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The Children of Dr. Wax
On the day Bartholomew wax had selected to kill himself, he called in sick at work to spend the entire day saying good-bye to his children. He would enjoy their company as he ate his last meal.
With the strains of a Vivaldi violin concerto issuing from the speakers of his home's built-in sound system, Wax uncorked his finest bottle of burgundy and prepared himself a plate of brie, foie gras, cracked wheat and rye crackers, and fresh grapes. Once the wine had had a chance to breathe, he placed it on a sterling-silver tray along with the platter of food and a cut-crystal goblet, and carried it from the kitchen to a door in the hallway. Setting the tray on the adjacent mahogany side table, he punched in a seven-digit combination on the door's digital keypad, and the carbon-steel bolts slid back into the jamb with the shuck of shells pumped into a shotgun barrel.
Wax pulled the door open, revealing the foot-thick depth of insulation and metal behind its wooden facade. The walls of the basement had been similarly reinforced. The plaster and drywall hid tungsten-carbide plates and sandwiched layers of concrete, steel, and Sheetrock, making the shelter impervious to fire, drills, and explosives. The vault had cost his employers at the North American Afterlife Communications Corps a couple million dollars to build, but no price was too great to pay for his children's safety.
They glowed in welcome as he descended the cellar steps with the silver tray. Sensors detected his heat signature and switched on the lamps that illuminated his family. Warm yellow light bloomed in patches in the darkness of the black-walled room. Basking in their individual spotlights, the children smiled at him–as precious to him as if he'd given birth to them himself. Wax had positioned the spots to light each canvas to best effect, precisely calibrating the intensity so as not to fade the colors. Although a blistering New Mexico heat broiled the exterior of the house, climate-control systems kept the cellar at a constant seventy degrees, with just enough humidity to keep the paintings from cracking.
An office chair and a small table in the center of the floor provided the chamber's only furnishings. As the vault door automatically sealed him inside, Wax set the tray on the table, unwound the bread-bag twist-tie he'd used to hold back his hair, and shook out the ponytail until it fell down around his shoulders in a gray mane. Popping a grape in his mouth, he seated himself in the chair, which he could swivel to view the artwork hanging on any of the cellar walls. There, with forced air and piped music swathing him in a cool swirl of Vivaldi strings, he spent his last hour with the only real family he had ever known.
As an only child, Bartholomew Wax had virtually grown up among paintings. His divorced mother couldn't afford a babysitter during summer vacation, so every morning she would drop him off at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum while she went to work the day shift at a Dunkin' Donuts shop in downtown Boston. Back in the seventies, when parents were still naive about pedophilia and when day care was considered a luxury, Bartholomew's mother told herself that it would do the boy good to spend his days surrounded by high culture rather than at home watching television.
A withdrawn and frail boy with an autistic's love of routine, little Barty came to cherish his hours in the dim galleries of the Italian-style palazzo. The docents all knew him by name, and he would eat his sack lunch among the white lilies and Greco-Roman statuary in the peaceful courtyard, alone with his thoughts. But what he loved most were the paintings, each of which remained exactly where Mrs. Gardner had decreed it should stay forever. Masterpieces of different sizes and themes jammed some walls so closely that their frames butted against one another, resembling a patchwork of postage stamps on an enormous envelope. Each one silently whispered its story, and when no one else was in the room, he would talk to each in turn, telling them all his secrets and his grand plans for the future. They were his family, after all.
Several members of that family now hung before him in this vault. Munching a cracker spread with brie, Wax basked in the delicate glow of The Concert–one of only thirty-five Vermeers in existence. The artist's muted use of light gave a preternatural tranquillity to the scene; Wax could actually hear the quiet harmony of the clavichord and guitar calming the frenzy of thoughts in his mind.
Next to the Vermeer, Storm on the Sea of Galilee churned in an endless, frozen tempest. Rembrandt's only seascape, it depicted Jesus' disciples clinging to a sailboat that cresting white water threatened to overturn. Golden sunlight touched the wave-tossed boat as a hole of blue sky opened in the coal-smoke clouds, the promise of God's salvation for the faithful. Now more than ever, Bartholomew Wax needed the promise of peace and redemption.
