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David Clay was wondering what it was like to be skinned alive. The most excruciating pain, surely. Unimaginable terror. Strange, then, that the figure he was looking at radiated serenity, as though the people round him had sharpened their blades simply to shave his stubble or lance a boil. Not to remove, inch by agonizing inch, the entire burden of his skin.
The victim was suspended upside-down from a branch by a heavy cord tied round his ankles—neat, hairy ankles topped off with cloven feet. There was another rope around his wrists, which were hanging down below his head. Considering the agony of his position and the torture about to begin, he looked grotesquely relaxed.
'Marsyas is about to be flayed,' Kate said. 'That's flayed as in "skinned alive". It was his punishment for presuming to compete with the gods—a lesson for us all, you might think.'
David nearly hadn't bothered to come but this was turning out more interesting than he'd expected. A casual invitation from an old friend he'd not seen in years wasn't usually enough to persuade him to spend his afternoon in a lecture hall, but at the last moment curiosity triumphed. It was Kate Holland who was speaking, after all—not just any old acquaintance. So he'd hurried through the midsummer rain to join the audience at the National Gallery and found a seat in the packed lecture theatre between a stern-faced woman with white hair and a couple of foreign students who sat with pencils poised over their pads, ready to jot down every word.
Kate had kept her audience spellbound for over forty minutes. She spoke well and clearly and her material was fascinating. David found it hard to believe she could have ever suffered from public-speaking phobia, as she'd claimed when they bumped into each other a few days earlier. 'I don't know why I'm inviting you,' she'd said with a laugh. 'I get nervous enough without old friends peering up at me from the audience.'
No sign of nerves now. She looked good, every inch the confident public speaker. Middle age had been kind to her. Kate had the kind of attractiveness that lasts, good bones, a strong, intelligent face and expressive brown eyes. She'd kept her figure too and knew how to show it to advantage. An ebony jacket in some kind of silky material was stretched to shining tension by her full breasts and her skirt fell in an uneven swoop from her hips. It was an outfit which indicated both authority and style, while her high-heeled sandals, in sizzling blood-red, warned against too easy pigeonholing. Clothes to match her performance: highly professional but not for one moment predictable or dull.
Now David came to think of it, she looked a hell of a lot better than she had done the last time he saw her, which, if you didn't count their chance meeting at the South Bank earlier in the week, was over twenty-five years ago. Back then she'd been drugged against the pain, lying in an iron bed in an Italian hospital ward with a helmet of bandages clamped to her head. Back then Francesca's recent death had cast an impossible shadow between them. 'I want to forget,' she told him, or words to that effect. 'I don't want to see you again, not ever.' Thus breaking his youthful heart, probably. Those first rejections are always the worst, he reflected, before you've learned that even the sharpest pain dulls with time.
Kate was explaining that the painting on the screen was a copy of the famous Titian that hangs in Prague. 'In Titian's far greater original,' she told them, 'the first cut has already been made into Marsyas's flesh and a small dog laps the blood as it falls. Here, however, all is anticipation.' She paused and hooked a strand of dark hair over her ear before adding quietly, 'All the horror lies ahead.'
A memory stirred at the back of David's mind. All the horror lies ahead. Where had he heard those words before? A line of poetry, perhaps, or a phrase from a film? No, it was more personal than that. Whatever its origins, the sentence came freighted with an aura of menace. He was in a strange house, the kind of house you visit in dreams, a remote place detached from the everyday world. It was a house of breathtaking beauty, but sinister in some kind of way he couldn't explain, which made him keep glancing over his shoulder. And now he realized it was a woman's voice echoing in his mind—all the horror lies ahead—a voice associated with cool morning light, which was somehow eerie, as though filtered through mist. There was the scent of wood-smoke in empty rooms. For a moment, the intensity of the memory made him almost forget where he was.
Frowning, he focused on Kate again. She had paused, glanced down at him and caught his eye. He got the feeling something was bothering her too. Was it possible the words had triggered a similar memory for her?
She cleared her throat and looked back at her notes. 'So,' she resumed briskly, 'since my subject is Conservator as Detective, where is the mystery in this painting? We've looked at how X-ray helps us to unravel the artist's journey, and now this painting of the unfortunate Marsyas illustrates another kind of puzzle, that of the Amateur Vandal. Let me show you what I mean.'
It was her voice that was doing it to him. Voices are always so evocative; no wonder it was the singing of the sirens rather than their beauty that drove mariners to destruction. Kate's was cool and musical, a flute in the orchestra of voices, with just a lingering trace of the old-fashioned army vowels of her childhood. The sound, forgotten for so many years, was coaxing him away from the present. Fragments of his long-buried youth were breaking free and drifting back into his memory, disjointed fragments he'd never expected to encounter again: those strange weeks in his nineteenth year, a time out of time, when he'd been hardly more than a cauldron of teenage hormones cobbled together in a young man's body, and he and Kate had worked together in the mud and dust of Florence after the catastrophic flood of 1966—how could he have forgotten those most intense weeks of his life?
He was all attention now as she showed her audience details from the Marsyas painting: a snake emerging from its discarded skin, a luminous husk portrayed by a few deft brushstrokes of pearly paint. 'We might feel the symbolism is somewhat heavy-handed,' she said, with a smile that made her audience complicit in the judgement. 'The snake sheds its skin in order to renew itself, whereas for Marsyas its loss means torment and death. So far so good—unless, of course, you're Marsyas. But what are we to make of these two characters?'
She clicked forward to the next image and a small rat-like creature with an insect between its jaws filled the screen. 'Here we have what looks like a rat eating a tasty bee.' Her tone was relaxed, almost conversational, indicating that she was launching into a light-hearted appendix to the main body of her argument. 'An art historian who tried to figure out the symbolism here would be wasting their time: this detail has been added within the last twelve months.'
Kate paused to look intently at the screen. When she next spoke David had the impression she'd departed from her prepared notes and was speaking the thoughts just as they came to her. 'We have no idea why this curious detail was added or by whom, since the painting was sent to my studio by an owner who insists on remaining anonymous. Why? A rat eats a bee ... maybe its purpose is to depict a small act of violence in contrast to the monstrous crime being inflicted on poor Marsyas, but then again ...'
She hesitated for a second time. David wondered why she was spending so long on this picture, since the example it contained was hardly central to her argument. She frowned at the image on the screen, almost as though seeing it for the first time. The two students next to him ceased their diligent scribbling and looked up, waiting for her to continue.
'So that's the secret, I knew I'd seen it before.' And now Kate let the words fall so quietly that in spite of the microphone clipped to her lapel David had to strain his ears to catch what she was saying. 'But why send it to me? And who—?'
This time, when she stopped talking, it was obvious the break was unscripted, no longer a pause for dramatic effect but a silence that was spinning out into unbearable tension.
Get on with it, Kate, just get on with the bloody lecture, David was willing her to continue. Behind him, the audience had begun to fidget and murmur their complaint. Prestigious lecturers weren't supposed to lose the plot. David's armpits grew damp with anxiety. Was this what she'd meant when she talked about public-speaking phobia? Don't screw up now, Kate, for God's sake. You had them eating out of your hand a minute ago. Whatever's distracting you, forget about it till this is over. Just get on with it and finish the damn lecture.
But Kate seemed to have forgotten where she was. She stared at the screen. Oblivious to the ripples of unease in her audience, she raised her left hand to her mouth and bit the edge of her thumbnail thoughtfully. David felt suddenly winded by the gesture. The first time he'd seen her, or the first time he'd noticed her, or maybe it was the first time he'd singled her out as the girl he wanted, the one he was going to fall in love with, she'd been in some kind of bar or café—it must have been Florence, but the background was a blur, and so were the faces round her. A young Kate, fresh out of school, with her dark hair slanting over her shoulders and her eyes glowing with that particular Kate-enthusiasm that people were drawn to. She'd been laughing at a joke, no doubt obscene—most of the group's jokes were obscene back then—and then something had been said, maybe the joke was deflected on to her. The laughter had died in her eyes, she'd withdrawn, sat back from the group and raised her hand to her mouth and thoughtfully she'd bitten the edge of her thumbnail. David had wanted to take her hand in his and kiss her right there, in front of everyone. And now ...
Now, he just wanted her to speak again. Say something, anything that would show she was back in control of her lecture. He was sitting forward in his seat: just finish, Kate. You're nearly there. Just finish the goddamn lecture.
Kate shuddered, like someone coming out of a trance. Blinking, she turned back to her audience: she looked almost startled to see there were still other people in the room.
'Conservation as detective work. Yes.' Frowning, she checked her notes. 'I guess I surprised myself with that one,' she said ruefully. 'It's more of a puzzle than I'd bargained for.' Then she looked up at her audience, and smiled, just a whisker of a smile, but enough for David to sink back in his seat with a grin of relief. It was okay, she was back on track. Their star speaker hadn't come adrift after all. Kate had regained her firm, impersonal lecturer's manner and everyone relaxed. 'My next example, you'll be pleased to know, is more straightforward.'
David almost cheered. He was amazed by the strength of his reaction. It had been a long time since he'd wanted anything as much as he'd wanted Kate's lecture to finish as successfully as it had begun. Amazingly, he'd actually forgotten about himself for nearly an hour. Kate's magic was as potent as it had ever been.
She clicked the remote and the troublesome little rat, teeth bared cruelly as it gripped the insect in its mouth, vanished from the screen. David almost believed that, before its image was wiped out, the rat closed a single eye in a conspiratorial wink, just for him.CHAPTER 2
Trafalgar square glittered with sunshine after rain; even the pigeons were transformed, their wings gold-tipped against a pewter sky as the storm clouds rolled back. Tourists were shucking off their plastic macs and drifting about with infuriating slowness, getting in the way. Kate bristled with impatience. Always after a lecture there was an excess of energy, but today that energy felt uncomfortably close to panic: an urge to run, to escape back home—the only problem was, she didn't know what the hell she'd be running from.
She was aware of David, an oh-so solid presence at her side. Having surprised her by turning up at the lecture, he seemed to have assumed some kind of proprietorial rights over the rest of her day.
He told her how interesting the lecture had been, repeated one or two flattering comments he'd heard from the audience as they'd shuffled out, then asked casually, 'So how come you almost lost it back there?'
'Was it that obvious?'
'Only to me.'
Kate knew he was lying to spare her feelings. She said, 'I don't know. It was weird ... I felt ... as if ... it was like I was ...' She gave up. There was no way to explain her shock when that detail from the Marsyas picture had suddenly loomed up on the screen, a monster rat chomping on an enormous bee. It wasn't as though it was the first time she'd seen it, but still ... one moment she'd been progressing smoothly with the lecture, aware that she was drawing to the end of her performance, aware that it had gone well, and the next moment she'd felt herself plunging through the surface of the present into an inky black crevasse. Her audience receded to an irrelevance and all that mattered was that crudely sketched image, that evil little rodent with the helpless insect gripped in its jaws.
An act of vandalism, she'd called the alteration of the painting during her lecture, a random act of vandalism, but it wasn't random at all. Random, she could have coped with.
'You look like you could use a drink.'
For the second time that afternoon, Kate clawed her way back to reality to find David Clay close at hand, intrigued and concerned.
'Yes,' she said, and then, 'No. Look, David, I have to go back to the studio. There's something I want to check.'
'Is it to do with that picture?'
'Mind if I come too? I've never seen a conservation workshop before.'
'Okay.' She didn't particularly want him along, but it seemed simpler not to argue. He gave the impression of a man who was not easily deterred.
It was odd sitting next to him in the cab that took them to the street off Primrose Hill where she had her studio and home. If someone had asked her a month before what David Clay had looked like, she'd have been hard put to describe him, and yet she'd known who it was the moment she set eyes on him on the concourse at the South Bank. In spite of the grey hair and heavy jaw, he was unmistakably the person she'd once walked with beside the Arno during those strange weeks when the air was clogged with dust and the streets were slippery with muck. They'd cleaned mud from cellars and thrown talcum powder at the walls of the Baptistery and, so far as she could remember, almost but not quite fallen in love. He had retained the broad shoulders and easy movement of the sportsman; his face, no longer handsome, was stamped with a shrewd intelligence, and his eyebrows, always his strongest feature, had remained dark while his hair grew pepper and salt. And at his core she sensed the stillness, the certainty, that had always been so much a part of him, and which she'd forgotten entirely. It should have made him a reassuring person to have around, especially now, when she felt haunted by the enigma of that weirdly altered picture. The only trouble was, she couldn't help wondering if David might himself be contributing to the problem. If she hadn't caught sight of him sitting in the third row of the lecture theatre, a man who'd been so much a part of those unforgettable weeks, would the Marsyas detail have had the power to sabotage her well-planned lecture?
She was still considering this while she unlocked the door to her studio, a large, airy, north-facing space which took up the entire first floor of the house and a generous extension into the garden as well. He seemed fascinated by the tools of her trade. While she tidied away the slides and her notes, he prowled round, examining everything, from the high-tech magnifier to the maulstick, a small piece of cloth wrapped tightly round the end of a piece of wood that artists have used to rest their painting hand on for centuries.
'Isn't there a Rembrandt self-portrait that shows him holding one of these?' he asked. 'At least you're in good company, Kate.' When she didn't answer, he sniffed the air, then said, 'I know what's strange. I expected this place to smell of turps and oils, but it doesn't. Why's that?'
Excerpted from Angels of the Flood by Joanna Hines. Copyright © 2004 Joanna Hines. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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