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The girl in the painting was dying. Unable to fathom why this piece of work was here, included as part of an estate assessment, Jolie gasped, eyes widening, one hand frozen in midair, the other touching her throat, feeling her pulse quicken. She forced herself to swallow, to breathe and not look away.
"No, it can't be..." she heard herself mutter. Was it even possible this painting was a Wetherell? It had been five years ago, in another city a quarter of a world away--supposedly the police had confiscated all his work during their investigation. Upon his incarceration, she'd been assured that his paintings were destroyed. Dozens of them, burned in some great furnace on the grounds of the Paris courthouse. As punishment to the artist, perhaps, but mostly because of their content and the harm it could cause to the families and friends of his victims.
"It can't be what?" Peter Harrison asked from behind. Jolie didn't mean to, but she jumped at the sound of his voice.
"Why is this painting here?" she demanded after gaining her composure.
"I don't know. The Rothchilds were great collectors of art." He leaned closer, examining the picture with a well-trained eye. "This appears to be an original. I've never seen anything like it."
"I hope you never do again," Jolie said, frowning, wondering how this one had escaped obliteration? As far as she knew, it had been Wetherell's final work; after all, she'd come close to being his final victim.
Could that really be her image caught forever in the filmy, shadowed hues of oil on canvas? The painting was unfinished. The model had long red hair, a pale nude leaning against the edge of an old-fashioned, claw-footed bathtub,clutching at a hemp collar of rope around her throat. The floor beneath the tub was painted to resemble soft clay. It crawled up the girl's smooth ivory legs and up the side of the tub ... and there was that look of fevered despair in the glaze of the subject's eyes.
It's swallowing me up, Jolie thought, unable to tear her eyes away.
She bore very little resemblance to the girl in the painting; she'd been careful to change her looks, even going so far as to cut off her long hair. She now wore it in a boyish bob, dyed jet-black. Even though her vision was 20/20, she wore contact lenses tinted brown, and she'd put on twenty pounds.
Still she recognized that expression of fear on the model's face, for it had once belonged to her. Trembling, she drew closer, closer because she had to smell the painting to be absolutely certain.
Tentatively, she sniffed, but all she could detect was dust. She lowered her gaze to the artist's signature and when she saw it, her heart quivered. It was there in crimson scrawl, two words: Byron...?
"...Wetherell," he'd said, looking from Colette to Jolie, smiling warmly at each of them as he shook their hands. "And you are?" He glanced back at Colette.
"Colette Perdue, and this is my friend, Jolie Chaloux. She's along for moral support." Colette's tone was soft but poised.
"Moral support, indeed." The artist chuckled, rubbing both hands together as if to warm them up. They were big with long, thick fingers, the nails clean and impeccably groomed.
"You don't mind that I brought my friend, I hope," Colette said.
"No, no, of course not. I take it then that you've never modeled before, oui?"
Colette's voice never wavered. "I'm no stranger to modeling, Monsieur. I've posed in art classes at the university, and last summer I sat for an artist. You might know her, Bobbi Hargrove?"
His words came forth with a blast of unexpected fury "That Hargrove woman is an imposter! A poseur! She has no talent--no passion or flair for art!" His blazing eyes quickly simmered down, and a polite expression replaced his sneer. "Forgive me, mademoiselles. What I meant to say is the only reason Roberta Hargrove gets the recognition that she does is because of her ex-husband's money. In the circles of professional artists, she's laughed at, I assure you."
"She paid me well," Colette said.
"Did she? Whatever she paid you, I'll gladly double."
"Forty francs an hour is the going rate. Why are you willing to pay so much more?"
As Byron Wetherell studied Colette's face, Jolie noticed the strangeness of his eyes. Even though he was smiling, his focus seemed calculating, almost predatory. Did he want more than to paint Colette's image on canvas?
Why am I thinking this way? Jolie asked herself. Monsieur Wetherell was an artist; she'd seen some of his work in several galleries. He wasn't a Rockwell or Wyeth--his strokes were far too blunt, his colors too heavy, but he wasn't without talent. Certainly, some of his pictures were avant-garde, not as morbid as Dali, but as abstract and disturbing. Dark. Jolie remembered seeing one of a girl with glass shards for hair, but it was not unlike Picasso with his tangent for mosaic women. Artistic statement, nothing more.