Dome of Death

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 1

The Fall

Exposing oneself in public is not for the faint-hearted. En masse and expertly illuminated, the paintings gave viewers rather more insight into the private spaces of my mind than I'd bargained for. The fact that the gallery's patrons were also baring their souls with every critical utterance and every painting bought was scant consolation – especially as no one was buying!

After an hour of eavesdropping among the usual crush of wine-sipping social scramblers, I wished I hadn't. Stepping back, I collided with an elderly, shapeless little woman loosely wrapped in a sari decorated with mirrors.

'Young man!' she demanded as though I'd been caught spraying graffiti, 'Are you the artist?'

How to respond? People who call themselves artists remind me of Napoleon seizing the jewelled cap, crowning himself and living to rue the day. Such accolades are for others to bestow. If, as frequently happens, a painter's efforts delight no one but himself, then the labour has been little but therapy. Only those whose works impose order on the chaos of existence and reinvigorate flagging spirits by giving the viewer a glimpse of a less imperfect world, are worthy of the title "artist". Not being entirely confident I deserved the appellation, I responded cautiously.

'I made the paintings, if that's what you mean.'

With an impatient toss of the head that set hoop earrings and several loose chins swaying, she declared, 'Everything's too expensive!'

I smiled, bowed graciously and left her squinting myopically at a couple of frolicking nudes.

'What about this one?' demanded a businesslike young woman, jabbing her fingernail at a tree-fringed lake.

'Oh c'mon Jazmyn, we've already spent a fortune on the lounge.'

'Hope it's still here tomorrow.'

'It will be. No one's buying anything. You can get a recliner for what they're asking for this thing.' He peered into his glass. 'I haven't a thirst for art, but I've an artistic thirst.' They elbowed their way to the bar.

Before films and television arrived to bewitch the world, paintings could sway multitudes, convert sceptics and provoke intellectual war. Today, they've been reduced to decoration, and the only certainty for aspiring painters is that a market for their outpourings is not assured. I slunk to a corner, sipped my drink and nibbled humble pie.

'Cheer up you miserable bastard.' Max thumped me on the shoulder and draped a heavy arm across my shoulders. 'It's my opening too, so do us a favour and look a bit more confident - you're scaring people away.'

I shook him off.

'What's the matter, Pete?'

'How many sold?'

'It's early days. Give 'em a chance. They haven't seen a decent painting before. Wait till the red dots appear – then we'll see a panic thrusting of plastic. Hey,' he continued gently, 'I wouldn't have filled my brand new gallery with anything less than the best. The place is crowded and the reaction's positive. So either play the confident prodigy or hide your miserable mug out the back before it spoils the party.'

As usual, he was right, and as usual, it irritated. People were showing plenty of interest and at that very moment, Maurice, the curator and manager of Maximillian's Fine Art Gallery, was placing a red dot on the frame of one of the more expensive works. I caught Max's eye. He shook his head, punched my shoulder manfully and breezed away.

I almost relaxed. Almost, because although my paintings were good, I couldn't shake the feeling they were outdone by the architecture. The gallery was Max's proclamation that not only was he a wealthy connoisseur of the Arts, but also an incredibly talented architect. Individual spotlights enabled one to feel alone and unobserved while viewing the works, but the complicated internal structures were also expertly illuminated and tended to overpower everything else. I'd warned him the space was going to be too complex and competing for an art gallery, but he'd merely grinned and shrugged.

'You're over sensitive, Pete. With your paintings on the walls, no one will notice the building.'

Fat chance; I was sticking to my theory as an excuse for the lack of any more red dots.

From across the gallery I could hear Max belabouring a swarm of sycophants with his Recipe for a Renaissance. 'At Maximillian's there will be no minimalist shams brimming with light, space, air and understatement. No confrontations with a pile of bricks, a bunch of desiccated radishes, sheets of rusty corrugated iron smeared in bird shit, or spilt cans of paint. Nor will it be another showroom of plastic fantasy and kitsch masquerading as art!' He flicked a glance at Conias Jackson, the owner of four such emporia of bad taste, accurately named Arte Bizarres,

'In this gallery, people of discernment will be able to purchase works of real and lasting value, products of rational minds; works of art that radiate skill, intelligence, talent, insight, self-criticism and hard work. And,' he paused pointedly, 'there won't be any mass-produced reproductions passing themselves off as limited edition prints!'

Mr Jackson turned away - scowling.

Max laughed loudly, attracting the attention of the entire gallery, and cast his eyes heavenwards with a theatrical mopping of brow. All eyes followed to marvel again at the dome of crystalline carbon floating over the thirty-metre wide, octagonal central gallery.

'It's like being inside an enormous diamond,' someone whispered.

Max clapped his hands. 'Ladies and Gentlemen, not only will Maximillian's provide you with cultural fresh air, but also the more traditional sort.' He stepped back and pulled at a tasselled cord hanging behind a bronze urn. Nothing happened. He tugged a second time to the accompaniment of a slight tittering, but the glittering vault remained unmoved. He snorted impatiently, slipped off his dark-green velvet jacket, thrust both jacket and cord at me, and disappeared through an adjacent door. Thirty seconds later he could be seen through the dome, striding across the roof.

