Painting Pablo Picasso (rpg)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
An imitation of a painting, a false criminal, a counterfeit crime- endless falsities, lies upon lies...

Submitted: November 29, 2011

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Submitted: November 29, 2011

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On June 30th, 1972, Pablo Picasso completed what was to be his last celebrated self-portrait, the Self-Portrait Facing Death. He was to die within the year.

The piece took several months to complete, and was to change in its development, as Picasso himself did change in confrontation with his own death.  As time advanced, Picasso made harsher those dark lines around the eyes. He worked to strip the face of all illusion, forcing the large eyes to look at death, to stare into the face of death, without consolation of religion, family or friend. It is the face of a man undressed, naked, conscious and alone, facing the end with a sheer animal terror. But it is also a mask, a simulation of death, an attempt to exorcise the demon.

The portrait achieved great fame and notoriety, as did many of Picasso’s works. That frightening blue face looked out from the front pages of the Paris Soir and provoked fiery debate among circles of the Parisian intelligentsia. It was to be the master’s last great success. Regrettably, artistic genius is seldom bred in the shrewdest of businessmen, and Picasso was no exception. Upon his death this final portrait, along with many of his other works, was inherited by the French government, in order to settle taxes on his estate. It remained on display in the Paris Museum until, in the winter of 1979, it was stolen away in the early hours of the morning.

 

*

 

“Not the tidiest of thieves now, was he?”

Detective Lanoux surveyed the scene around him. It appeared that the thief had entered through a small window on the left side of the gallery. Shattered glass lay across the floor beneath the empty frame. The alarms should have been ringing before the thief even entered the gallery. It was as yet unclear whether they had malfunctioned or been deliberately disabled by some method. Either way, none had sounded.

From the window, the thief had moved directly towards his target. A trail of damp footsteps ended at an empty frame. Only there, he – Lanoux already assumed the thief to be male – had been more careful. The painting had been skilfully removed from its frame, rather than sliced out. This would have taken time, and some nerve. It was the work of a man with experience, and not in haste. None of the three securituy guards on duty had seen or heard a thing. This implied knowledge of the grounds, and familiarity with the museum’s routines.

“Why this painting?” Lanoux addressed the curator, M. Flambeau.

Self-Portrait Facing Death is considered the last of Picasso’s celebrated self-portraits. It shows him as he saw himself, when he knew he was to die. It gives us the face of the master had we had never seen him, as only he himself could show us. As such, it is invaluable.”

“Why steal what is has no value?”

“I cannot think to whom one might sell such a painting. It is widely known, even among laymen, and instantly recognizable. Besides, how could a buyer determine whether or not the work was an original? One could hardly ask an expert to authenticate a stolen painting.”

“Sir? Think we got something over here.”

The policeman held up a small polythene bag, in which was now enclosed the remains of a small cigar butt.

“How disappointing. Art thieves are usually so clever.”

The curator took the bag from the policeman, fixing his eyes upon it.

“The museum operates a no-smoking policy, which is most strictly enforced. That cigar undoubtedly belonged to the thief!”

“You would make a fine detective, M. Flambeau.”

“I would leave that work to you. I only wish to see the painting returned to its proper place.”

“As I’m certain it will be, curator. I suspect we will not have long to wait.”

 

*

 

For a full week after the theft, the terrible portrait once more adorned the front pages of the Paris Soir and other notable publications, along with the predictably brass headlines. The theft was a clumsy one, and the forensic team were quickly able to obtain a number of finely defined fingerprints, along with the cigar butt already discovered. Nothing proved to match anything on record, but in the end it mattered little. Lanoux would have to wait, as so often in these cases, for the thief to reveal himself.

A surprising number of art thieves steal art in the hope that some criminal collector, the baron in his castle perhaps, might purchase the stolen work for some inestimable fee. However, a few notable exceptions aside, the commissioned theft of art remains a product of the realm of fiction. Art theft is more often the work of organised crime syndicates, stolen in order to be ransomed back to the victim or insurance company, or to serve as a form of currency in illicit, expensive transactions.  

Yet, as the days passed by, there remained no offer of ransom, no contact with the thief and no further clues to his whereabouts. Detective Lanoux began to consider the possibility that the thief, despite the amateur nature of the crime, had proved successful in locating a buyer. Perhaps the theft had truly been one of those rare commissioned crimes, orchestrated by the man in the high castle. The painting might already be secreted away behind a curtained screen, or else still in possession of the thief, awaiting contact from the collector.

It was a week after the theft that the painting was discovered, not due to the investigative work, but an anonymous tip. A phone call led police to the home of a certain George Lambert, a paper factory worker whom had recently been laid off due to downsizing at the company. The man had no previous conviction and no history of any interest in art. He was caught red-handed, literally with the painting in his hands. Later, on trial, he was to plead guilty to all charges, accepting the sentence handed down to him with a kind of calm resignation, as though the trial was no quite real to him. Picasso’s portrait was returned to the gallery and the story, now finished, was soon forgotten.

 

*

 

“Christ, Lanoux. It’s been six years already. You should be enjoying your retirement.”

“Like you, you mean?”

Pierre Lanoux studied his companion. He was thick-set, with a face hardened by years of dealing with society’s dregs. André had been a great detective in his time, one of the last of the old school. He was a heavy drinker, whom had never shrunk from playing outside the rules, when he deemed it necessary, as he often did. Eventually, it had cost him his job.

“Yeah, like me. You think I spare a thought for past cases?” André waved a hand at the bartender. “A refill over here.”

“You don’t miss it?”

“Chasing a trail for six months, overturning every stone, keeping yourself up night after night knowing someone else is gonna die if you can’t find the son of a bitch. Then, watching him walk away, feigning a mistrial ‘cause some idiot forgot to dot the i’s in the report. Do I miss it?”

The bartender brought over a bottle of whiskey and filled both their glasses. They drank.

“Hell yeah, sometimes. All right, what makes you so sure your man was lying?”

Lanoux shrugged.

“Nothing. A hunch, that’s all.”

“You never followed it up?”

“How could I? All the evidence pointed to our man. He  confessed to all charges. On what possible grounds could I get the case reopened?”

“And unofficially?”

“I thought about it. But things just took over. I was too busy to pursue it. But it always troubled me.”

“Seems perfectly simple to me.”

“Exactly. It was all too easy, too convenient. Too perfect.”

“Most detectives are thankful for such cases. A pat on the back from those up high, all ends neatly tied, wrapped up like a Christmas present.”

“Except there’s nothing inside. Real life is never so exact, never so perfect. We save that for the story books.”

“So go. Just remember, you may not like what you find.”

“I want the truth, that’s all.”

“Take it from me. Sometimes the truth can get pretty ugly.”

 

*

 

“I’m telling you. I was set up.”

“You didn’t steal the painting?”

“No. I mean, yes, but not like you think. The guy found me. He came to me.”

“Who came to you? Give me a name.”

“We always spoke on the phone. He said to call him Picasso. I always thought he was crazy.”

“Yet you decided to steal for him?”

“He said it would be easy. It was easy. And I needed the money. My wife-”

“But you never got it.”

“No, I never got it. He tricked me.”

Silence. A long silence. Lanoux saw himself looking at the man across the table. George Flambert. Factory worker, married ten years, with no previous record and apparently no interest in art. He had been hired by a man he’d never seen to steal a painting he’d never heard of. It didn’t make any sense. Not then, not now.

The tape crackled once more, static, then speech. His own voice.

“This doesn’t make sense. Any of it.”

“I know.”

“How did you know where to go? How to get to the painting; how to get out afterwards?

“He showed me the layout, in maps and diagrams. The sketches were beautiful. The man was artist, whatever else he may have been. He walked me through it, step by step.”

“And when it was over? What was the plan?”

“I was to meet him in a café on main street. At noon, Tuesday. A week after the theft.”

“Why wait a week?”

“His idea. I guess he was worried or something. Living with that painting really freaked me though, and not only ‘cause I knew you were looking for it. It kept me awake at night. I couldn’t wait to be rid of it.”

“Then why didn’t you go? Why didn’t you meet him?”

“I did.”

“Then-”

“We met exactly as planned. I left home my hotel room at 11:30. Took a cab over to the café, stepped him and found him already waiting.”

“How did you know it was him?”

“He was sitting under another Picasso, alone. I just knew, like he said I would.”

So, what happened?”

“We both carried the same suitcase. That was part of the plan. He’d leave first, taking my suitcase, where I’d hidden the painting. I was to leave a few minutes after, taking his with me. The money was inside.”

“When we found you at the hotel, you still had the painting.”

“I told you. He tricked me.”

“How?”

“We sat, drank a coffee. He told me I’d done well, that I’d saved my wife’s life. Then he got up, paid the bill, and took up a suitcase.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He only pretended to switch the cases. He took his own with him.”

“Why in the hell would he do that?”

“I don’t know. I told you he was crazy.”

“When we found you-”

“I was ready to leave. Everything already packed. I was to head right out of town. But I had to look, check, just to make sure it was all ok. I had to. I flicked up the catch, pulled up the lid. There it was, not the money, but the same picture- that terrible blue face, staring up at me. That’s when your boys burst in.”

“I have one more question, M. Lambert. George. What did this man look like?”

“He looked like Picasso, or like he does in the pictures.”

A crackle on the tape signalled interference. Lanoux knew why. It was the voice from above, pushing for a confession. He’d gotten it.

“Mr. Lambert, for the record: do you confess to the theft of Picasso’s painting, entitled ‘Self-Portrait Facing Death’.”

“Yeah. If that’s what it’s called.”

“That is what it’s called.”

“Then yes, I stole it. You know I did.”

“Thank you, M. Lambert. This interview is over.”

 

The tape came to an abrupt stop. And with it, the liberty of M. Lambert; at least for the next six years.

 

*

 

Self-Portrait Facing Death, read the caption. Pablo Picasso. And there was nothing to indicate otherwise. It was identical to the reproductions he had seen in the newspapers; those harsh, dark lines around the eyes and nose, the angular face and grey-blue skin. There was nothing to tell of its age. And it was signed in the script of the master.

But of course it was. Even the most amateur of fakers could achieve that. The painting was certain to look the same, right down to the smallest detail. There was no way to know by looking. And yet, he had felt sure he would know, that he would feel it somehow, like a hunch. That he would know if it lied. As he knew Lambert had lied.

Lambert. The name sounded so familiar.

Lanoux stepped back from the painting. He felt like an idiot. Thankfully, the hall was almost empty. An older couple browsed the walls off to one side. A small tour group were entering the room behind him. One other figure shared the room; a man, cloaked in a long grey coat and black hat. As their eyes met, the man smiled at him, and nodded, as though in amusement. Lanoux felt sure then that the man wasn’t looking at the painting, but at him; he was watching Lanoux as he scrutinized the painting, as though studying his reaction to it. Lanoux nodded back, and made to leave.

 

*

 

“Hey there, sugar. And I’d heard you were retired.”

“I need you to dig up something for me, something from a while back.”

It had been easy enough to get in. No one had even thought to question his authority, to ask him to produce an ID. He had descended into the halls of the records department without so much as reaching for his pocket. Once a detective, always a detective- or so it seemed. Lanoux had the feeling few tried to sneak back in once collecting their retirement package.

“You remember the Picasso case?”

“Sure I do, but that must be five years ago, more even. And you found your man, I remember that. Or did he find you?”

“I’m curious over something, that’s all. After the painting was recovered, the museum had it examined by a panel of experts. They judged it to be genuine, restored it to the gallery, and so the case was closed.”

“So?”

“I want to know if the decision was unanimous.”

“Hmmm. What are you getting at, I wonder?”

Francine turned him a sly smile. She’d aged in the years since his retirement, for sure. But she was still a beauty. After a few minutes, she returned with the file.

“How did you know?”

“I didn’t.”

“Well, here we have it. Four positive. One abstaining.”

“You have a name?”

 

*

 

“This is it.”

Lanoux paid the driver and climbed out of the car. The house was a modest affair, with a small lawn out front and little in the way of decoration. He approached the front door and knocked three times before anyone answered.

“Monsieur Proust?”

“Yes, who are you?”

“Detective Lanoux, Paris Met. Well, at least I was. I’m retired.”

“Then what can I do for you, M. Lanoux?”

“It’s about a case I worked, seven years ago. I was investigating the theft of a painting from the Paris Museum, Picasso’s Self-Portrait Facing Death. You were asked to authenticate the painting. I wonder if you remember?”

“How could I forget? Please, come in.”

Proust was an old man; Lanoux guessed in his seventies. He wore glasses and had to squint to make out the detective’s face. Had he aged so much in only a few years? It was no wonder his judgement had been discounted.

Lanoux was shown into a modest living room, furnished with only two simple sofas, a small coffee table and a number of art prints on the wall.

“I am a man of modest means. I prefer a print, a certified copy, to the work of a master forger.”

“And the Picasso? What made you think it was a forgery?”

“I never said that.”

“You neglected to swear to contrary. The reports state that you abstained from the vote.”

“That I did. I felt I had to be certain. How about a drink, detective?”

“I’m no longer a detective.”

“Then you’re no longer on duty. Bourbon ok?”

Proust had already fetched the bottle. He filled two small glasses.

“Just fine.”

Lanoux drank. The brandy, at least, was good. Proust did not shrift there.

“The work was perfect, or perfectly flawed. The work of a master, that much was certain. I just couldn’t swear it was Picasso’s.”

“Why not?”

“A feeling, that’s all. I believe you would call it a hunch. Something in the eyes.”

“The eyes?”

“This will sound strange, as it did then. I had the feeling that the picture wasn’t a self-portrait-”

“-but a portrait of someone else. The eyes bespoke a lie.”

“As you so poetically put it. The eyes were not those of a man facing his own death, but rather, of facing someone else’s.”

“Whose? Proust? Whose death?”

“Now that, detective, I couldn’t possibly say.”

 

*

 

Detective Lanoux brought the car to a halt and checked the address in his notebook. This was it: 37 Rue Ampère, last known residence of one M. Lambert. He switched off the engine, got out of the car and walked into the apartment block. A guard at the door inquired as to whom he was to visit but showed no surprise at his answer. The elevator was out of order and it took Lanoux some time to climb the twelve flights of stairs up onto the thirteenth floor. By the time he arrived, he was short of breath and had to pause to rest a moment. He felt old, too old to be doing this.

When he knocked at the door, a middle-aged woman answered. Still dressed in her nightgown, she opened the door but held it on the chain, peering out at Lanoux through a thin gap. He could smell the drink on her breath.

“Who are you?”

“I was a friend of George,” Lanoux lied. “We were in the joint together.”

“He’s not here. He doesn’t live here.”

“Are you his wife?”

“I was.”

“Do you mind if I speak with you for a moment?”

“I don’t have any money. If he owed you anything, I’m sorry. I don’t have it.”

“I’m not after money.”

“Ok. Well, come in then. What the hell.”

Lanoux followed her into the apartment. The living room was a mess, with clothes strewn across the floor, amongst a litter of plates and glasses and cigarette ends. The woman’s make-up, obviously a vestige of the night before, only served to multiply the disaster. She offered him a seat on a dirty grey sofa. When he sat, she took a seat opposite and lit a cigarette.

“Madame Lambert-” he began.

“Céline, for God’s sake.”

“Céline then. My name is Pierre. George told me about how he was tricked, how he never received what was due. I promised to help him recover it, when I got out.”

“Did he promise you money?”

“Only if there was save to spare. He said it was for you, that you needed it. He told me  you were sick.”

“I am sick.”

“I’m very sorry.”

They sat, neither looking at the other. The room filled with the grey fume of Céline’s cigarette.

“Listen. I don’t know what you want, but I think it’s better if you go now. George wasn’t no criminal. He loved me is all, God help him. He never would have done something like that otherwise. He did it for me.”

“I want to help you, to pay for the operation.”

“I had the operation.”

This was enough to catch even Lanoux off guard.

“Madame. Céline. I’m not sure I understand. M. Lambert- George- said he never received the money. That he could never give it to you. It was his greatest regret.”

