The Redemption Fresco by S. L. Stockford by S. L. Stockford - Read Online

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Summary

A man will do anything if he is desperate enough. Following his disastrous attribution of a forgery to Rubens, famous art expert Matthew Pierce's only chance of redemption is to help the dangerous Lord Marr purchase a reputedly cursed fresco for his sickening collection of the macabre. As Matthew and his wife Victoria are dragged into an underground world of gruesome murders and the profane, their only hope of salvation lies in uncovering the truth of the cursed fresco. Is it a genuine work by the master Giotto? Is it truly cursed? Is there a link with secret C.I.A experiments on people's minds? And how could Dante's Inferno link Giotto and Pope Boniface in the creation of a cursed work of art? Matthew's rationalist mind is tested to the point of insanity as he wrestles with these questions.
Published: Accent Press on
ISBN: 9781682990254
List price: $2.99
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The Redemption Fresco - S. L. Stockford

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Page 1 of 1

Chapter One

‘It’s a guillotine,’ I say, trying to sound fascinated.

‘Really?’ Tony pulls that face where he bites his lips and flashes his eyes. His alcohol-inflated face bloats into a rubbery smirk. ‘You are not alone in your ignorance.’

‘Ah! So it’s not a guillotine.’

He waits for a degree of humility from me. He’ll have to wait a long time. People with money are treated far too kindly by those of us who need it.

Vicky eyes the cobblestone floor, her knee pushing out through her long red evening gown. She was never one for conflict – probably why I married her. The fact she’s turned into a steel girder throughout this crisis has held me up when I felt like falling.

We stand in Tony’s infamous dungeon. Think of Gothic sewers housing Madame Tussauds waxworks. Endless arches, dark crannies and a whiff of damp decay. It seems to run the length of his castle – that’s VernonCastle if you want to visit it. Of course you won’t be able to, as it’s by invite only. How did Tony word it? Ah yes. ‘No smelly-arsed kids and their tattooed, pig-ignorant shits of parents to darken my soul.’

Vicky and I are invited; in Tony’s eyes we should be grovelling at his generosity.

Tony has waited long enough for me to grow humble. The device, which apparently isn’t a guillotine, looks like a mechanism a lazy carpenter might cobble together on a Friday afternoon. It stands about 4 metres high, with twin parallel wooden struts acting as vertical train tracks running up to the oversized razor blade. The blade is weighted by a lump of discoloured stone, obviously to aid its impact on the victim’s neck. Very thoughtful. It is held in place at the top of the apparatus by an inadequate lump of wood the size of a cucumber, shoved into a hole below the blade. From this flaking wood cucumber a length of coarse rope descends. You tug the rope, the wood is plucked from the hole, the blade slides down the tracks and there is one less human being on the Earth.

Tony pats the musty, damp wood before raising his stubby arm to run his finger along the lethal metal blade. ‘It is not a guillotine. Try harder. Which country is it from?’

Don’t I just love playing games? Here we are, waiting for a deal to put us back on our feet and this aristocratic lout is teasing us. Lord Anthony Marr showing off his private dungeon. I don’t need this.

Worse, he makes like we should be honoured.

I shrug. He glances at me, appraising me with blue eyes dulled by wine and brandy. The diversion persists.

‘France?’ I try at last.

Tony offers me a tolerant smile.

He is not someone I feel like indulging. His vintage burgundy has emboldened me, or was it the Bordeaux from his own vineyards? It’s been a long night.

‘You really must stay in my château sometime,’ he said during the long dinner.

Vicky was overjoyed; she loves France. Daddy has this, that and the other out there. My mum and dad hadn’t tasted a croissant until Tesco opened up within walking distance of their council house.

Tony’s waiter poured endlessly. My ruse was to sip, wet the lips, keep the head clear. Too much at stake here tonight. Even careful Vicky was sloshed by the time the main course was ferried to us on endless trolleys by uniformed staff. ‘Mustn’t call them servants,’ Tony had pointed out with a chuckle. How we laughed.

With his eyes wide open, he abruptly leans forward as if he is going to head-butt me: ‘Scotland!’ He then repeats his announcement as if he, too, is astonished. ‘Scotland!’

