George C. Chesbro

Two Songs This Archangel Sings


The man I was on my way to see had the odd but curiously appropriate first name of Veil. For the past six years he'd been one of the hottest painters on the fickle and volatile New York art scene and could presumably afford much better quarters than the loft he rented in a rotting, otherwise empty factory building in one of the roughest sections on the city's Lower East Side, but apparently simply preferred not to.

I'd known Veil Kendry for slightly more than eleven years, since a summer Sunday in 1977 when I'd been the first person to purchase one of his paintings from a sidewalk display at a Greenwich Village art fair; he'd looked exhausted and hungry, and had accepted my invitation to celebrate his first sale and the launching of his career as a professional artist with dinner later in the day. He'd come a long way since then, and I assumed that the painting I'd bought, now hanging on a wall in the living room of my apartment, had become quite valuable; I certainly couldn't afford anything he did now.

In addition to his career as an artist, Veil was also a kind of benign warlord and protector of his neighborhood, a roughly eight-square-block area he had transformed into an island of relative calm and safety within a surrounding polluted sea of street crime and violence. He spent a good deal of time walking night streets, and a few years before, during the course of a particularly hot and ugly summer, a grand total of nineteen unfortunates armed with assorted chains, knives, steel pipes, and guns had attempted to mug the solitary walker. Score: Veil Kendry-armed only with the fastest hands and feet I'd ever seen and awesome talents in the martial arts-nineteen, muggers zip. He'd pretty thoroughly maimed eighteen of the unfortunates, and the nineteenth had died when, running in a blind panic to escape Veil, he had collided with an equally unforgiving lamppost and crushed his skull.

Veil had the habit of unexpectedly emerging from the night when others, as well, were being mugged, or when a drug deal was being made, or when an abandoned building was being set up as a shooting gallery. Score, according to NYPD statistics: Veil Kendry twenty-seven; drug dealers, junkies, and muggers zip. Word gets around. Veil was a hero to his neighbors, not so beloved by the police, including my detective brother, who considered Veil a kind of pesky, unlicensed 'street detective' and vigilante who'd managed to stay just beyond the reach of the law because his victims kept displaying the poor judgment to come at him with weapons, while he had never been known to use anything but his hands and feet. But then, Veil was utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of him; it showed in his style of painting, and in the way he lived his life. He was a man who sang his own songs, and I liked him very much.

In addition to being my friend, Veil was also my informal martial arts instructor-the best I had ever had-and workout partner. I held a black belt in karate-the result of excellent reflexes and coordination, countless hours of practice, and what Garth, with a malicious grin, always insisted was an insufferable tendency to overcompensate in virtually every area of my life. He was probably right. I'd enjoyed a full and most satisfying career as a circus head- liner, and was now a criminology professor and private investigator. I liked to think that I had a few ditties of my own to sing.

Veil Kendry, to my knowledge, held no belts in any of the martial arts disciplines in which he was a consummate master. He never competed, and I had no idea where, or by whom, he had been trained. Indeed, by mutual agreement his life before he came to New York City was closed to me-and, I assumed, to anyone else who had not been a part of it. While Veil was a sensitive and gifted artist with a soft-spoken and gentle manner, he was also the most potentially lethal human being I had ever met, or heard of. The people who steered clear of his neighborhood agreed.

Still, even the toughest kid on a block doesn't leave the door to his building open when he lives in that part of New York, and I was filled with a vague sense of foreboding when I found it that way. Veil Kendry might be fearless, but he was neither stupid nor careless.

Our appointment had been for seven thirty, and I'd been ten minutes early. I'd rung the bell, waited. The intercom beside the bell had remained silent, and there had been no loud electronic buzz signaling that I should push open the door and go up. I'd rung again, keeping my finger on the button for a good ten seconds, then stepped back on the sidewalk and looked up. In the windows of the loft on the fourth floor of the otherwise gutted building the bright mix of fluorescent and mercury vapor lamps Veil used to light his huge loft when he was working burned like a blue-white luminescent banner of defiance in this dark, wounded block of abandoned and boarded-up storefronts and warehouses. Thinking that the bell might not be working, I'd shouted his name a couple of times, but the only response had been a slight, hollow echo of my voice in the long metal and stone canyon that was the street. Finally, in a casual gesture of frustration, I'd stepped forward and slapped the heel of my hand against the steel plate of the door. It had swung open on its well-oiled hinges. Not good.

The door opened into a small vestibule at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Here, too, the lights were on, and the large, rickety freight elevator was on the ground floor, its wooden gate raised. Four floors above, clearly visible through the steel and wood latticework that comprised the elevator shaft, the sliding steel door at the entrance to Veil's loft was wide open, bleeding heat into the winter that filled the rest of the building. The mercury vapor glow from inside the loft mixed with the paler light in the elevator shaft to create a kind of eerie aura similar to the ghostly white on white shadings that had become the signature effects in Veil's latest paintings.

'Veil?! It's Mongo! You up there?!'

There was no answer. I closed the door behind me, stepped into the elevator, and pulled down the gate. I pushed the up button, rode the elevator to the open door of Veil's loft, and stepped in.

'Veil? You here?'

A quick check of his living quarters, behind a partition to the right of the entrance, showed me he wasn't there, and I went back out to the much larger work area. There was no sign of disturbance; the loft looked the way it always did, except for the fact that there was nobody in it.

The entire wall at the far end of the loft consisted of windows, approximately two feet square, rising to merge with a great skylight. Heavy drapes that Veil had installed and that were usually closed at night were open, and the light pushed back the night outside far enough for me to see the pitted bricks of the wall of the abandoned warehouse fifteen yards away, across a weed and refuse-choked alley.

To the left of the panel of windows was an area covered with mats where Veil and I worked out together. In addition, there were two punching and kicking bags suspended from the ceiling, a wooden box filled with martial arts weapons, and a target board used for practicing with throwing knives and the small razor-sharp, star-shaped blades called shuriken.

The rest of the loft was given over to the business of painting, and it looked like a scarred battlefield strewn with the multihued blood of alien creatures on some distant planet. A paint-spackled telephone was mounted on one of the three support columns rising from a turbulent sea of covered or coagulated paint pots, assorted palettes scattered over paint-encrusted tarpaulins, brushes of every size and shape soaking in jars of turpentine, hundreds of mauled tubes of oil paint, dozens of palette knives of various sizes. This tortured mess covered every square inch of space in the loft outside the workout and living quarters, and one wandered through it all carefully stepping-or jumping-from one dry area to what appeared to be another dry area, and hoping one guessed correctly.

What arose from this chaos was neatly arranged on one wall running the length of the loft, a sight that reminded me of nothing so much as tranquil clouds of mist floating out of, and over, the mouth of a live volcano. Like many artists in the eighties, Veil Kendry worked on a large scale; however, only a handful of people appreciated just how large a scale that was. I had never read nor heard of any other painter who worked the way Veil did, and only a privileged few who had been invited up to his loft had ever seen a 'mother work,' the overall conception of one of Veil's ideas, before the individual canvases that comprised it, sometimes as many as fifty, were removed at

Вы читаете Two Songs This Archangel Sings
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату