilings seemed to press down, and she glimpsed the pale shape again, like a tiny leopard lying, tail swishing, along the arm of the sofa.
It had to be a visual anomaly, seen from the corner of her eye. She’d even joked to Fin about her “ghost cat,” but the apparition always unsettled her. Not knowing what it meant, that was the worst. She half-wished she’d gone to Fin’s after all, rather than stay home alone with her neurological disorder and endless footage of natural disasters afflicting the world.
She took the phone and a second glass of wine into the bedroom, found her old address book in a bedside drawer. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she found the page and stared at Daniel’s home number in apprehension.
Shoving her nerves aside, she dialed. Five rings …
“Yes?” snapped a female voice at the other end.
It was Daniel’s mother. The familiarity of her voice brought back sharp memories. By reflex Stevie became her polite, deferential student-self again.
“Is—I’m really sorry to disturb you, but I don’t suppose Daniel is there, is he, please?”
“What? What?” the voice lashed back. “Who is this?”
Stevie was taken aback, unsure how to respond. “Am I speaking to Professor Manifold?”
“Yes, this is she. And you are—?”
“Stevie Silverwood. I went to college with Daniel. I’m sorry if I’ve called at an awkward time, but is he there?”
There was a protracted silence at the other end, a dry intake of breath. “No, I’m afraid he isn’t. I thought you would have … but I couldn’t expect everyone to be aware … No, he’s not here.”
“Do you remember me?”
Again the clipped tone. “Yes, I remember you, Stephanie.”
“Do you know how I can get in touch with him? He’s sent me a painting without any explanation. I can’t find an email address for him, only the number for his London studio, but there’s no one there.”
“He sent you a painting?” The voice crackled with disbelief. “When? Did you see him?”
“No, a courier delivered it tonight, about five. It was sent last Thursday, I think. There was just a brief note asking me to exhibit the work. It’s odd, because we hadn’t discussed an exhibition. We’ve been in touch maybe once a year since college, if that. His work arrived out of the blue.”
“I see.” There was a pause and a couple of faint gulping noises. Stevie realized in consternation that Daniel’s mother was wrestling with tears. Stevie remembered her as a no-nonsense type; brisk, arid and intimidating. Not the sort to break down easily.
Stevie asked softly, “What’s wrong? Has something happened to him?”
She heard a faint crackle at the other end: a dry tongue trying to moisten drier lips. Eventually the professor spoke, her voice shaky but controlled. “Stephanie, could you possibly come and see me?”
The request was startling. The Frances Manifold she remembered had no time for her. She would never have issued an invitation to visit, not socially, and certainly not as a cry for help.
“Yes, of course, but can you tell me anything?”
“It won’t do over the phone,” came the brittle answer. “We need to talk face-to-face. I’m sitting here with a letter from him in my hand.” Another pause. “My son’s gone missing. I’m … I’m terribly afraid this might be a suicide note.”


 
Copyright © 2013 by Freda Warrington