'My god but he's sexy,' an under-dressed and over-painted woman breathed to her companion, 'and so athletic. Imagine Murray getting up on the roof like that!' She paused and giggled. 'Or dressing like that!'

She wasn't exaggerating. Whenever he thought he could get away with it, Max wore his jackets over bare, bronzed skin, the better to display an astonishing hardness of chest and abdomen. High cheekbones, generous mouth and a shock of dead-straight brown hair jetting over his forehead, lent a look of youthful nonchalance belied by slippery hazel eyes. His naked torso was clearly visible stretched over the dome as he fiddled with something before straightening up and signalling to me to pull the cord.

Silently, the segments separated and opened, lotus-like, to reveal the night sky. Plastic glitter was replaced by that of a myriad of stars. A spontaneous burst of applause heralded Max as he balanced on the rim between two 'petals'. Godlike, he raised his arms for silence then, eyes wide, mouth agape, he toppled forward, swimming fruitlessly in the air before hitting the marble floor headfirst with a distinct thunk-crack as his skull split and neck snapped.

Those nearest instinctively jumped back to avoid the splash as the contents of his cranium exploded. Frances, Max's wife, clutched at Maurice's sleeve, knuckles white, eyes staring wildly at her husband's body. I grabbed her arm and dragged her to the office. She was pale, but in control when I sat her at the desk. Back in the gallery, one look at the mess that had been Max sent me racing for the toilet to throw up. I was alone with my nausea.

After four years as a virtual hermit, I'd forgotten how quickly human nature seeps through even the most civilised of patinas. After the first gasps of startled surprise, everyone crowded forward, chattering and manoeuvring to get a better view, excited at their good fortune. In a world where life is usually encountered vicariously, a first-hand experience is to be treasured.

Police and ambulance were on the spot within minutes. Maurice introduced himself as the manager and trailed around behind the officers offering advice until someone told him to shut the fuck up and wait in the office with Mrs Fierney.

During the following hour, names were taken, questions asked, the guests released to scatter and spread the news, and the roof and dome inspected with the aid of torches and a portable floodlight.

When I took a police officer to see Frances, her voice was slurred. She'd been drinking with Maurice and the sari-draped crone who glared suspiciously, drained her glass, and ordered Maurice to escort her to a taxi.

No one objected when I asked if I could be the one to inform Max's parents. The police didn't care for the task; neither did Frances who had never hit it off with her in-laws. The bagged body was removed, the floor cleaned, and, as Maurice was nowhere to be found, I locked the gallery and set alarms. Frances was standing in the office staring at her feet when I popped my head in to say goodbye. She looked up with a frown and asked me to come in for a minute. Exhausted, I flopped into a chair.

She leaned against the desk and pleaded pathetically, 'Darling Peter. You're Max's best friend. You can't leave me alone in this barn. Stay the night?'

I wanted to go home, not spend the night under the same roof as a woman I despised.

She gave a dramatic shudder and dabbed at smudged mascara. 'Please? Pretty please? For Max?' She reached across, grasped my hand and sniffled disgustingly.

I pulled roughly away. I had disliked Frances at our first meeting, and nothing had happened in the interim to change my opinion. Sly flirtatious eyes, too much make-up, lank bleached hair, pushy tits, calculated little-girl charm and gushing, counterfeit innocence. I also suspected a grasping nature. The fact that most men were drawn to her like fruit flies to a rotten peach confounded me.

Max had never been open about their relationship, refusing to discuss it. I split with him as soon as he announced his marriage - an attitude he reckoned irrational. In fact, we had only seen each other two or three times a year since Frances took over his life. It was only the offer of a solo exhibition at the opening of his new gallery that had induced me to spend so much time with him over the last few months. As he well knew, it was an offer few painters would be able to resist. When I asked why he was being so generous, he'd changed the subject.

Tiredness rather than compassion induced me to stay the night in the upstairs flat at the gallery. Like Frances, I was required first thing in the morning at the police station so it would save me the eighty-kilometre return trip home.

In an unsuccessful attempt to clear my mind of thoughts of untimely death, I wandered down to the beach and jogged up and down the narrow strip of sand. It didn't help, so I returned, reset the alarms, locks and security lights, and dragged myself upstairs to the landing where I hesitated. Could I get away with simply yelling 'goodnight', or should I poke my head into her room?

Lamplight and sobs spilled into the passageway. Perhaps she really was upset? Unsure whether I was offering a shoulder to cry on or looking for one, I tiptoed to the open doorway and choked on well-intentioned words of comfort. Maurice was sprawled on his back over the king-sized bed, muttering curses while Frances struggled to bring his manhood to life. The heartfelt sobs were those of a woman mightily frustrated - her own swollen desires alarmingly on view as she bent to her toil. Maurice looked up, stretched out a hand and yelled, 'Get this drunken nymphomaniac off me!'

Frances sat back on her haunches and growled, 'This crappy little turd has been playing around with his master for the last six months, but can't bloody well raise it for his mistress. Jesus Christ! Where are the real men? Look at his pathetic little dick!' She grabbed hold of the shrunken thing and flapped it from side to side before turning to face me. Lipstick, saliva, and a scattering of her victim's pubic hairs smeared the lower half of her face. Normally sleek hair had suffered what looked like a high voltage discharge, and a scarlet flush of anger suffused breasts and shoulders. Paradoxically, she looked more potent than ridiculous.