I pander to his look of triumph. ‘Really?’

‘Oh yes.’ He runs a palm lovingly down the splintering wood. ‘The Scottish Maiden they called it. Based on the English Halifax Gibbet. Yes, the English were first.’

Oh bliss, it’s a history lesson.

His accent is Queen’s English with a tinge of fashionable media estuary.

‘The Scots were never original thinkers. The first Scot lost his head in 1541. Swoosh! Bang! Gone. All 300 years before the Frogs sharpened their guillotine on the necks of their aristocrats.’

‘Maybe the French knew best how to deal with aristocrats.’ I know my smile is fixed, like a man at a gurning competition.

Tony muses over my witticism and decides he likes it. A bellow of a humourless mirth echoes around us. Sweat pastes my shirt to my back, tickling my skin. The air is muggy down here. Maybe I should warn him how his prized possessions require air-conditioning to keep them from assaults of damp.

‘Of course, Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin changed the angle of decapitation to make it more efficient. But the British were there before any revolutionary buggers. Care to try it?’

He has turned on me. Tony is a big man. Not just fat. There are Terminator muscles bulging from his short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt. He crouches slightly like a judo black belt, head pushed forward on his thick neck. His short arms add to his air of power. It is as if all his strength is concertinaed into two powerful biceps. Less landed gentry and more bricklayer.

Tony has money, title and menace. It is the money I need first, then the prestige. Can do without the fun and games. Need to get back on top, after my fall from grace.

He twists his puffed-up face to one side. ‘Go on. It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.’

His eyes are serious. No laughter. No piss-taking. Do I want to try his guillotine? Tony is a man who would have been quite at home back in the Middle Ages, torturing his recalcitrant peasants. I bet his ancestors were exactly the same – barring the khaki shorts drooping around his fat knees and the flowery Hawaiian shirts he clearly believes are some sort of fashion statement.

‘I bet you can think of someone you’d like to see on it?’ He moves up close, the stench of stale garlic on his breath. ‘A certain Irishman?’

My fists are clenched, I plunge them into my trouser pockets, biting my tongue. Vicky will be holding her breath.

‘Now … what was his name? Mac something?’

Tony’s nose has already been broken once. A good thump will squash it completely. I hear heels on the cobblestones behind me, but our eyes are locked. The heels click closer, slap back echoing around the dingy caverns. They stop beside me. I smell her perfume, a delicate fragrance with an aftertaste of lemon.

Finally, a twitch of the lips from his Lordship – though humourless, it counts as a cold smile.

‘You’d be surprised how many are game to lie on that length of good Scottish oak. Isn’t that right, Marie?’

Marie is his business assistant. Since when do you get assistants like this? Striking, in a gaunt, starving model sort of way. Vivid black hair, cheekbones a little too protruding, making her eyes seem huge. Age? I would put her somewhere between twenty and fifty but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Vicky fell under her spell the moment we were introduced. Marie is shorter than Vicky, but her erect back and confidence even outshine my wife. Victoria – the youngest practising psychiatrist at the celebs’ renowned St Andrew’s Clinic before she gave up the tearful attention-seekers. My wife – the famous party host, the centre of attention at our parties for the witty in crowd of London. I am, of course, thinking of the days when people actually came to our parties. These days they have colds, other engagements or – that famous standby – babysitter problems.

‘Tony and me arrange these shindig thingies.’ Marie ends every sentence with an upward lilt as if it is a question.

Tony chuckles, waddling to greet her with a peck on her cheek. She accepts the peck the way a Rottweiler might tolerate a pat.

Marie addresses Vicky, her new pal. ‘I am sure our soirées would be kinda vulgar for you two.’

‘Not at all. No … really. We love parties. All sorts.’ Vicky is gushing. Gushing with alcohol, need and desperation. She doesn’t want me to ask her mummy and daddy for help. Suits me. I’d beg outside Marks and Spencer on the high street first. Not that begging would dent our current debts. Our wonderful home will be repossessed next Thursday by a bank run by cold machines communicating through call centres in chilly Newcastle. It is frightening, heart-breaking but worse, shameful. Shouldn’t a man provide a home for his wife and their longed-for family?

Marie cocks her head up at him. ‘I think maybe we should tell Matt about our little secret, Tony. See what he makes of it.’

Tony wraps his arm about Marie’s bared shoulders and confides, ‘I haven’t shown them my favourite yet.’

She barely acknowledges his contact. Her dark eyes flinch as he leans drunkenly into her, though she remains soldierly erect, her eyes fixed on me. The mishmash of lights around the cellar conspire to flash in her pupils.

‘You have too many favourites.’ Marie has the tiniest, weeniest hint of impatience. She shares a look with me and I realise I have an ally.

He adopts a playful mood to mask his annoyance. He doesn’t like having his authority questioned.

‘But this is only a guillotine!’

‘It is not a guillotine, it is a Scottish Halifax,’ I point out.

Now, there is a time for my brand of humour and a place, too. This is neither.

Tony darkens. A light switch has been thrown and we’re left with a dangerous baby in the room, complete with the mood swings, pouting and glaring eyes.

He stomached Marie’s comment but I have brilliantly found the line and crossed it. Marie offers a polite, forced chuckle. Rather than mitigating my faux pas, her support adds weight to it.

Tony approaches. He is shorter than me, maybe 5 feet 10, but there is quality of the ox about him. His thinning hair glistens with sweat, his pallor a sickly yellow under the fluorescents. His eyeballs vanish into their sockets as the light passes behind him.

I straighten myself and am about to say, ‘No offence,’ when suddenly he shrinks, falling beneath me. The action is sharp, quick, neat as a dancer. Unexpected in a man of his gait and inebriation.

The air is whooshing past my ears. Where I was once looking at Tony and the stone alcove entrance, I am now looking down on a shocked Vicky and concerned Marie. It is like a cinematic trick. First one picture then the other, a super-fast slide show.

His hands have reached under my armpits and hoisted me off the cobblestones. His jowls shake with the effort of keeping me floating in the air, his teeth gritted, spit trickling at the sides of his mouth.

‘You sure you wouldn’t like to try it?’

I lose it. I smash my fist into his arm and I am dropped. Terra firma.

He laughs a false, nasty laugh, rubbing his deadened arm before flexing it as if it is no big deal. I am standing there in my swish Paul Smith suit, shirt and tie and he in his crumpled beach outfit. In front of my wife he has scared me shitless and I have belted him. My fists are hard clubs at the end of my arms, a steam train of blood pounding through my skull. I need to deliver a solid punch to his stupid, lordly, podgy countenance.

‘Hey, I wouldn’t hurt you. You still haven’t seen my favourite!’

He waddles away, his sandalled feet plodding over the centuries-worn flagstones, his laugh echoing around the cellar. Marie shrugs an embarrassed apology at me then ambles after him. She has clearly been witness to his antics for way too long.

Vicky puts her mouth close to my ear: ‘Keep your mouth shut until we have the deal.’ Her voice is firm, a warning. ‘And fists in pockets. At all times.’

I had been expecting support. Sympathy. But what really upsets me is knowing she is right. Tony has the dosh and the job only I am equipped for, or so he tells me. But logic won’t wash away the thundering in my ears.

I push my hand lightly into the small hollow of Vicky’s back, feeling her hot skin beneath the silk dress. We follow. Marie waits for us beneath a series of cloisters.

‘Tony is proud of his collection.’

‘Shame he doesn’t collect stamps.’

She giggles.

Vicky tugs my arm giving me that look: ‘Watch it!’

I squeeze her closer, letting her know I don’t intend to screw this up. Her brave smile does little to hide her insecurity – rather, it draws emphasis to her anxiety. I want to hug her. Tell her it will be all right. But, in truth, we are dancing through a minefield with this idiot.

Tony is standing at the arched entrance of yet another recess. He turns a switch. When did anyone have light switches that twist on and off? The 1950s? Earlier? Twin wall lights glow unenthusiastically, barely making an impact in the gloom.

‘This is my pièce de résistance.’ He speaks quietly, reverently. The way I probably describe a Turner Italian watercolour to some overpaid city oik with a gap on his wall.

‘They say hanging’s too good for them don’t they. Quite right. I agree.’

