This is the first chapter of the upcoming C.T. Ferguson novella Blood on Canvas. It will be released as part of the Dead Silent box set in January 2021.
I was about to take my first bite of street corn when I got the question I’d hoped not to hear. “Mister Ferguson, what do you think of the painting?”
I sat in the Hacienda Mexican Restaurant. Its co-owner, Juan Manuel Espinoza, awaited my answer. My potential client referred to an image hanging on the brick wall near our table. It was maybe eighteen inches by two feet and surrounded by a tacky wooden frame I would have been embarrassed to use as kindling.
This wasn’t the worst part of it, however. The painting depicted the face of Jesus on a black background. I’d never been adept at drawing, and I felt pretty confident I could’ve done better. The proportions of the head were odd, with the chin too large and the forehead small by comparison. Jesus’ hair appeared stringy, his beard too long, and the dimensions of the crown of thorns on his head could have formed a hat. After a few seconds of consideration, I managed to say, “Um.”
A polished speaker, I am.
The painting was hideous. However, Espinoza proudly pointed it out to me when we sat down. I didn’t want to tell him what I thought of the art. It struck me as akin to telling a mother her baby was ugly. Even if the tyke made strangers want to cover their eyes, one didn’t go around pointing it out.
Thankfully, he let me off the hook. “It is ugly. I know.”
It enjoyed plenty of company. The restaurant displayed quite a few works of art, and many of them strained the term’s definition. Hacienda earned a good reputation for their food over the years. If the fare had been mediocre, more people might have noticed what hung on the walls. The few other people in the dining area took notice of nothing but their meals and each other. “I didn’t want to come out and tell you,” I said.
“I understand.” He spread his hands. “As I told you, it’s a copy. The original was stolen recently.”
“I don’t mean to sound indelicate, but why would someone steal an ugly painting?”
“This is why I want to hire you,” Juan Manuel said. His voice carried only a mild accent. While he talked, a waiter came out with my entree—three assorted tacos, plus rice and refried beans. When the server walked away, Juan Manuel gestured at my glass of iced tea. “You don’t want a margarita?”
“I find alcohol dulls my appreciation of art,” I said. I finally ate a few bites of my street corn, and while it had grown lukewarm during the conversation, it still tasted terrific.
The owner smiled. “I think you would need many margaritas to find it pretty.”
I examined the tacos on my plate. Judging by the thin cut of meat and fragrant spices, I pegged the first as carne asada. The middle was some sort of chicken, and the remaining one a variety of fish. Being a proud American carnivore, I started with the beef. It possessed just the right amount of heat. I devoured the taco before I knew it. “Why do you want to find the original?” I asked after wiping my mouth. “You’ve admitted it’s ugly. I can’t imagine it’s very valuable.”
“It has been in my family for three generations,” Juan Manuel said. “My grandfather was great friends with the artist. Our families remain close to this day.”
“Sentimental value, then.” He nodded. Juan Manuel’s graying hair and crow’s feet put him around sixty. “Your grandfather would have acquired the painting about a hundred years ago, then?”
“Más o menos,” he said. “Are you familiar with the Escobar Rebellion?”
I shook my head. “Not really.”
“It happened in Mexico. Nineteen twenty-nine.”
“It probably gets drowned out by the other big event of the same year.”
Juan Manuel showed me a small smile. “They don’t teach you much Mexican history in schools here.”
“I know Mexico’s independence day is in September, not the fifth of May,” I said. “Puts me one up on about ninety percent of my countrymen.”
He laughed and clapped his hands. “Very well. I can forgive you not knowing about the Escobar Rebellion. It was not a long conflict. My grandfather served in the national army along with his friend Gerardo Garza. Toward the end, some of the battles were brutal. Señor Garza participated willingly, according to my grandfather. In the year after, he came to regret it. He rediscovered religion and took up painting.” He paused. “Are you a religious man, Mister Ferguson?”
“Call me C.T.,” I said. “And no . . . not particularly.”
Juan Manuel shrugged. “I don’t think my grandfather was, either. He remained friends with Señor Garza for many years. As I told you, our families are still close. You can always spot a Garza because he signs each painting with his initials.”
I scanned the copy on the wall. Sure enough, in the lower left corner, I noticed a small GG in white letters to stand out against the black background. “Is this the only one you have?”
“No,” Juan Manuel said. “We keep some in the basement. The original of this one was always on display. Otherwise, my son decides what goes on the walls.”
