Just Another Art Critic

“So, you think it’s linked to this picture somehow?” Lt. Benson Davis cocked his graying head to one side, thoughtfully pursing his lips.

“Well, the painting caused quite a stir in its day,” the docent replied. “The subject, the mixed media approach of acrylics and etching. It drew large crowds of people from all over, which, of course, attracted other people looking to . . . how shall we say this? Make a profit off of the exhibition attendees. Yes, common enough.”

Jo fidgeted next to Benson, impatiently tapping her foot.  “Well,” she said, “is it at least a starting place?”

“Hmmm?” Benson, startled, blinked his eyes at Jo.

Funny how time changed some people in very remarkable ways, but didn’t touch other people. Jo didn’t look a whit different from the day he first met her ten years ago when he was newly assigned to the missing person’s investigations. Jo was the god-mother of the latest 14-year old girl gone astray, and fiercely protective of both the girl’s mother and the girl.

At the time, Benson was new to missing person cases, and had yet to learn how many of them were never solved. Like most of his colleagues, he had a file of cases he continued to follow up on at intervals, despite the Chief telling him it was case closed. Some more regularly than others, to be sure, but all to Benson’s mind very much still alive and crying out for answers.

Jo had been a thorn in his side ten years ago, questioning him and challenging every assumption, every decision each step of the way. It looked as though the thorn was just as pointed and ready to draw blood as a decade ago.

Prickly thorns aside, Jo still sported a slender, fit body that wore her sloppy second hand clothes and mussed hair with the aplomb of a great queen of old.

Make no mistake, Benson, he warned himself. This woman will not take off-putting commentary or soothing noises. She’s all about action and results.

Jo’s arms were crossed over her chest, her face a study in forced attentiveness and patience. Sardonically, Benson tipped his forehead to his fingers, wondering if she would get the implied comment when he tugged on his forelock.

Jo’s eyes narrowed and Benson decided the point had not been lost on her.

A grin quirking at the corner of his mouth, Benson turned back to the waiting docent, who had apparently missed the entire exchange. He supposed most artists and the critics that shepherded their work through the hallowed exhibition halls were oblivious to non-verbal communication.

Narcissism, alive and well.

The docent looked as though he was still reliving that night years ago, and Benson knew better than to demand the attention of someone who might remember something critically important. Instead, he took the time to really study the picture closely. Painting, he reminded himself. Mixed media. Crowd pleaser. Or at least crowd gatherer. A crowd ripe for the picking, he scowled to himself.

Apart from the missing persons cases which sprang up with regularity for the next two weeks after the opening night, there had been the usual run of complaints about car jackings, stolen wallets, missing purses . . . the list went on.

Someone had quite the little crime ring going, and enough smarts to know how to avoid the authorities, disappearing back into whatever portion of the underworld they had come from. The only question was, were the illegal activities all part of the same ring, or were there competing gangs operating on the same turf, with a diversified portfolio of criminal activities?

Benson narrowed his eyes at the painting, still unsure of what all the fuss had been about. He was not attuned to artistic endeavors, and gathered Jo wasn’t either when she gave a slight sigh and huffed away to a garish orange chair sitting by a window and flung herself into it.

Benson decided to ignore her, and leaned closer to the picture. Why the red sandals on the young girl and the brown clod-hoppers on the older woman? he wondered. They totally disturbed the dream-like quality of the rest of the painting.

“Ahhh!” the docent turned back around to Benson, his eyes glinting with excitement. “I only caught a glimpse of Maerin and her daughter Brea when they were both here for the opening night of the exhibition. But she was most memorable. Brea, that would be . . . and of course, her mother in her own way, but the beauty of young girls blossoming into womanhood, even when they try to cover it up . . .”

The docent’s voice trailed off awkwardly, and Benson raised a single eyebrow and looked with greater interest at the man.

“And,” Benson prompted, ignoring the snort behind him. That woman had eagle ears, Benson decided. The docent was not speaking at all loudly.

“And . . . oh!” The docent shook his head, coming out of his reverie again. He seemed to go there a lot, Benson reflected, wondering if the man was naturally absent-minded, or if some of it was chemically induced.  “Note to self, Officer,” he said silently, “set up some discreet surveillance.”

“I do remember she and her mother had some words and she left. Didn’t go far – just to the next hall, and sat in a chair near the window facing out on Main Street. A man sat down next to her and chatted with her.”

Benson nodded wearily. This was all in the records already. He was just about to point that out, when the docent went on. “I’ve seen that man in here again recently, several times actually, in the last few months. I didn’t see him after Brea disappeared.”

No one saw him after Brea disappeared, Benson thought to himself. A prime suspect, apparently disappeared off the face of the earth.

Interesting that he had been seen lurking around the Gallery again. Looking for new wares, Benson figured, and smart enough to not come back to the same place without a significant gap in time separating hits.

“How do you know it’s the same man?” Benson idly started paring his fingernails with his pocket knife.

“Oh, he had a most remarkable birthmark on his face,” the docent babbled, trying to describe it with words and gestures. This too was noted in Benson’s copious case notes, carefully described. An artist’s rendering of the several different verbal descriptions was also in the case file.

“When was the last time you saw him,” Benson asked, preparing for a disappointing answer that would lead to another dead end.

“Just yesterday,” the docent replied, surprised. “That’s why I thought you were here – I called the station and told them I saw the same man that you were looking for after the girl’s disappearance.”

The docent looked perplexed, and Benson groaned inwardly.

He had been out on another case all day yesterday, and had avoided stopping by the office when he got off shift simply because he didn’t think he could stomach the ever growing mounds of paperwork.

“And you know,” the docent continued, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip, “he wasn’t really looking at artwork again. He just sits in the other hall chatting with people – well, really, only with women and girls – but not really viewing the art. I always find it odd when people come to an art show and don’t really look at the exhibition, don’t you?”

The docent continued to ramble on about people’s viewing habits, and Benson turned to Jo.

“Like art much?”

Jo sprang to her feet. “No,” she replied, “but I’ll learn to love it if that’s what it takes.”

“Excellent,” Benson replied. “Let’s get tickets to this evening’s showing.”