Maurice had been cool to the point of offensiveness while setting up the exhibition, so I derived a certain pleasure from the spectacle, but was saddened to note that a virile body did not support his manly, square-jawed face. With a greater work-to-food ratio he might have been athletic, but he had let himself go. Skin and muscles were slack and a spare tyre burgeoned where once a slender waist had surely prevailed.

Frances gave his diminutive organ of desire a last vicious tug and my eyes watered in sympathy. Maurice lunged forward, pinched one of Frances's large nipples between finger and thumb, eliciting a curse of agony, thrust his tormenter onto the floor and joined me in the doorway, hysterical with pain and embarrassment.

'You stupid, ugly whore!' he shouted, 'I'd sooner eat my own shit than fuck you! If that's the price of staying on as curator of your pitiful provincial gallery, then forget it! Keep your fucking job. Unlike you, I am not a fucking prostitute!'

It was a moderately grand exit.

'You're fired!' shouted the furious Frances from the floor to the empty door-way, before clambering back, turning to me without the slightest embarrassment, patting the sheet beside her in invitation and throwing herself petulantly on to her back. 'Get my pillow will you, Pete?'

Almost gagging on the combined stench of lust and alcohol, I remained at the door trying not to look as critical as I felt. Only Max had ever called me Pete. She glared, leaned over the edge of the bed, scrabbled for the pillow, tucked it behind her head and lay back panting. 'Christ I'll be glad to see the end of that fuck-wit.'

'Why were you trying to screw him?'

'Max did,' she snapped defiantly. 'Now I'm boss he should do the same for me.'

'It seldom works like that.'

'Shit, men are wimps!'

I let that one go, then asked innocently, 'Weren't you jealous?'

She looked at me warily. 'I thought you and Max told each other everything. Bosom buddies and all that male-bonding crap?'

I shook my head.

'Of course I wasn't jealous! We didn't have that sort of marriage.'

I must have looked even more gormless than usual because she uttered an incredulous half-laugh and stared at me in disbelief. 'You really didn't know about our arrangement?'

I shook my head.

'You've got to be the only person on the Coast who didn't!' She gave me a strange look - a compound of pity and mild anger. 'Sit here,' she patted the bed, 'and talk to me. I'm too fired up to sleep.'

'Talk about what?'

'Max, me, you, the world.'

The last person I wanted to talk about Max with was his unlovely widow. But neither did I want to go to bed and lie awake thinking. 'Ok,' I sighed, sitting on the end of the bed. 'Tell me what everyone else on the Coast knows.'

'Four years ago,' she said with complacent pride, 'I learned about a very dodgy swindle Max had got himself embroiled in. I gave him a choice - either marry me with a legally binding contract making us joint tenants of everything, or lose everything, including his freedom and good name in a corruption scandal and criminal proceedings. He wasn't stupid, so took the first option. It's been a profitable arrangement for both of us.' She hiccupped noisily, burped, giggled and scratched lewdly at her crotch. 'It was purely business. Sexually, we were often competitors.' Her voice was slurred but she didn't seem drunk. She was definitely enjoying herself.

'I've no doubt the arrangement was immensely profitable - for you.'

'Don't be like that. I was very useful, especially with a certain type of male client. We had to be careful though.' She gave a sad little shake of the head and frowned at some private thought before lifting her eyes back to mine. 'Have you ever wondered where some of the thousands of missing young men and women end up?'

I shook my head.

'They've been too greedy.' A slight shudder, and her attention wandered. After a tentative laugh she focussed her thoughts on me once more and continued brightly, 'Now we, I mean I, am rich. Very rich and completely respectable.'

'Respectable?' I snorted. 'Dirt doesn't wash off that easily.'

She frowned angrily. 'We were neither too dirty, nor too greedy! And we were smart enough to realise that the longer you stay on the wrong side of the law the more likely you are to get caught. We off-loaded every dodgy operation, and are now strictly legit.'

She indicated the gallery, smiling strangely. 'This place will boost finances, give us the seal of cultural approval and, after tonight's accident, will certainly be on the map! Anyway, whatever you or anyone else may think, I've earned my passage. I have arrived and there's not the slightest worry about inheritance. Everything's mine. All the money, all the property and all the pleasure those things can bring.'

Curbing a desire to smash her face in, I said sweetly, 'You've been a clever girl. However it wasn't very smart to lose your curator and manager within a couple of hours of losing your husband.'

'Huh! Creeps like him are two-a-penny. He'll be replaced by lunch-time tomorrow.'

'It'll be hard to find someone who shares Max's ideas on what constitutes art.'

'Who cares?'

'I do.'

'Enough to screw me?' The woman had a one-track mind.

'Sorry, I'm discriminating.' I couldn't keep the sneer from my voice. 'You're not into mourning the dead, I gather.'

'My sex-life has never had anything to do with Max! And I'll thank you to keep your nose out of my personal feelings. But if I don't get a fuck soon I'll tear this bloody place apart and there'll be no gallery to worry about.' She certainly looked ready to rampage.

'I'll see what I can do.' I felt mildly chastened. My own feelings were still fragile and I'd not given vent to any loud protestations of grief. I ran downstairs for a copy of the local newspaper, found the 'escort' ads and used her bedside phone.

'It'll cost you,' I warned, passing the handset. 'Tell him what you want and how to get here.'

