9

Awesome!” Ben Sidlo slapped the arms of his chair. “I can’t wait to tell everyone. Everyone on the team,” he backtracked, noticing Anni’s reaction.

His office in the fine arts building of Stony Cliff College had the usual professorial trappings: a paper-strewn desk, dented filing cabinet, and a wall of built-in shelves filled with books jammed into every available space. The wall behind him was covered with postcards, yellowed newspaper clippings, a poster for the upcoming spring student art show, and a glossy color printout of one of Feliks Król’s paintings showing three girls running across a field of flowers under threatening clouds and jagged bursts of lightning. There was also a copy of the photo she’d seen before, Król smoking a pipe, staring fixedly to one side with eyes that now seemed to have something mad and dangerous in them.

“You understand my conditions, though, right?” she asked him.

“Sure. It’s not like I don’t want to help the police solve this case.”

“By moving evidence?”

He winced. “That was stupid. I get that, now.”

“It was wrong. Also, I don’t want to screw things up for the investigation, and that means not letting people know I’m involved.”

He started to nod, then frowned in thought. “Oh, wait. Our funders will need to know who we’re hiring. I’ll need a C.V. for the record.”

“My resume? That’s fine. I just don’t want my name broadcast.”

“I’m not going to issue a press release about it, if that’s what you mean.”

“I don’t want it on Twitter, I don’t want it on Facebook, I don’t want it on any website. I don’t want you bringing it up when you talk to a reporter.” He nodded, but she sensed he was not taking her seriously, like a kid crossing his fingers behind his back. “I know you think this would make a juicy story, but if my involvement leaks to the press, I’m outta here.”

“Okay, okay. Got it.” He paused, frowning to himself. “Look, can I ask you something? Is this always such a big deal with you, this privacy thing? Because it’s kind of too late. I Googled you. You’re all over the place.”

“Which is exactly why I don’t want people talking about the fact that the person who originally worked on Danny’s disappearance is now working on this project. The press would make a big thing out of it, and that family’s been through enough.”

He nodded. “It wouldn’t be in my interest, either. Anything that smacks of tabloid journalism would distract everyone from why Feliks Król’s work is so important.”

She rolled her eyes.

“For real. Look, it’s hard enough to get people to take outsider art seriously. They think of whirligigs and folksy paintings of cows or weird religious garden sculptures made by eccentrics. Antiques Freakshow. Thing is, Król was an amazing artist. His use of color, his natural feel for composition, the way his mix of Christian iconography, photojournalism and advertising comes together . . .”

He pulled some prints from a stack of papers and spread them across his desk. “Look at this. Look at how he sets up this incredible tension, here, with this open space in the center and the crowded, claustrophobic detail there in the background, like it’s a wave of feverish complexity about to break over this still, peaceful scene.” He pulled another print over and his hands flashed across the table as he sketched out what he saw. He seemed electrified, animated by passion. She could see for the first time why he was a popular teacher.

“And this one, this pastoral scene that seems so peaceful, so innocent, with all the perspective flattened out and everything outlined so definitely, with these flowers and insects out of scale with the children? See that? It’s like a children’s book. And then off in the distance, in that corner, the way he builds up layers of darker colors and everything gets indistinct. He’s able to suggest something that you can’t put your finger on, just these shapes, these vague and threatening . . .” He waved his hands, finally out of words. “It’s just so great! He was so good at taking cheap paint and dime store notebooks and . . . doing this. This magical stuff.”

He stared at the prints, lost in thought for a moment, before coming back to himself. He gathered them up and blinked at her. “Does that make sense?”

“Kind of. I mean, I can see why you find it interesting.”

“But you still think it’s disturbing.” She shrugged. “Hah! That’s because it is. Great art is disturbing. That’s what it’s for, to shake us out of our comfortable, narrow little worlds.”

“Yeah, I know, épater la bourgeoisie and all that.” His eyebrows arched in surprise. “But it’s not helpful right now. Since you talked to that radio reporter, since they put some of this stuff online, the police have been getting calls, completely useless tips. People who were used to seeing Król around the neighborhood are wondering if they ignored danger signals.”

“I’m sure. It’s troubling to find out a man you always thought was a simpleton was capable of art like this. And its frank sexuality is disquieting. Maybe he really . . . well, who knows? This is why we need you.”

“To see if I can uncover some dirt? Tie him to a crime that will get attention?”