“I don’t know who sent the money. But someone did. Direct to the hospital.”

“They didn’t leave a name?”

“Picasso.”

“Excuse me?”

“The hospital said Picasso paid for it. Sick joke if you ask me.”

“I see…Listen, do you know where I can find George? Maybe he can explain-”

“My husband died over a year ago. He died in his cell. I’d prefer it if you’d leave now.”

 

*

 

“Lanoux. How’s your thief?”

“He’s dead. Cancer.”

“Well, that sucks. Sit down. Get yourself a drink.”

“I’m not thirsty.”

“Henri, bourbon over here,” André called to the bartender.

Lanoux sighed and took his place opposite his friend. For better or worse, this was whom he had to count on, to ask for advice.

“The thief, Lambert – he was telling the truth. He did it for his wife. Her operation was paid for.”

“By an anonymous benefactor, I assume.”

“Not quite. She says Picasso paid for it.”

André burst out laughing, spitting whisky over Lanoux.

“Ha! I guess he did, in a way. Your man’s got a sense of humour.”

“If that’s what you call it. He let Lambert take the fall, and never even claimed the painting. Why steal a painting, just to give it back?”

“To prove he could? For some people, you know, that’s the whole deal. They’re not interested in the money. They just want you to know how smart they are. Maybe your Picasso is one of- Lanoux?”

“That’s it.”

“What’s it?”

“Picasso. It was never about money; he couldn’t have cared less. I have to go.”

 

*

 

Once more, Lanoux found himself in the gallery of the Paris Museum, standing before the painting he had helped to restore to its place.

“Something in the eyes,” Proust had told him. “The eyes.”

Lanoux looked into those eyes now. The stare had that same intensity, that same wild fear. Lanoux leaned closer, until his face was pressed almost to the glass, his eyes level with those of the Picasso. He found himself trapped, unable to turn away.

“Not the eyes of a man facing his own death, but of facing someone else’s.”

Lanoux stepped back from the painting. For one brief, terrifying moment, he felt sure it was his own face he was looking into. His heart thumped heavily against his chest. Beads of sweat dripped from his brow.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Lanoux turned to see the stranger from before, studying him. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he recognised the man, that he had seen him somewhere, in some distant past.

“I’m not sure I’d call it beautiful. “

“Beauty comes in many forms. Truth is beauty, and there is truth here. My name is Lamére.”

The man offered his hand, with a smile. Lamére.

Lanoux let his own be taken in a firm handshake, an exuberant grip that pushed between the bones of his fingers. It hurt.

“Glad to meet you. Sorry, have I seen you before? You look familiar.”

“I come here often. This painting has always fascinated me, as I see it does you.”

“Yes, there is certainly something about it.”

“It’s just so real, so full of truth. It’s the artist really confronting his own death, yet tortured, unable to come to terms with it. It’s the master, in each harsh stroke, in every severity. None but Picasso could have painted it.”

And there it came. The instinct he had honed in all his years as detective.

“Something in the eyes.”

Lanoux, never a great judge of art, had always been an uncanny judge of men. Something in the eyes, bespoke the lie. And in that moment, the eyes had spoken. Lanoux knew.

“None but Picasso. Good day, Lamére.”

 

*

 

Lanoux at the bus stop, at the exit of the museum, his face hidden behind the folds of a broadsheet newspaper. Lanoux, waiting for Lamére.

His heart was racing. He felt like a rookie again, excited and scared half to death, like the first cop at the crime scene. He was chasing a lead again, following a hunch, that instinct that had kept him alive, that had really made him feel alive, all those years. And this would be the last time. He knew that too. Another hunch.

There. Lamére – or Lambert – emerging from the museum, pulling his coat around him, in brace of the cool wind. Walking then, eschewing bus or train. He lived close. Of course, he would have to.

Lanoux knew how to be stealthy, to walk unnoticed, even at his age. He followed at a fair distance, hiding himself amongst the crowds.

In a little under fifteen minutes, Lamére turned off of the street, walking up the gravel path to a small Parisian house. Lanoux kept his pace, passing on the opposite side of the road. At a safe distance, he took out his notebook and scribbled down the address. 5, Rue de Thorigny. Lanoux wasn’t so young anymore and recently prone to forgetfulness.

He knew where his suspect lived, but it would not be shrewd to confront him. Most likely, Lamére was expecting him, would want him to come, had always wanted him to come. No, Lanoux would return here alone.

 

*

 

One week later, Lanoux stood once more outside the door of Lamére’s house. It was a Friday morning, just short of eleven o’clock. Lamére had proved consistent in his routines. For three consecutive weeks, Lanoux had spied him going into the museum. There he would stay for an hour, as he had the two times they had met in the gallery. And after, the short walk back to the house, another fifteen minutes. There would be plenty of time.

Lanoux moved around to the back of the house. There was no gate to prevent him doing so, the slim pathway opening out onto a small, square yard. Lanoux scanned the roofs, pipes and windows. No dog. No alarms. Evidently his suspect was unafraid of being burgled.

Detectives are as adept as thieves when it comes to breaking and entering. Lanoux used nothing more than a piece of steel wire to pick the aging lock; he barely needed even that. The door creaked heavily as it swung open, as though it had seen little use of late. For a moment, Lanoux feared he had forced the wrong house. He checked himself. He wouldn’t make such an elementary mistake, not he, Lanoux. He felt like a real detective again; or perhaps a thief.

The kitchen was a dusty affair, decorated with cobwebs and cockroaches, dirtied plates and curious stains. What little food was visible was already, Lanoux suspected, well past its sell by date. The occupant was obviously unmarried and most likely lived alone.

The living room was untidy, but not unusually so. The furniture was of the period, inexpensive, and observably so. The single bedroom was similarly uninspiring. Lanoux pulled on his gloves to search wardrobes and drawers, spied under the bed, and behind the few books that occupied the shelves. He found nothing to signify the owner’s tastes or interest, nothing that revealed the individual. The house was almost remarkable in its mundaneness. It was as if –

As if Lamére’s life was not here. He ate here, slept here, showered and shit here. But he didn’t work here. His work was his life, had always been so, even way back, when Lanoux had first arrested him. It was obvious now. There was another room.

Upstairs was a dead end, figured Lanoux. The house simply wasn’t big enough to allow for an attic; that was clear from even the most casual study. There had to be a basement.

Lanoux tried the shelves, the cupboards, anything that could be used to conceal a door. He scanned the walls for cracks, signs of a secreted entrance. A painting, he guessed, would have been too clichéd for Lamére’s tastes.

At last, he found what he was looking for. An elaborate Persian rug marked a square on the living room floor, so singularly out of place with the withering banality of the residence that Lanoux wondered how he had not noticed it before. He lifted the rug. A trap door below opened out onto a small stone staircase, descending into the newly revealed basement.

Lanoux followed the steps down. His hands searched the walls for a switch, found one, and flicked it on. The room was immediately bathed in a clear white light, a studio brightness. This was where Lamére did his work. The room was filled with paintings, or rather, endless duplicates of a single painting. Lanoux stood facing endless portraits, endless faces. They were Picasso’s face – or faces – except, how could they be? Each was exactly alike, yet none was a print. Each canvas had been meticulously sketched and coloured. Each face stared out at Lanoux with that same intensity, that same truth. These were not forgeries; he saw that now. Lamére had felt each to be true, had been painting his own portrait, himself, as Picasso. He had foreseen his own death.

A noise disturbed his thoughts. The click of a key turning in the lock, the creak of a door swung open. Lamére had returned early. His footsteps patted the floor over Lanoux’s head. The detective looked around for somewhere to hide, or failing that, a weapon to defend himself with. He found neither. He thought to run, to flee back up the stairs and out of the back door. He made to go, and Lamére was upon him.

“Detective. Welcome to my studio. It has been a long wait.”

It’s over, Lamére. Lambert. I know who you are.”

“Do you, now? I wonder.”

Lamére circle him, taking small steps, touching each canvas in turn.

“We are all far greater artists than we realize. Nietzsche said that.”

“Are you an artist? Or a thief?”

“What matters is not what I am, or even who I am, but what is true. I wonder if you have heard a story regarding Picasso, an anecdote of sorts. He was once asked to judge whether certain examples of his works were authentic or not. Having accidentely judged one of his own works a counterfeit, he was challenged, and informed of his mistake. ‘No matter’, he said. ‘I can fake a Picasso as well as any thief in Europe.’”

Lamére laughed. He was enjoying this.

“He was a man of great humour, I hear. What is your point?”

“What then distinguishes the masterpiece from the forgery? Is it all in the name, the hand that put the paint to canvas? Or is it the truth of the work that makes it stand as art?”

“You have never painted anything original. Your life’s work is an imitation. Your life is an imitation.”

“A repetition, detective. Never an imitation. I have never copied anything.”

“You are an imitiation, and a poor one. You are not Picasso.”

“My work is Picasso’s, as his is my own. My paintings are displayed under his name, and admired as such.”

“Then where is the real?”

“The original self-portrait facing death, you mean. The first.”

“The only self-portrait, for you are not painting yourself.”

Lamére’s eyes changed. For a moment, a fraction of a second, they shifted. Lanoux saw it, but no longer had the speed to match. He found himself looking down the barrel of a pistol.

“It is here, where it belongs. With the rest of my work. And now, detective, you will point it out to me.”

“I am no expert, you know that.”

“Oh, I think you are. Or will become one. Now, tell me.”

Lamére switched off the safety with a loud click. Lanoux swallowed to himself, and began to search the paintings.

What was it Proust had said? Something in the eyes. Something in the eyes had told him, had revealed the lie.

Or the truth.

Lanoux knew he did not have Proust’s eye for art. Few did, apparently not even among the self-proclaimed experts of the field. But Lanoux retained his eye for man. He would look at Lamére.

“You are staring at me detective. You should use your time more usefully. You may not have so long.”

Lanoux looked at each painting in turn, but briefly, before turning to the next. He pretended to be scrutinizing the details, but in reality he knew his answer did not lay there, but in Lamére himself. He would look at each painting, and turn to Lamére. He sought a sign, a shift in the eyes that would tell him he had found it.

And then he did.

As he looked up from the painting, he caught Lamére’s eyes. They had become those of the painting, of a man facing his own death. The look was unmistakable. He knew it was over, that his Picasso had been killed. The death of an artist, revealed now as pure imitation.

“This is the one,” spoke Lanoux. He stood staring into the eyes of Lamére.

Lamére turned the gun to his own temple, and fired. Then his eyes were blank, and he fell.

 

*

 

As was his ritual now, Lanoux pulled the cord aligned with one wall of his apartment. The curtains were swept away to reveal a painting, the painting: Picasso’s Self-portrait facing death.

But was it truly Picasso’s? Even now he was not sure. Was it the original that lay hidden behind his curtain? Did a forgery yet remain in the gallery? Or had even the crime been a false one?

Lanoux found himself now haunted by those eyes, as Lambert – or Lamére – had been before him. They seemed so real, and yet, they had all seemed real. Lamére’s imitation, if that’s what it was, still hung in the gallery, still denoted truth for thousands of visitors every year. An imitation of a painting, a false criminal, a counterfeit crime- endless falsities, lies upon lies. Lamére had reinvented himself many times over: as Lambert, as Picasso, as husband and factory worker, as forger and master. What was truth? Could anything be true?

And what was he, Lanoux? Had he become the moustachioed baron in his castle? Picasso had said that he could fake a Picasso, as well as any thief. The master could not always be sure he was in fact Picasso, could not know he was painting as Picasso and not merely imitating the man. Who was Picasso? What was Picasso? A man, or a myth – an idea of a man? Lanoux felt certain he could fake Lanoux as well as anyone, perhaps even better, for he had been playing the role of detective his whole life.

He would not return the painting to the gallery, for what would that prove? Who knew how many forgeries and imitations decorated the museums? Who would ever be able to determine the real from the fake, and in the end, what difference could it make?

Lanoux closed the curtains over the portrait, and turned out the lights. It was something he wished to forget, now that it was done. Sometimes the truth could get pretty ugly, he thought.

 

*

 

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 RGilham. All rights reserved.

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