She took the receiver, shoved it at her ear, cleared her throat and in a husky voice I hadn't heard before growled, 'I need a fuck... How much?... You've got to be joking, boyo! Two hundred cash and two hours non-stop. I never pay more than that... Maximillian's Art Gallery. Know it?…Well get on your fucking bike. You've got four minutes!' Turning to me, 'Get down to the front and bring him up, I've an urgent repair job to see to.'

I stared at the ceiling.

She laughed and in a sweet-little-girl voice lisped, 'Pretty pleathe?'

I waited outside the door to the small foyer at the bottom of the private stairs leading to the flat, feeling cold and used. Exactly four minutes later a motorbike roared up bearing a leather-clad, helmeted Martian who jumped off, locked his machine and panted over.

'I'm not too late am I? She sounded pretty awesome.'

'No, you're fine. Rather you than me, though.'

Upstairs, water was still splashing around in the bathroom. 'Is that him?' Frances yelled.


'Well get him up and running. He's got one minute!'

The young man was already undressed and rummaging in a small purse. He was not handsome, his nose was too small, but he was solidly built, lightly bronzed, and wore his long hair in a thick plait at the back. A gold chain and nose stud were unnecessary ornaments. The all-important instrument of pleasure, though, looked uninspiring.

'She's not going to be too thrilled with that.'

'No worries,' he grinned, extracting a small syringe from his purse. An obviously well practiced jab embedded the needle nearly a centimetre into the side of his penis before he pressed home the plunger. It hurt to watch, but he didn't flick an eyelash. By the time he'd replaced the syringe, folded his clothes and thrown himself onto the bed, he was ready.

'Clever trick. Do you also respond to cries for help from men?'

'You got the money, honey, I got the tool,' he laughed, completely relaxed.

'How long's it going to last?'

He pulled it away from his belly and let it slap back. 'Two and a half hours minimum, whether or not I come. Guaranteed to satisfy.'

'Surely you've got to be careful with those injections?'

'You bet! A corkscrew cock's just one of the hazards. One bloke I know kept it up so long that everything burst inside – he'll never get another hard-on as long as he lives.'

'Rather you than me!'

A transformed Frances reclaimed centre-stage by slamming the door to the bathroom. Hair sleek and glossy, face made up, stomach sucked in, nipples hard – she almost looked sexy. Taking two, hundred-dollar notes, a couple of condoms and three white tablets from a pot on the dressing table, she flapped the money in front of her reclining paramour before tucking it into the purse sitting on top of his clothes.

'Want to feel good?' she smiled, offering me one of the tabs. 'Ecstasy,' she explained to my look of incomprehension. 'Get shot of all that aggression.'

'No thanks. I like to remain in control of my emotions.'

She shrugged, tossed the condoms and one of the tablets to her escort who swallowed it with a swig of wine from the opened bottle beside the bed, did the same herself and dropped the remaining tab back in the pot.

'Thanks, Pete,' she laughed over her shoulder.

Her gigolo waved goodbye from the bed as she lunged.

The calculating bitch! All she'd wanted from me was the security of having someone in the place while she was being screwed.

Sadness sucked at life as I trudged the ten metres to Max's room, the twin of Frances's.

Maurice was sprawled in the middle of the double bed. Why the hell hadn't he gone back to his own place? Surely he didn't think…? I jettisoned the idea. My own thoughts were too jumbled to want to get inside someone else's. A walk-through dressing room separated bedroom from bathroom. Suits, shirts, trousers and jackets on hangers. A small pile of used clothes slumped outside the bathroom door. I picked up a handful and buried my face. Remembered odours transported me back four years to our flat. We had shared everything - bed, food, clothes, even a toothbrush. Reckoned we were one being in two bodies. With eyes closed, Max was with me. Then the horror slammed into me and I sagged to the floor. Loneliness welled and I stuffed a T-shirt into my mouth to stifle the moan, before ripping the sweet-smelling reminder of loss to shreds with my teeth. Eventually, feeling cold and stupid, I stripped and showered.

Maurice was still hogging the centre of the bed.

'Shove over, Maurice,' I growled when he continued to lie like a dead dog. He turned, smiled seductively and threw back the covers to display a body about a quarter as attractive as the one at that moment hammering into Frances. I nearly chundered. I was in no mood for empty lust. I was in no mood for anything! Did no one have any feelings? What motivated these people? I felt like an alien and stared down at his flabby, repellent flesh. A careless approach to what should be our most prized possession turns me off. In no circumstances would I find Maurice's body appealing. I lay on my back trying to control swirling images of death. Maurice stretched out a hand. Repressing an urge to pummel his face to a pulp, I shoved it away.

'Are you in a shitty because I ignored you during the setting up of your exhibition?'

I leaped from the bed, ripped the blankets off him and shouted, 'What the fuck's the matter with you people? The only real friend I've ever had fell to his death three hours ago, and all you and his wife want to do is screw. What is it? Violent and messy deaths turn you on? You're sick, you know that? Sick, sick, sick! Now your lover's been dead a few hours it's OK to try and fuck someone else?'

'What's the matter with you? I didn't love him, I just wanted the job.'

'You make me puke! Did Max know that?'