“No.” He put his face in his hands for a moment. “That’s not it. We need your help so we can see who he really was, get past the crazy old guy with strange eyes. We need background, context. What matters is his art, not his biography, but to understand his art, we need to know who he was.” He looked at her until she nodded. “So, are we good?”

“So long as you’re willing to cooperate fully with the investigation and withhold information from the public if that’s what the police want.”

“Fantastic. I’m really looking forward to working with you on this. How do we proceed?”

“I brought another contract and a tax form. I plugged in the figures you mentioned. Part time, no benefits, the stipend you mentioned. I put two years, the duration of your grant, but there’s a clause that either of us can back out with a month’s notice. If we need to write this up differently—”

“No, this is great.” He took the papers she had brought with her and scrabbled for a pen.

She countersigned and tucked her copy into her bag. “Okay, next steps. Not sure what I can get out of public records. Sounds as if he might have left less of a paper trail than most people, but I’ll see what I can find. I’ll interview people who might have known him. And I need to look through his belongings. I realize you have some concerns about that.”

“The police are pretty impatient.” He pulled a keyboard over and tapped a few keys. “They would prefer to go through it like bulldozers, but that would be a disaster. The room itself is one of Król’s creations. His selection of materials, the way he assembled things, the order he chose to impose on it, it has a sculptural quality. We’re creating a 3-D knowledge base that can be explored all kinds of ways if we do it right. I have a couple of grad students working on it, documenting everything.”

He turned the monitor so that she could see. “It’s like an archaeological dig, layers and layers of information to catalog. As we dig deeper into these piles, we’re going back in time, so the placement of each object can tell us something about historical context. We’ve found paintings and drawings among the accumulated stuff, drafts of later work, cartoon sketches of larger works, all in the context of whatever was inspiring him at the moment of creation.”

“How far have you gotten?”

“This area here.” He dragged his mouse over a section of the model. “We’re nearly done with this part.”

“But . . . that’s nothing.”

“We’ve also made a preliminary examination of this area.” He moved his mouse to square off a section. “The police insisted. That’s where the, uh, where the clothing was originally found. They searched through it, but under my supervision. It still needs to be accessioned and documented properly.”

“How long is this process of yours going to take?”

“Don’t worry about that. If we don’t finish in two years, we can get another grant. Let me show you what the metadata looks like.” He brought up a spreadsheet that listed items. Chicago Tribune, Metro Section dated June 15, 2004. Flyer advertising body shop on Chicago Ave, undated. X Men Comic Book, Alpha Flight Vol. 3, issue 2, 2004. “That’s one stack. Over three hundred entries.”

Years, she thought. It could be years before they’d know for sure if there was anything in that room that would help them find out what happened to Danny.

“I just had a paper accepted for a conference on how we’re using this software,” he went on. “Being able to mine the data will give us so many novel approaches to studying his work and its influences. Not that the college is providing funding. They don’t realize what a coup this is.”

He leaned back in his chair, running his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “And our so-called communications office? Basically it’s one guy, and he’s clueless. He can’t keep up with requests from the media, much less pitch stories to the right places – and he can’t even write! I spent hours with him, explaining it all, and the press release he wrote was awful. I found an intern who’s going to handle social media, but we need someone with connections to major outlets.”

“You have a budget for that?”

“Why? Are you interested?”

“I’m not a writer, but I know someone who is. Not sure if he’s free right now.”

“We can probably work something out. Who is it?”

“A journalist who’s been nominated for a Pulitzer more than once. PR isn’t his thing, but if you give him access to the materials and let him in on your thoughts about the guy, he could pitch an article for a national outlet.”

“Fabulous.”

“On the condition I’m not named in any stories.”

“Sure.”

“Because that’s our deal, right? I’m serious about this. He can’t bring me into it.”

“Totally.”

She made a mental note to get the same agreement from Az Abkerian before she hooked him up with Sidlo. She felt bad for the old reporter, but wasn’t going to let him in on the opportunity without first extracting promises. “Those notebooks that were lying on the table,” she said. “The ones with the newspaper clippings. Is there any chance I could see them?”

“Ah, the notebooks. We’ve uncovered twenty of them so far and have been working madly to digitize them. It’s tricky work. We couldn’t afford a high-end commercial scanner, but I know some techies and one of them rigged up an archival scanner with decent resolution. We’re using this software—”

“How many have you scanned?” she interrupted.

“Six. No, seven. We just finished the image files on eighth one. It has been an extraordinary effort, getting so many completed this quickly. The quality has to be top notch. Of course, the OCR is a whole ‘nother problem. We won’t get to that until—”

“Can I get copies of what you’ve got so far?”

He took a breath, opened his mouth to speak, then checked himself. “Jesus, I almost forgot. I have something for you to sign.” He hunted for a file on his computer, then printed out four sheets of paper. He gathered them up, tapped them straight and handed them to her.

“What’s this?”

“A nondisclosure agreement. Everyone working on this project signs it.”

She scanned the first page. “I can’t sign this.”

His face fell. “But—”

“I already explained, I need to be able to share information with the police.”

“Oh, that’s okay. It’s just . . . there’s so much interest in Król already, I need to make sure we control the messaging.”

“If I can amend this thing, I’ll sign.”

“Sure. Whatever.”

She worked through the wordy legal document, boilerplate language that she suspected he’d found online, and added several variations of “except when cooperating with law enforcement in a criminal investigation” where it needed to be inserted, crossing through language she didn’t like. As she worked, someone coughed behind her. “Uh, Professor? I got an appointment?”

Sidlo looked at the gangly boy with a backpack over one shoulder and smacked his forehead. “Jason, sorry! Look, can you come back in ten minutes?”

“I have class.”

“Fine. Send me an email, we’ll reschedule.”

“But I need your recommendation for study abroad, and it’s due today, so—”

“Ah, shit.” Sidlo checked his phone. “Give us five minutes?” After the kid reluctantly slouched away, he rubbed his face with both hands. “Sorry. So typical of this place. I’m trying to get this project off the ground while dealing with thirty advisees and teaching a full load. I tried to get a couple of course releases, even just one, but no, that’s out of the question. You show me anyone else in this department, on this campus, whose working on something as significant as—”

She cut him off, handing him the amended agreement. “Look, you’re busy, so if I could just get access to those scanned notebooks, I’ll get out of your hair.”

“Right. I can burn you a copy if you don’t mind waiting. It’ll take a while, though. They’re huge files.”

“Are you storing all this stuff on a shared server? If you can set me up with a password, you won’t have to make copies. I can even save my notes there.”

“Fabulous idea. I’ll talk to my IT guy.” He got a puzzled look on his face. “You know, I’m kind of surprised how quickly you pick up on this stuff.”

“What stuff?”

He waved vaguely. “Épater la bourgeoisie? Those police officers, I’m sure they’re good at their jobs, but they can’t understand Król’s art. I didn’t expect . . . I thought you’d be more . . .” He paused, searching for the right word. Before he found it she took her bag and left.

 

She detoured across campus to the social sciences center, a 1950s modernist box where her friend Nancy Tilquist had an office. As a teen, Anni was a babysitter for Nancy’s children and introduced her to the man she later married. Jim Tilquist, the cop who had mentored Anni into a law enforcement career. Now Nancy was a middle-aged widow raising three girls on her own, the closest thing Anni and her brother had to an extended family.

Nancy was striding down the hall, carrying an armful of books and papers. “What brings you to campus?”

“A job. On your way to class?” Anni grabbed three books that were threatening to slide off the pile and walked with her.

“I’m handing back essays, so there will much wailing and gnashing of teeth. What’s the job?”

“Ben Sidlo wants me to do some digging on that outsider artist he’s discovered.”

“The fellow he can’t stop talking about.” Nancy frowned in thought. “There was something on the radio the other day, about clothing found in his room. I wondered if it was that case you—”

“Yeah. Which makes it complicated.”

“Extraordinary coincidence.”

“It wasn’t a coincidence. Sidlo knew I had been involved in that case, then moved things around so that when he called me in, I’d see the clothes and make the connection between Danny Truscott and his artist.”

Nancy stopped short and gaped. “He didn’t.”

“He did. I was furious. I wasn’t going to take this job, but the police seem to think it won’t hurt, and I could use the money. How well do you know Sidlo?”

“Not well. Sophie’s taken a couple of classes with him, though. Come to dinner so she can give you the inside scoop. And bring that man of yours. How about this Saturday?”

“Sounds good, if we can get our schedules synced. He’s pretty tied up these days.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

They’d reached the classroom. Nancy thumped her papers down. “Right then. See you Saturday. And tell Dugan I’ll be very disappointed if he doesn’t show.”

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In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.