His meal finished, he rose from his chair and strolled past the remainder of his collection, sipping wine from his goblet. Here were the other siblings from the Gardner–a tiny Rembrandt self-portrait, Chez Tortoni by Manet, La Sortie de Pesage by Degas, and more. Alas, those barbarians from the Corps had savagely cut the pictures from their frames, and Wax himself had had to remount the canvases on stretchers and find suitable replacement frames. He also made sure that the NAACC took greater care the next time they procured children for him to adopt.
Wax had always dreamed of having such a family. Reproductions would not do, for even the finest lithographs could not capture the play of light upon the actual brushwork, the depth and textures of the swirls and ridges, the translucence of the glazes. As a boy, he decided that he would have to become very rich so that he, too, could buy a mansion full of artworks like Mrs. Gardner's. His need for money drove him into medicine, for weren't all doctors well-to-do? Yet as he matured and learned more about the rarified world of art auctions, Wax discovered that even works painted by the artists after their deaths–the posthumous "collaborations" created by the government's violet-eyed conduits for the dead–sold for millions of dollars each. And these were not the works he wanted. He considered starting his own biotechnology company to make his fortune in the stock market, but soon realized that even the wealth of Bill Gates could not purchase the works he truly wanted–the priceless treasures that hung in the Gardner and other museums around the world. And that was when he made his bargain with the North American Afterlife Communications Corps, offering his services in exchange for their promise to accumulate the unattainable collection he craved.
Wax lingered before each item in the gallery as he made his way around the vault, attempting to delay the inevitable. After more than fifteen years of effort, his work for the Corps was near an end, which meant that so was he. Ironically, success rather than failure spelled his doom. As soon as the NAACC obtained what it wanted, it would take his family away and eliminate him to protect its secrets.
He paused in front of da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder, raised the goblet to his lips, but found only a dribble of wine left. Once again, he toyed with the idea of sealing himself up with his treasures like a pharaoh in his tomb. But Wax knew better than anyone that you could take nothing into the afterlife. The Corps would no doubt breach the vault sooner or later, and Wax could not bear to think of his children ending up in the hands of a ghoul like Carl Pancrit.
He contemplated Leonardo's rendition of Mary and the Christ child, which had once adorned the home of the Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland. In the painting, the baby gazed at the T-shaped wooden spindle in his hands, a symbol of the cross that awaited him–the end prefigured in the beginning. Mary's right hand hovered uncertainly over the infant, as if she longed to hold her son back from his destiny yet knew she could not. Certain sacrifices had to be made.
Wax approached the final and most recent acquisition in his collection with reluctance. His time was almost up, but that was not why he dawdled. The last picture frightened him. Although he had seen countless copies and parodies of The Scream, none had prepared him for the terror portrayed in the original, brought here all the way from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Beneath a sky as red and fluid as an arterial hemorrhage, a solitary androgynous figure shivered on a bleak seaside boardwalk, its eyes and mouth gaping, its grotesque, distended hands pressed to its temples.
Most people who saw the picture did not realize that it was not the humanoid figure screaming. No, Wax mused, the mutant being was struck dumb with fear as it vainly covered its ears to shut out the eternal, cosmic wail of the universe–"a loud, unending scream piercing nature," as Edvard Munch had put it.
With its indigo eyes and bald, skull-like head, the figure might have been a Violet, its scalp shaved to accommodate the electrodes of a SoulScan device.
The resemblance filled Bartholomew Wax with both revulsion and a renewed sense of urgency. What would it be like to hear that awful shriek of transcendental agony . . . and never be able to shut it out? What if everyone could hear it? Would the human race be able to withstand the constant sound of its own inescapable mortality?
The questions preyed on Dr. Wax, hastening him into action. Tying his hair back into its ponytail with the twist-tie, he did not take the trouble to clean up the remains of his last meal, but left the cheese and pate to rot on the silver tray beside the wine. His remaining time was too valuable, and he would never return to this place, anyway.
Instead, he began taking the paintings off the wall one at a time, meticulously packing them into the special reinforced shipping crates he'd accumulated in the cellar for that purpose. Custom-cut Styrofoam brackets held each frame motionless within its box, ensuring that nothing touched the surface of the canvas, while wood inserts prevented the cardboard sides from being crushed or punctured. The crates all bore shipping labels with the name "Arthur Maven" and a false return address as well as the packages' destinations: the Munch Museum in Norway, Drumlanrig Castle in Scotland, and, of course, the Gardner, among many others.
Wax actually smiled as he imagined the astonishment on the recipients' faces when they opened the boxes and discovered their long-lost pictures inside. The thought made him happy. Unlike human beings, artworks had no afterlife in which to perpetuate their existence. A painting that no one saw ceased to be, and his children deserved to live.
The CD changer on his stereo system switched from Vivaldi to Mahler's Ninth. Opening the vault door, Wax began the laborious task of carrying the crates up the stairs and out to his Ford Explorer. He left the engine running and the air conditioner on full-blast while loading the SUV, which barely contained his collection. At last ready to depart, he grabbed the antique black doctor's bag that usually carried only his lunch.
The afternoon sun cast the vertical ridges of the Organ Mountains in sharp relief, the craggy gray range resembling the pipes of a church organ as its name implied. Dr. Wax lived in a desert housing development a few miles outside Las Cruces, and had to hurry to make it to the shipping office before the cutoff time for overnight delivery.
"You want more than fifty bucks' insurance on any of these?" the thick-fingered clerk asked him when she weighed in the packages.
Wax smiled at the folly of assigning a dollar value to an irreplaceable work of genius. "No, that'll do."
With the members of his adopted family safely on their way back to their original owners, Dr. Wax drove his SUV back onto U.S. 70 headed east. He now had to attend to his other progeny–the misbegotten ones.
Dusk tanned the chaparral along the road a dirty orange, and the scattered houses at the city's edge grew more infrequent. Wax wound his way through the deepening shadows of a cleft in the mountains until he passed the turnoff for Route 213 South, which brown-and-white signs indicated would lead to White Sands National Monument. He turned instead on the restricted road that served as entrance to the missile range, pausing at the guardhouse to display his I.D. badge to the soldier on duty. The G.I., a crew-cut beanpole of a boy whose face still broke out in zits, waved him on with barely a glance. He knew mousy Dr. Wax. Everyone here did.
A herd of oryx grazed along the road toward the military base, adding a surreal touch to an already alien landscape. Distinguished by the black-and-white coloration on their heads and their long, straight horns, these African antelope had been imported here as part of a program to introduce exotic game into the region, and they had thrived in the New Mexican desert. The animals scattered as Wax veered down an unmarked offshoot of the main road.
Before long, the desert gave way to an even more desolate landscape: stark dunes of granular gypsum, as white and coarse as ground bones. In places, the windswept mounds of sand had crept over the fringe of the pavement, attempting to reclaim the path and bury it. The SUV's tires bounced over and crunched through the occasional hillocks, which the Army would plow aside like drifting snow. At last, Wax arrived at a large, windowless gray building that resembled military barracks. No sign identified the structure; only those who already knew its purpose were allowed inside.
Wax parked in the adjacent asphalt lot amongst a few scattered civilian and military vehicles and carried his black bag up to the structure's only door, which required him to slide his I.D. into a slot and press his thumb on a touch pad for authorization.
"Dr. Wax!" The corporal on duty at the front desk smiled as the scientist entered the foyer. "We weren't expecting you today. How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thanks." He smiled back, embarrassed that, although he saw her practically every day, he'd never bothered to remember the corporal's name. "Just came by to check on the subjects."
"Sure thing. You want me to call an orderly?" She nodded toward the building's auxiliary wing, where the staff lounge, offices, and laboratory were located.
"No, that won't be necessary," he replied, although he could have used the help. He'd never had to deal with the patients alone before.
"Whatever you say." The corporal tapped in a code on her computer keyboard, and the door behind her buzzed. Wax opened it and passed through into a corridor lined with identical gray doors, each with a round glass portal at eye level.
The doctor donned the white lab coat that hung on a rack to his left, but waited until the security door swung shut behind him and the buzzing ceased before opening his black bag. Instead of his usual bagel, lox, and cream cheese, it held a pneumatic vaccine gun and dozens of glass vials filled with clear liquid.
Wax drew a deep breath and set the bag on the floor. Do no harm, he thought. But it was far too late for Hippocrates now.