Maurice gave me a look of total incomprehension and continued speaking as though explaining the obvious to a dim-witted child. 'I haven't the slightest idea, Peter. What's love got to do with it? I know Max wasn't in love with me! But it would certainly have annoyed him if I'd shown any interest in you.'

'You're mad!'

'Cut the dumb act! Everyone noticed the way he trailed around after you, laughing at your jokes, making sure you were happy with all the arrangements. He never let you out of his sight. You sure know how to string a guy along.'

I didn't want to hear that so stuck to the present. 'Well, despite your plans and self-denial, you've lost your job.'

'I hoped that if I was nice to you, you'd put in a good word for me with Frances in the morning.'

'What was that crack you made to her about prostitution?'

Maurice shrugged. 'I also think you're sexy.'

'Well I certainly don't feel the same about you,' I stated bluntly. 'Having seen you with your clothes off, I'm turned off!'

He drew a tart little breath, turned an unpleasant shade of puce, dragged up the doona and sneered, 'You're just a pathetic little cock-teaser, jealous that I was getting what you wanted.'

A fuse blew somewhere deep in my head. So angry I could scarcely breathe, I reached across, grabbed an arm and a handful of hair and hurled him violently to the floor. 'Fuck off home you flabby, cretinous lump of shit and stay there! Frances will send you anything you're owed.'

He stared up, uncomprehending, face grey. I grasped his arm, twisted it up his back, frogmarched him downstairs and thrust him out into the car park. The gutless creep offered no resistance. From the lounge window I could see him huddling against the doorway to escape the chill wind. Pathetic, naked, stupid. Impossible to feel anything other than contempt. I didn't want him hanging around till morning, so threw his clothes, wallet and car keys out the window. He raced around picking everything up, got into his car and drove noisily away. It made me feel better, but didn't make me sleep. What did these people value? I had no point of contact. Throughout the night, a dark puddle of unwelcome thoughts churned in my head.

At breakfast, Frances's face was a picture of serenity. With the bemused grin of the truly satisfied, she chomped her way through four thick slices of toast, two fried eggs, a mountain of fried tomatoes and cheese, three cups of strong tea and five passionfruit. I've never learnt the knack of thought concealment, so wasn't surprised when she answered the unspoken question.

'Enough exercise, and the acid in the fruit shoves everything through before it can turn to ugly flab. Anyway, you've eaten as much as I have.'

'I'm twice as big and usually work hard to burn it off. Today I've got to keep my strength up for the interview with the cops.'

'I was coming round to that excuse myself.' She looked down at her plate, began one of her 'little-girl' looks from under her eyelashes, thought better of it, laughed unselfconsciously and looked me straight in the eyes.

'Peter - I know it seemed as though I was using you last night, and I suppose I was, but I really appreciated your staying. In fact, I hope you'll hang around a bit longer. After all, someone's got to run the gallery.' The smile was shrewd.

'Is that an offer of employment?'

'Yes. Now that poor little Maurice has scampered off leaving us in the lurch, it seems the obvious solution.'

'I have the distinct impression that poor little Maurice was caught in a rather sly little trap,' I said quietly. There was no reaction, unless a sunny smile indicated something other than a guiltless conscience. I was wary of becoming involved with the woman, and too upset and tired to make a commitment, so procrastinated. 'I'll hang around till the inquest and funeral are over, then let you know.'

'That'll be perfect.' She scrutinised my face for a full minute, took my hand in hers and, visibly suppressing a smile, whispered, 'Don't ever try your hand at poker or politics. You're as transparent as air.'

Despite myself, I was starting to like her. Maybe Max hadn't been so stupid after all.

'Max wasn't a fool,' she announced with alarming prescience. 'It's only today I realise why he was so much in love with you. I was jealous, you know. All that time he spent with you.'

'You've got the wrong bloke. I hardly saw him after he married you.'

Her jaw dropped. 'But, he never stopped talking about you.' Suddenly less sure of herself she stared at me. 'Surely you realised our marriage was just a front?'

'No. I told you last night.'

'But - that's terrible,' she whispered. 'Poor Max. Poor you. What a confusion. But why?' Her eyes searched mine.

I returned the look calmly for as long as I could, but the awful realisation of what I'd refused to accept for four years slowly flooded my heart, drowning me in sadness. I had never stopped loving Max. That was why I'd cut myself off from everyone I knew. That was why I spent my days alone and miserable. That was why I was on anti-depressants. Why my whole life was fucked. Clouds of self-pity gathered.

Frances continued to hold my hand and gaze at me with such compassion that the lies could no longer be sustained. It hadn't been Max who refused to explain about Frances, it was me who'd refused to listen, rejected his approaches, blamed him for leaving me! Cold misery filled my belly. The irreplaceable loss that was Max. The void never to be filled. The years of loneliness ahead. The wasted years gone by. Sadness, a thousand times worse because it was of my own making, engulfed my being and I dropped my head onto my arms and howled.

Having seen little point in giving Max's parents a sleepless night, I telephoned them immediately after breakfast. Hank and Celia were my best, just about my only friends, although I'd seen little of them over the preceding four years. At the sound of Hank's voice my throat dried and the awful news had to be flushed out with tears. And then it was Hank consoling me.