“He’s your partner in the restaurant?” I returned to my neglected meal, taking a large bite of the chicken taco.
“He is.” Juan Manuel beamed. “Miguel was the first of our family to finish college.”
“Congratulations,” I said around a mouthful of food.
“Gracias. Miguel and I dislike showing this copy. Do you think you can help me find the original?”
I’d never worked an art theft case before, so I had no insights into it. I also couldn’t fathom why somebody would steal an ugly painting whose value was largely sentimental. Maybe the thief knew, which would make it a personal crime. “I can,” I said. “I’ll probably need some information from you along the way. If the painting isn’t worth much, I have to think someone stole it to hurt you personally.”
My host grimaced at my comment. “What you say is possible. I will help you any way I can.”
“All right. I’ll start as soon as I finish my dinner.”
“You don’t work for money?”
“No,” I said, “but I might need a few hundred more of these tacos.”
“It can be arranged,” Juan Manuel said with a smile.
* * *
I drove back to my house in the Federal Hill area of Baltimore. Like many old parts of the city, homes topped a century in age. I owned an end-unit rowhouse which was tall and fairly deep but not especially wide. I swung my Audi S4 into the alley which runs parallel to my street and pulled onto the parking pad behind my house. A familiar red rocketlike Mercedes coupe occupied the other half.
Sure enough, my girlfriend Gloria Reading arrived while I was gone. She greeted me with a kiss after I opened the back door and walked into the kitchen. “What’s for dinner?”
“I ate three really good tacos.”
“You brought some for me, right?” I made a show of looking at everything in the room except Gloria. This was difficult, as I could never tire of gazing at her. She angled her head to the side and pointed at the plastic bag tucked behind my leg. “You did!”
I held the bag out. “Enjoy. They’re probably still hot.”
A couple minutes later, we sat at the table in my kitchen. Calling it a breakfast nook overstated the available space. Whoever owned the house before me remodeled it to include a first-floor office and a small addition at the rear. The results were a cramped kitchen and negligible dining room. Considering Gloria and I ate most of our meals on the couch or in restaurants, the tradeoff was worth it.
I kept it simple and got Gloria a trio of carne asada tacos plus a bowl of rice. Her proper upbringing compelled her to set a full place for herself at the table. “If you eat those with a knife and fork,” I said, “I’m never bringing you tacos again.”
Gloria looked between her meal and me. She smiled, picked up one folded tortilla, and took a massive bite. It was enough to make me do a double take. In addition to cutting her food like a well-mannered lady, Gloria always took small bites. What I could devour in four chomps took her ten. These tacos proved the exception. After she scarfed down the first one, she said, “Weren’t you going to a Mexican restaurant to talk about a case?”
I nodded. “Apparently, I investigate missing paintings now.”
“What do you know about art?”
“Not much,” I said. “I skipped the class in college whenever I could.”
Gloria chuckled around a bite of dinner. Once she finished chewing and wiped her mouth, she said, “Me, too.”
“And here I thought you enjoyed the ‘arts’ portion of your snooty liberal arts education.” Gloria graduated from Brown, probably because her parents wanted to be able to boast about it at dinner parties. I eschewed the Ivy League for local Loyola College, and I’ve wondered if my mother missed the bragging point at rotary club meetings.
“Paintings and PowerPoint don’t mix,” Gloria said.
I let her finish the rest of her meal without going into details. Once she’d cleared the table and we adjourned to the living room, Gloria wanted to know all about the case. Early in our relationship when it was based on fun and convenience, she didn’t take an interest in my work. Over time, she grew more curious about it, we made things official on the personal front, and Gloria began using her considerable brains and moneyed connections to work as a fundraiser. “Is it a famous painting?” she asked.
“What’s the opposite of famous?” I said, leaning my head back on the comfortable couch.
Gloria snuggled up to me and put her head on my shoulder. “Who steals something obscure?”
“There’s more.” I called up a picture Espinoza sent me, showing the artwork in all its limited glory. She frowned and wrinkled her nose.
“Even the owner thinks so.”
“Why does he want it back?”
“Sentimental value,” I said. “His grandfather was good friends with the artist, and a bunch of these things are still in the family.”
Gloria grabbed my hand and peered at the image on my phone. “Is it painted on velvet?”
“I don’t think so, but it does look a little like it.”
“You’ve worked some strange cases before,” Gloria said, “but this one might be the weirdest. I can’t imagine someone stealing that thing, and then I don’t know why anyone would want it back.”
“I had the same thoughts,” I said. “It made me curious, so I told the restaurant owner I’d look into it.”
Gloria shifted her head and kissed my neck. I wrapped my hand in her chestnut hair. “When were you planning on starting?” she said in a breathy whisper.
“I can’t imagine the thing is in high demand. Tomorrow should be fine.”
Gloria swung one leg over me and settled onto my lap. “I like the way you think.”
* * *
The next morning, I woke up just before nine. Since turning thirty about seven months ago, I lost my ability to sleep in. On the whole, getting older beat the alternative, so I tried to reframe the early hour as getting a start on my morning constitutional. I left a sleeping Gloria in bed, changed into running attire, and hit the mean streets of Federal Hill.
Most mornings, I did my laps around the eponymous park, and today was no exception. The streets were quieter here. They got busier on the weekends when restaurants and bars pulled in good crowds. During the week, however, the hustle and bustle of Baltimore lay several minutes away on the other side of the harbor. To change up the routine some days, I went across Key Highway and ran around Harborplace. In the summer, though, the tourist count went way up, and I preferred not dodging a lot of people.
About thirty minutes later, I returned home and showered. Gloria remained in the exact same pose she was in when I left some forty minutes prior. I never knew how she slept through the water running nearby, but she always did. She’d be awake soon enough. I walked downstairs, put a pot of coffee on, and surveyed the food situation in my kitchen. A few minutes later, I cooked pancakes and turkey bacon in separate skillets. The combined aromas wafting up roused Gloria, as they always did. Her feet hit the hardwood, and she came down while I plated everything.
“Morning,” she said, planting a minty kiss on me and fixing herself a mug of coffee. I watched her with interest. In the summer, Gloria’s sleepwear grew smaller. She wore a scandalous tank top and a tiny pair of shorts which would’ve been considered indecent at the Playboy Mansion. My gaping drew her attention, and she smiled. “Easy, tiger. We’re both hungry.”
I couldn’t speak for Gloria, but I certainly was. After wolfing three large pancakes and four slices of bacon, I felt ready to take on the day. As usual, Gloria finished eating after I did. I poured some coffee in a travel mug, kissed my barely-dressed girlfriend goodbye, and left while my resolve still held.
For about two years, I’ve kept an office in the CareFirst Building in Canton Square. Shortly after I moved in, they took over from the previous owners. At this point, I was one of the very few tenants without a connection to medicine. I expected them to give me the boot at any time. Until then, I liked the separation from my personal life. Working from my house didn’t allow for it, and one more look at Gloria would’ve ruined me for the rest of the morning.
Not knowing much about art and those who would steal it, I began with Google. I spent close to a half-hour reading about the thefts of paintings over the years, their recovery, and the investigators who figured it all out. If a bunch of faceless feds could sort these things out, I liked my odds. Next, I dug into Gerardo Garza and his many works. Like Juan Manuel told me, he painted endless pictures of Jesus. There were slight variations between them, but one thing remained true: all of them were ugly.
Why someone would go to the trouble of stealing a hideous piece of art remained puzzling to me. Garza wasn’t famous. This wasn’t a million-dollar Picasso someone swiped in the night. Using what Juan Manuel told me, I looked into the history and provenance of many Garza works. All origination in Mexico in the years following the Escobar Rebellion. The first changed hands in 1933. The ‘forties and early ‘fifties saw the most activity.
Following Garza’s death in 1960, interest in his body of work spiked briefly before returning to ho-hum status. Much of his catalog ended up with the Espinoza family. Miguel Ángel, Juan Manuel’s grandfather and the inspiration for his son’s name, kept detailed records of what he maintained in his inventory. I found a scan of a Mexican newspaper article from 1963. Despite a bit of rust on my Spanish, I made it through the piece.
Jesús Sobre Terciopelo No. 35, which earned the name from its velvety appearance despite being painted on canvas, first appeared in the family’s records in 1960. Sixty years later, someone stole it from a restaurant in Baltimore. It remained hideous throughout its history, and none of Garza’s paintings held any real value on the open market.
Something beyond art theft was going on here, and I’d jumped headlong into it.
Dead Silent is a limited-time multi-author box set currently on preorder for only $0.99.
Apple preorders are the most useful right now as we try for the USA Today bestseller list. You need an Apple device (iPhone, iPad, or Mac) and can get the collection here.
For other storefronts, you can get Blood on Canvas at this universal link.