Tony has not bothered to give us a glance. We are second place to his prize exhibit. Our confrontation is forgotten; another time, another place.

Vicky gasps. This cell has a much higher vaulted ceiling than the others. Maybe around ten metres high.

‘Execution should never be rushed. It needs to be messed up. Retribution should be shaming and degrading.’ He raises his eyebrows at me. ‘What else is the point? People need their monsters to be brought down a peg or two before they are killed. It is supposed to be a punishment. Even a sopping-wet liberal like yourself can see that, can’t you?’

His eyes challenge me, so I avoid them by checking out his pride and joy. It is a lethal, four-sided wooden pyramid, twice the height of a man. Nails have been driven through the crumbling wood to hold it together, splintering it at various points. Above the point of the triangle hefty chains are draped, woven through a complex series of pulleys.

Tony pays homage. ‘Culla di Giuda for the Italians. Judaswiege for the Huns. The Frogs called it La Veille. The English term is the Judas Cradle. Aren’t we so good at the understated simplicity of description? A good invention always travels quickly. And this is so, so elegant. When the victim dies on this he’ll be wanting to die. He’ll not want to face anyone after this ordeal.’

In the darkness above the pyramid I can see wide braided ropes securing hefty, rusting pulleys to hooks in the ceiling. Lost artefacts from a medieval dockside.

‘The victim is naked. Weights are attached to his legs. Sand was used, sometimes iron. His feet held apart by a stick strapped to his ankles. Then he was lowered onto the peak, naked, arse first. I always feel impressed at the skills of the executioner. He must ensure the point of the pyramid goes up the crack of the victim’s arse. That’s why there are so many pulleys. The executioner can wriggle the person until the point slowly tears him apart. Or else the executioner can bounce him. Either way, no one is dying quickly. And not much dignity, is there?’

He wants me to be impressed. My head is swimming. This gruesome collection should be kept at some amusement arcade in Blackpool to be sniggered at by mindless yobs.

‘Amazing.’

Tony is satisfied. ‘Yes, amazing. How do they think these things up?’

‘How about coffee and brandy in the library, Tony?’ Marie’s accent has a New York inflection that would be endearing were it not for her skeletal face.

Tony is not so easily parted from his revered toy. His voice lowers to a church whisper.

‘And no, Matthew. Before you ask. No one has volunteered to take a ride on this one.’

There is regret in his voice, like a dying man mulling over an unrequited love. He twists off the light, throwing us into clammy gloom. Gradually the lights in the other alcoves glow sufficiently through the murk, enabling me to catch sight of him waddling towards the stone staircase back up to VernonCastle.

The tour is over. Business is about to commence. I feel relief. Vicky grips my hand. A faint whisper: ‘Thank you.’

I nod, but I nod with the neat knowledge that someday I’ll get the smug bastard.

Chapter Two

The Calvados fumes throw the senses before the heat of the brandy burns the tongue and throat. I needed its hit after the grand tour. The aged stone steps were treacherous. Lethal enough going down, but coming back the centuries-smoothed stones had as much grip as ice. At one point even Tony slipped, grabbing the iron handrail so hard the stone around the screws exploded in a shower of dust.

The library is airless, dusty. This is not one of the better-used rooms in the castle. The dust tickles the nostrils, threatening a sneeze that never quite comes. Sitting gracefully in a tall leather chair, Marie swirls her brandy around her glass. She has fallen thoughtfully quiet since reaching the library.

Vicky’s brandy sits untouched on a coffee table. She is not a brandy drinker but has more than made up for it with all the wine she put away earlier. The alcohol and fatigue are wearing her down. She has kicked off her shoes to slump into an oversized Chesterfield with her long, elegant legs beneath her. She’ll be asleep soon. She was pissed by the third course. Had there really been seven courses? Seven!

‘You’ll love this.’

Tony has a laptop in his library. It is connected to a small projector. A screen has been lowered. He chuckles to himself as he plays a movie.

‘I think Matthew wants to know about our little secret, Tony,’ Marie insists, with a friendly smile in my direction.

‘Yeah, yeah. Plenty of time. Watch this.’

The merest flicker of irritation passes over Marie’s immaculately