By eight o'clock a covey of policemen were swarming over the roof, peering at the dome, admiring its construction, shouting to have it opened and closed, bustling around with knowing mouths. I went up to watch. A bucket of metal fastenings, off-cuts, screws and similar objects had been piled beside a carton of cigarette butts, lunch-wrappers, plastic drink bottles, pieces of string, sticky tape and other residue left behind by the builders. On a blue cloth were two screwdrivers, a drill bit and a broom handle.

'Recognise any of this stuff?' asked the bloke in charge.

I didn't.

Someone dusted things for fingerprints, and a vacuum cleaner sucked the area clean. The paper-bags were carefully labelled and packed in a separate carton. Eventually, everyone clomped down the narrow stairs lugging their booty and drove off to wherever one looks for truth in a pile of rubbish.

An hour later at the police station, Frances and I dictated and signed statements, were asked to remain available for further interviews, and gained the impression that superior forces were at work to protect us. When I innocently remarked that it was surely an accident, the duty constable stared at me with such suspicion I was glad a hundred people could testify to my whereabouts at the time of the fall.

On leaving the building we met guests from the previous night, summoned to endure the same rigmarole. Some smiled, others glared as though it was our fault they had to waste a morning; all offered condolences to the wealthy young widow. Back at the gallery, an army of reporters and photographers. I started to twitch. Frances pushed me inside.

'Nothing will change the past, Peter. Go up and take a long shower and three hundred deep breaths. I'll handle the free publicity.' And she did. The spreads in the following days' newspapers as well as television and radio coverage, ensured an endless stream of visitors to the gallery. Most came for a gawk at the spot from which the rich architect fell, no doubt hoping for residual bloodstains, but many stayed to look at the exhibition. By the end of the fourth day there were red dots on most of my paintings

The inquest was conducted on a cold Friday morning in a cavernous, unheated courtroom where a mousy little man, after a seemingly interminable amount of paper shuffling, interruptions and whispered asides, listened to statements from various arms of the police and selected eyewitnesses. I was glad Frances had insisted on my taking over Max's wardrobe; I owned nothing as luxurious as his fleecy lined leather car coat, or the quality trousers and jackets. Feeling warm, comfortable and somehow closer to him, I'd never been so well dressed.

The Magistrate eventually announced that Maxwell Fierney had died by overbalancing from the unprotected edge of an opening in the roof, while speaking to the patrons of the Art Gallery below. There was actually quite a bit more to it than that, and the words were different, but it had been an accident. Death by misadventure. He recommended that access to the roof be securely locked at all times, whether the dome was opened or not. By eleven-thirty it was over and I left the place in a daze, still not believing that all the talking had been about Max. A light touch on the shoulder and a familiar voice startled me back to reality.

'Peter, we hoped to see you. Thanks for coming.' Max's parents appeared to be holding each other up. They looked ill, tired and at least twenty years older than the last time I'd seen them.

'Celia, Hank – I didn't see you inside, sorry. Too busy with my own misery, as usual.' We shook hands and wordlessly shared our sorrow.

'We have missed your visits,' Celia said without reproach. 'I do hope you will come and see us again soon?'

'Celia's right. It's a wretched shame it took this to bring us together again, so let's not leave it so long next time.'

I could only nod and grunt something I hoped sounded like assent.

'It would be lovely if you could stay with us after the – ah - dispersal,' Celia murmured hesitantly, fiddling with the clasp of her purse. 'You will be coming?'

I couldn't reply. There were no words in my head. Only a vision of the Fierney's back verandah, eucalypt-covered hills and sun on golden grass. The happiest moments of my life had been spent there. I was deeply embarrassed. How do you respond to two people you love when you've avoided contact with them for nearly four years?

Hank was still looking at me. 'It will be a very quiet affair, just the family and one or two close friends,' he persuaded gently. 'But you mustn't feel any obligation.'

I've always suffered from teary eyes at the slightest hint of sentiment. It's a bit embarrassing in front of most people, but never with Celia and Hank.

'There is nothing I'd rather do and no place I'd rather be, than visiting you two,' I replied huskily, brushing at streaming cheeks. The lump in my throat was painful as Hank shook my hand and Celia gave me the first loving hug I'd had for years. I had to turn away and blow my nose.

'Right then, that's settled. We'll expect you for dinner tomorrow evening, and you can stay as long as you like.'

I could only nod, smile and wave as they got in the car and drove off. It took me two hours of throwing rocks as hard as I could into a sea as frustrated and angry as myself, before I could face the gallery and a fuming Frances, who had seen no point in attending the inquest, preferring to keep the gallery open.

'You knew I had an appointment for half an hour ago! What the hell kept you?'

'Sorry,' was all I had the energy to mutter.

She flounced out.

Nearly a week had passed since the Opening, and empty spaces on the walls were becoming conspicuous as my paintings were bought, paid for and taken home. A search of all possible storage areas revealed no replacement stock. I'd wasted time feeling sorry for myself and things were getting urgent. I either had to find work worthy of Max's gallery within the next few days, or admit defeat as curator and close the gallery. In the absence of files, account books or memoranda, I tried the computer where I discovered a list of artists labelled Suitable. I telephoned them all. Only two had enough works ready, so I arranged for them to bring in samples that same afternoon. The others promised to bring in their work as it became available for a back-up collection. What the hell had the flabby Maurice been doing?

