Children of the Paintings: Chapter 1

“The last time you saw your father was last Saturday the 12th?” The officer asked, a note of incredulity creeping into his voice.

“Well, yeah. He often left for long periods of time on archeology trips. Greece, Romania, South Africa.”

“Today is the 19th. You know it it’s illegal for your father to leave you two alone for so long.”

“I’m 18! And my father is missing for Christ’s sake, so skip the accusations please!” Sarah was normally very calm and collected in tough situations. At seven, wandering and lost in the San Diego zoo, she’d paid visits to all her favorite animals (the giraffes, the meerkats, the servals) without missing a beat, then negotiated with an employee for free ice cream before meeting her father and little brother at the Information Center, where for the past hour they’d frantically rushed about shouting her name and checking for strange gray vans offering candy to little girls. But this was different. Grey was gone. At the zoo, she’d reasoned that she was lost, not that her father was lost. Now, it was the other way around. At least, she hoped. There was the other possibility she and Dale had discussed.

After her outburst, conversation with the officer simmered down. Sarah bit her lip; Dale’s interview was lasting much longer. Finally, the door opened and he took his seat with a dignified air. He leaned his shoulder into Sarah’s, a silent show of offering strength. And patience, as it would turn out.

After a brief, hushed discussion, the two officers returned. “The mysterious circumstances of Grey Percy’s disappearance really go beyond our jurisdiction. His travels took him into foreign countries. You said he’s in Colombia, now?”

“Yep. He and his partner at the museum, Mark Sorrelike, were checking out this ancient clock. It was really interesting, actually.”

“Well, Mr. Sorrelike hasn’t left Manhattan. He said the trip was called off at the last minute because your father had an emergency. They talked at 9:30 last Saturday night. Although the trip was cancelled, your father still got on the plane, making it an international problem.” The siblings digested these facts for a moment. “We’ll make a few calls to get in contact with the Colombian embassy. It may be a little difficult considering the state of our relations with them, you know.”

Sarah fixed the other officer, whose name, if she remembered correctly, was Roger, with a glare. “Can I have my phone back? I’d like to make a call.”

Roger pursed his lips, but he’d already checked the SIM card for suspicious calls. He handed over the phone after Sarah finally let it slip that she intended only to call Mr. Sorrelike. When he didn’t pick up, she dropped her head into her hand and rubbed her forehead. Suddenly she felt incredibly lonely. It’s strange, she thought, that I’m all ready to up and live without a parent at college but this blows me over. For the first time since she was little, Sarah wished for the mother whose name and face she knew only from stories and pictures. The war in Iraq stole Anya’s life when the two were still young, but the loss hit her again from time to time.

Dale shuffled back from the other side of the stagnant room, his hands in his pockets. He nudged Sarah in the shin, smiling halfheartedly with half his mouth. Sarah mirrored his expression. The officer drove them home and then parked outside to play watchdog all night in case Grey showed up.

Once home, Dale collapsed on the sofa while Sarah perched her elbows on the kitchen table, as was her predatory, elder-sister habit. “Dale. Come. We have to talk about it. That officer out there is twiddling his thumbs. Let’s not kid ourselves. Dad won’t be coming back, not that way at least.”

“Okay, but don’t say too much. They could be listening!”

“If they were, they’d think we were crazy. That is, after they break down the door because you just said what you just said!” After a beat, they burst into tense laughter edged with panic.

“I concede the point. Let’s take a look.” Flicking on an extra light, they examined the object they’d hidden in plain sight from the officers’ scrutiny. The painting was mounted hastily on the turquoise wall. It comforted them. No matter how desperate their situation seemed, there was a canvas thread tying it all together. Somehow, this painting was the key. It had appeared on their wall the day after Grey missed his flight back. Its sudden, sly arrival planted a seed of suspicion that their father had smuggled it, so they’d pretended they’d had it for years. After hearing the news about Mr. Sorrelike, that seed took root.

Not that the tiny, depressed looking forensics team so busily scouring their apartment that day had asked anything about the painting, which was certainly banal, prima facie at least. There was beautiful Greek-looking woman in a long white dress floating above a mass of villagers celebrating her. Sarah ran her fingers down the sides of the frame and whistled, impressed. Angels and demons were carved into the wood with a chilling accuracy that shocked awake sleeping memories in her heart. Her fingernail accidentally chipped off a flake of the cheap gold paint, sending it spiraling to the floor. Watching its descent, she realized why the angels and demons were so familiar and gasped. “I’ve seen this before!”

“What, the painting?”

“No, the frame. That storybook. Hold on. I need to go look for something in the storage locker, so while I do that your job is to find out the history of the painting.”

“Already on it! What do you think the UV light is for – determining the age of oil paints or what?”

“Nerd,” Sarah retorted before disappearing into her room. With that, they were at work. Well, sort of. Dale doggedly combed through the painting using their Dad’s tools, occasionally emitting a hmmm or a huh, while Sarah leafed through childhood memories.

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