Lunchtime was spent nosing through files, keeping an eye on the half-dozen patrons, answering questions and snatching bites of bread and cheese. The finance folder covered everything from first discussions with the bank, to wages paid to the man who cleaned the windows on the morning of the opening. The gallery had an enormous mortgage. There was yet to be an entry on the credit side.

The works in the current exhibition had their own file, so I entered the money already received, as well as prospective receipts, hoping none of the promised sales would fall through. It was going to be the proverbial drop in a bucket. I was very glad the mortgage wasn't my responsibility. But then the whole enterprise had probably been designed as a tax loss. Certainly, the gallery's cut of sales appeared pitifully small when one considered rates, repairs, maintenance, insurance, my salary, someone to replace me on my day off, and wages for a cleaner.

I figured that if I pulled out all the stops we could probably run a permanent exhibition and hold ten solo shows a year. Even so, it was going to be a long time before the place was freehold, and I certainly wasn't going to get much painting done. To my surprise I discovered that didn't worry me. I guess I was in a morbid warp, determined to make a memorial worthy of Max, or some such drivel. I think I was desperate for anything to stop me thinking about opportunities lost and years wasted.

A message appeared on the screen - fax arriving. I had no idea what to do, so waited. A machine on the other side of the office buzzed and tossed out a paper.

ARTWORKS Inc. 1. August.

To: Maximillian's Art Gallery.

Our representative, Mr Ian Scumble, will deliver the first consignment of original, hand-painted works on Thursday morning, 8th August.

Please arrange reception and display as previously discussed.


I'd never heard of ArtWorks, and surely no one called I Scumble would dare to deal in art! Frances had never mentioned them, and it certainly didn't seem like anything that would have interested Max. A consignment of original, hand-painted works! By whom? What sort of gallery did they think we were? It had to be a mistake so I put it aside to discuss with Frances later.

Gambling that the two artists from the list who were ready to exhibit would give us a show worth looking at, I brought up the mailing list used for my own exhibition, substituted their names, typed new dates, and set the printer to churn out a stack of invitations to another grand opening the following Wednesday. At the end of another hour they were in envelopes. I had six days. A rush, but I was sure I could manage it and Frances would be impressed.

There was just time to telephone newspaper advertisements to the local and weekly papers before Madrilene Alcona shuffled into the gallery in her slippers, dragging a leather suitcase on a small trolley. A woolly knitted hat pulled down against the south-westerly wind concealed most of her face, and an enormous quilted coat, that looked as though she had made it from a doona, did the same for her figure. I led her into the workroom, turned on the heater and offered coffee.

'Coffee is poison for the mind. It stimulates all except the creative and gentle portals of the spirit,' she remarked casually while unstrapping the battered case and laying it on the floor. 'Unless it's laced with Irish whisky and topped with cream.' The smile was cheeky.

The workroom was equipped with everything to soothe both artist and patron, so it was only a matter of minutes before the microwave disgorged a substantial toddy that Madrilene sampled and pronounced perfectly adequate.

'I wouldn't waste money on it myself,' she grinned, removing doona and hat. 'I rely on you fat cats for the occasional tipple.'

Minus the wrappings she was slim, lithe, and spread her work over the floor with the vacant concentration of a greyhound. I guessed her age to be about forty; status single, financial situation lean.

'Where's Max?'

The news was received in stunned quietude. She turned pale and sank back on her heels. 'I don't go out much and almost never bother with The News. I'm very sorry,' she said quietly. 'Very, very sorry.' She stared into her drink.

There was nothing I could add to that.

As she sipped and laid out her offerings we became chummy and I was asked to call her Mad. She obviously wasn't, but the abbreviation suited her.

I gazed in growing envy at the pieces of paper laid out over every level surface. Mad was an artist who had stuck to drawing. Each work was a masterpiece of abstraction. Not what one usually thinks of as abstraction, when the viewer has to rely on the title to work out both subject and content, but a work from which everything inessential has been removed. Her drawings embodied the Neo-Platonist concept of the original perfect tree, or chair, or whatever, which is located in paradise and manifests the essence of every tree, chair or whatever.

I was reminded of the apocryphal tale of a Chinese art student who was sent by his master to a pigsty to draw pigs. At the end of each day he presented his drawings. Each day the master shook his head and told him he had not yet understood. After fifteen years, when the benighted student was nearly insane from frustration, his master told him to remain in the studio and draw - not from any living beast, but from the well of information and careful observation stored in his head. The result was a drawing containing the essence of 'pigness'. Not one specific pig, but every pig that has ever lived. Both master and pupil were satisfied.

Mad's subjects were taken from around her home. Everyday things like a zippered, soft-leather travelling bag spilling its contents onto the floor; a table with a lamp; an open window; light falling across a stairwell. Each drawing was complete and said everything necessary about the object. My eyes flicked from one to the other in increasing excitement.

'How many preparatory sketches do you make?'

She shrugged. 'Usually about a hundred. Only rough scratchings; sorting out ideas, proportions. On scraps of newspaper, old cartons, the backs of envelopes. I don't waste paper!' she added defensively. 'But it takes me that long, sometimes longer to understand what it is I'm drawing. I guess I'm pretty useless really.' She wasn't being coy. 'And I suppose you think they're too small and I use too many different media?' she sighed with resignation. 'Other galleries don't want them, they say they're too simple and I should stick to one medium. But I can't.'

'They are wonderful drawings,' I told her firmly. 'I want them all. The only problem is they have to be framed by next Wednesday's opening.'

After a quick stare of undisguised shock, she hastily gathered them together. 'Well, I don't really know whether I want to sell them. I thought I did, or at least I wanted someone to tell me they're good, but now… don't think I can bear to part with them. Sorry. There's too much of me in them.'

I sat back, understanding exactly what she was feeling.

When I made no protest, she looked up through narrowed eyes and demanded as though to test my judgement, 'Which one do you like best?'

'The bag,' I replied without hesitation. It called forth all the times I had moved; the partings, anticipation, sadness and small death that is every farewell, the potential re-birth that is every journey, every arrival. With coloured pencils, ball-point pen, black ink applied with pieces of stick, and several other techniques I had no way of working out without watching her in action, she had transformed a portion of a sheet of drawing paper into every traveller's bag. Light flickered over clasps and zips, shadows suggested contents not visible. It was the paradigm of all well-used, well-loved holdalls.

'Mmm. Perhaps you do know what you're talking about. What price do you think they'll fetch?' Her eyes narrowed when I told her. 'In other words, I've been working for about five cents an hour. And then there's your cut. How much is that?'

'Thirty percent.'

She thought for a while, re-arranged some of the drawings, selected three, one of which was the holdall, and replaced them in her folder before raising her eyes.

'OK, you can have the rest. There are only three sizes and I have mounts and frames for them all at home. I didn't bring them in because I wanted you to see the drawings unadorned. You can pick up the frames and mounts and bring me any paper work tomorrow. Come at eleven.'

She lived in the coastal hills so I could call in on the way to Celia and Hank's. I made out a receipt for the drawings, which she scanned absentmindedly and thrust into her bag.

'I'm being picked up in five minutes. Tell me exactly how Max died.'

I kept it brief, then showed her the dome. She gazed up and around for a minute.

'What a beautiful space,' she whispered. 'When Max described it I knew it would be like this. He was a remarkable man. My drawings will be very happy here.' She looked around again as though irritated. 'But Max wouldn't stumble and fall,' she said sharply. 'He was too sure-footed. He would never trip himself up. I've made a drawing of him. Do you want to see it?'

I nodded, shocked at the truth of what she'd said. Max would never trip. But he had! I'd seen him wobble on the edge and fall. I thrust the thought away. She handed me the drawing and my heart lurched. The sketch, for it was little more than that, showed Max standing in an open French window, the light from outside so strong that his left side dissolved into the glare. Only the right half of his body had been worked up. He was naked, balanced, confident, laughing and secure in himself; not looking directly at the viewer, but including us in his energetic embrace of life. I sagged to a chair.

Mad's gaze was unreadable. 'Did I capture him?'

I think I whimpered.

She placed cool fingers on my neck and whispered, 'It's yours - if you want it.'

I couldn't speak. The silence was broken by a car horn.

'That'll be Brian and the kids. Must rush. See you tomorrow.' Wrapping herself in the doona, she headed for the door.

I raced after her, pulled her into a rough hug and kissed her on the forehead. 'Thank you, Mad. I will treasure it.'

'I know.' She ran to the late-model station wagon in which husband and two teenagers were waiting, waved breezily, and was gone.

I barely had time to store the drawings before an elderly, portly gentleman arrived, armed with a photograph album and one large parcel.

'Bill Smith,' he declaimed, a well-manicured hand held out on a stiff arm. I shook it and introduced myself.

'Bad about Max. Hope the gallery stays true to his vision,' he rapped.

'So do I. Maybe your work will assist that to happen?'

He stared at me suspiciously as though seeking sarcasm, then opened his parcel. It contained a large oil painting. He placed it on one side of the gallery and led me to the opposite wall where I was obviously expected to pass judgement. The painting was beautiful, full of tantalising textural effects and a subtlety of colour I thought no longer existed, but I had no idea what I was looking at. No matter how I turned my head it remained an exquisite object without meaning. When the silence began to crystallise on the air, embarrassment loosened an honest tongue. 'I love it, what is it?'

'Someone scratching their armpit. Look, there's a bit of one finger, the nail of another, a fold of skin, the tones of flesh – it's all there,' he ended irritably, as though pointing out the obvious to an imbecile.

I looked again and it was - a delightful, intelligent and perfectly executed puzzle. I browsed through the photographs of his other works and eventually deciphered three more - a segment of an eye nestling into the fold of a lid, the back of an ear, and bits of toenail and toes. There were also several that looked altogether more risqué. Bill wasn't talkative, had no desire to pass the time of day and appeared impatient to go. Within a few minutes I'd signed him up and arranged that the following Tuesday morning he would deliver his paintings, ready to hang, with a list of titles and prices for the catalogue.

At five o'clock I ushered out the last visitor, a surly woman, annoyed there was nothing to buy and clearly unimpressed by an invitation to the opening of the next show and my promise that it would be even more exciting than the one she'd missed. I closed and locked the doors, cleaned up and went up to my room. The envelope containing Mad's drawing lay on my pillow but I didn't dare look.

Later, perhaps. I put it carefully away, donned one of Max's track-suits, jogged to the Post Office, mailed the invitations, then sweated it out for an hour along the beach.

Cold and hungry I staggered home drenched by a squall. Frances was still out.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead