By well respected editor and author, Kevin McClintock
He didn’t make a sound when he came inside the wife of the most powerful man in San Francisco. They lay sloppily in each other’s arms afterwards, each covered in a sweaty sheet of sex.
Red hair splayed out like a crusty bloodstain on the soggy bed sheets, Eleanor Livingston lay panting as she fumbled a hand atop the nearby bed stand for a cigarette. Venting twin clouds of smoke from her nostrils, she then rolled over to plant a dozen kisses on the man’s face and neck. “You were,” she said with a purr, reaching down between his legs, “absolutely wonderful, Alan.”
A second peck near the chin morphed, as her kisses often did, into a rather sensuous tongue lick. It ceased at the hollow of his neck. As she slowly moved further down his body, he gently pushed her away. Shrugging off this silent rebuke, Eleanor watched him punch his pillow three or four times before rolling over to sleep.
He was a fine looking man, she thought, reaching out and combing back his hair. There was an aura of power about him — something other men sensed and gave heed to; something women sensed and swooned to. Physically, there wasn’t anything extraordinary about him. In a crowd he would easily blend in without notice. His face was plain, but dark, as if bathed in a constant shadow. Oddly, there were no laugh lines around the eyes or at the corners of his mouth, but other lines, sharper lines, as though he bore the weight of the world.
She couldn’t remember the last time an artist, particularly one based here in southern California, made her feel giddy like this. Either they were too flowery, too delicate, too sophisticated or just too caught up in their own artistic fantasy worlds to give a damn about the real one.
Not Alan, though. She smiled. It also didn’t hurt that Aland had appeared from obscurity to become one of the most innovative, popular and wealthiest artists in the entire southwest. Unlike millions of his fellow Americans, this brush with lady fortune had spared him a brutal existence inside a broom-sized closet and endless hours of long lines for free bowls of watery cucumber soup.
Duke Ellington’s gravelly voice drifted in through the opened bedroom door, reminding listeners it didn’t mean a thing if it “ain’t got that swing.” Other tunes followed in rapid succession: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. After that, Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby began harmonizing about sparing dimes for folks down on their luck.
“What’s this one going to be called?” she asked, gesturing with her cigarette at the looming object shadowing their earlier lovemaking.
His eyes flicked up. “It’s unfinished.”
The canvas, white as bleached bone, stretched twenty feet in width and reached high enough to scrape the ceiling. Almost a third of the canvas’ surface sat unspoiled. But like the soiled brick walls used by firing squads, the rest of the canvas was sporadically splashed with several long streaks and up to a dozen ugly smears of dried red paint. Each rust-colored mark twisted about itself in a random and rather chaotic manner, meandering across the canvas as badly as a daydreaming child skipping through a flower garden.
To most it looked like slop splashed from a pig barn; mindless finger painting from a lobotomized imbecile. Art critics had mocked without mercy the first time they laid eyes on Alan’s first undertaking, back in the winter of ’32. “Unconventional” and “unrefined” they’d written for the papers. But they’d been wrong. Embarrassingly wrong, as it turned out. That very first piece had sold for $32,000. The second nearly reached $70,000. As the art critics discovered, it was precisely those “unconventional” and “unrefined” artistic patterns that so intrigued the viewing masses. And an ambitious and influential artist named Eleanor.
She stretched, pimping, pushing out her breast in a rather juvenile attempt to snare Alan’s attention. But he ignored her, listening instead to the toneless voice blaring from the living room radio.
“New details will soon be forthcoming concerning newly-elected President Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ economic plan…”
Eleanor leaned over and licked the outer rim Alan’s right earlobe.
“A mother and her 16-year-old daughter were found starving today inside a canvas shelter just outside the city, living on apples and wild berries…”
“What’s your secret,” she whispered.
“Still no new leads on three Bay Area women missing since last July…”
“I want to know what you know,” she continued. Her tongue flicked a half-dozen times into his ear. “How you do what you do.”
“The price of milk per gallon is predicted to rise to 14 cents by 1935…”
“I want your gift.”
She glanced at him. And there she froze, for he was staring intently at her, his face a clouded mask.
She waited for him to say something. He didn’t. “We could be a powerful team, Alan.”
His face went dark; eyes darker still. After a stretched pause, he finally spoke.
Like any intelligent artist, no matter the talent, Eleanor had ultimately married for money. Her husband owned, or partially owned, half the art galleries in the city. And some said he was now eyeing the other half. There were even whispers the man had sticky ties with East Coast mobsters.
The woman casually waved her hand at Alan’s question as if shooing away a child’s inquisitive touch. “Ignore him. You and me. We can do this, darling.”
And then Alan did something she hadn’t expected him to do. Quite casually, he turned her way and laughed in her face. Worse yet, he followed that up by mimicking her dismissive gesture.
As she lay there, stunned, he answered her question with a single word: Nonsense.
Eleanor’s hackles visibly pimpled; her cheeks flushing a violent shade of red. But her voice, when she spoke, remained calm.
“You leave me no choice,” she said almost casually. “I’ll have to take drastic measures.”
Alan wasn’t chuckling now. For that matter he wasn’t speaking, either. He was simply staring at the woman beside him, his face completely unreadable.
“You’ll be a memory in a month,” she said. This time, she allowed a slight ripple of emotions to spice her words. “I promise you that, Alan.”
He stared at her.
“In a month,” she repeated.
Alan’s eyes momentarily flicked away. And for a second there, Eleanor could smell an apology. And victory. Until she saw his eyes.
“Don’t do this, Eleanor.”
It was a new voice, admittedly, a tone she hadn’t heard from him. She hesitated, something she rarely did. She felt suddenly flustered; a bit uncertain.
But only for a moment.
“You leave me no choice,” she said with a shrug.
Seconds stretched into long minutes before Alan stirred, met her eyes and nodded.
Hostility slid from Eleanor’s face like damp mascara. His look, the closed eyes – it was submission, plain and simple. The proverbial tail tucked up beneath the rump.
He rolled off the bed and padded over to the nearby liquor tray. There, he swallowed a bolt of brandy. A second refilling and second long pull quickly followed. He turned. Stared at her for a few seconds, saw the last traces of her disappearing grin.
“Go there.” He was gesturing at the canvas hugging the far wall.
Grinning again, she rose naked from bed and did exactly as she was told. For once.
“—Half of Hollywood’s here tonight,” tiny and excitable Jonas Yenne belched between gulps of bloodied steak and sloppy sips of red wine. “D’ja see Jean Harlow? Gretta Garbow? Myrna Loy? All Hollywood lookers, and all here tonight to see you and your new painting.”
Alan grunted, nursing a glass of brandy.
“Even think the champ Baer’s here tonight,” Yenne prattled on, spitting a chunk of gristle on the table between their plates, “over there at that table with Dempsey.”
Alan had noticed the two world famous pugilists, plus the various Hollywood starlets oozing sexuality as they playfully flitted from group to group like moths among lights. He’d also observed several of his fellow colleagues standing among the faceless viewing public, most notably Douglas, Gorelick and Woodruff. Their presence here was a sign of unspoken respect, as well as a scouting mission to see the latest creation from the great Alan Durand.
As the two men talked, hundreds more mingled and meandered their way throughout the maze-like interior of the San Francisco Art Gallery. The building had served as ground zero for eight of Alan’s debuts. For the past hour, nearly everyone who was anybody had stopped to pay Durand his or her respects, be it a firm handshake, a slap on the back, a friendly hug or a kiss to the cheek. Hell, even a slightly tipsy Garbow had slyly reached down to grab him between the legs.
“You know what they’re saying ‘bout you?” Yenne spewed. The agent paused to inhale a chunk of meat. A stream of blood ran down the left side of his chin. “They’re saying this is your best Stain yet.”
The Stain. His Stain. A glistening canvas of reds and blacks, a canvassed corpse stripped of its flesh, hanging Christ-like from a ceiling-mounted cross It glowed from a dozen flour-mounted searchlights. As usual, hundreds milled below it, pointing, gasping, a few openly shrieking with delight. Such displays of raw emotions were commonplace now, though early on in Durand’s career it had been a phenomenon, the way his Stains affected the public. Women would tear up and sniffle into handkerchiefs, men choking as they struggled to swallow dry lumps. Only the children, the very small and the very innocent, proved irresistibly unaffected by the paintings, though they did often display a fascination for his hanging Stains, often straining against the arms holding them to briefly touch a dried crimson streak on the canvas or blob of blackened oil.
Yenne yanked a chilled martini from a passing waiter’s tray and held it out to Alan in silent salute. It was a ritual he’d conducted twenty-one times before, one for each of Alan’s masterpieces. He topped it off with four liquid gulps, a good third of the drink splashing the front of his ill-fitting three-piece suit.
Expecting a new burst of rapid machine-gun gibberish from his manager, Alan instead received a rather intense and grim stare from across the table.
“Why?” Yenne finally asked his most successful client. “Why in the hell di—” his voice dropped off a cliff as a group of men and women sauntered past their table. The five men and women aborted their discussion concerning Roosevelt’s Federal Arts Project long enough to pat and primp Durand on a job well done. When they finally moved on, a Glenn Miller melody helped smother the noisy din of talk, laugh and song. “Why her, Alan?” Of all the girls out there, of all the dames you coulda grabbed from the litter, you had to go and do her. What the fuck were you thinking?”
Alan’s shadowed face was a mask. His eyes flickered from the distant Stain high above to Yenne’s rather vicious glare opposite him. He remained silent, however, only adding to his friend’s irritation.
“It ain’t a trick question,” Yenne finally said.
“I don’t like threats.”
“Threats?” Yenne’s bloodshot eyes narrowed to shiny dots. “Who? The dame?”
“Wait,” Yenne said, looking genuinely surprised, “You’re telling me that she knew? I mean… all of it?”
Alan sipped from his glass. “Not at first. Not all of it.”
The artist watched his manager slick back his thinning hair with an open palm, chewing on his lower lip as he silently contemplated possible repercussions. They sat that way in silence before Yenne finally stirred.
“Where’s you put her?”
Alan simply grinned.
“Put your back to the canvas, Eleanor,” Alan instructed, busily unlocking the metal box beneath his writing desk and pulling out a leather satchel. “Lean up against it.”
Eleanor gasped when her naked flesh touched the cold canvas surface. “Can I at least put my robe back on?”
But he was ignoring her, busy slipping various instruments from the satchel — three brushes of varying length, some oiled rags, a large hunk of chalk, paints and pulps, sketch pencils and a single eraser.
He’d once told a lifestyles reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle that the contents inside his beaten-up satchel bag were his sole prized possessions. The reporter had found this revelation amusing, to say the least, sitting as he was inside the den of Alan’s spacious eleven-room loft. It had been no pun, however. Alan guarded the cracked satchel like protective fathers and their daughters’ virginity.
He approached her now, flashing a warm smile. Even as he stooped to plant a wet kiss on her lips, he drew twin sets of wrist and ankle shackles from behind the canvas. Forged from black iron, the ugly thing made harsh, metallic sounds. Her face instantly dissolved into pure disgust as she shied away.
“Alan… I didn—”
Her words were suddenly strangled in mid-sentence as Alan slapped the inch-thick bands around her wrists and, moments later, her ankles. Each chain could easily resist the determined pulls from a dozen grown men.
Panic now blossomed in her face, her pupils rapidly dilating. “Please wait! I don’t understand-”
He kissed her, smothering her protests with tongue and lip and saliva. She appeared winded when he finally tore away from the violent embrace. “Relax,” he whispered into her ear, gently petting a flushed cheek. “Relax.”
He then turned and walked back to his collection of paints, busying himself with mixing various colored oils atop a wooden pallet. He enlarged each pool with his brush, akin to an alchemist of old swirling together liquid potions of one sort or another.
He turned and moved toward her. Eleanor watched, shivering against the canvas, as he stopped just short of her. There, he silently studied her face and body, his mouth working without sound. A slight tic flared to life below his left eye. He periodically squinted at her, turning his head slightly up or down. Finally, his eyes focused on her breasts, then down to her right calf, further down to her left ankle, before rising back up to her shoulder and, finally, her face.
Setting down his unused pallet and snatching up a single charcoal-tracing pen from the satchel, Alan licked its tip before placing it against her right shoulder. He stood for nearly two minutes in front of her, frozen, the pencil’s tip still touching her shoulder, itself unmoving. His face was blank, as before, with a bit of drool collecting at one corner of his opened mouth.
He suddenly dropped the charcoal pen to her naval. There, with a single sharp prick of pain, he left behind a black smear against her flesh. Without hesitation, he then dropped on his haunches and pricked the flesh just above the right knee, again leaving behind a single dark mark. A third dot marred her shoulder, a fourth atop her left foot, while a fifth encircled a faded mole just below the stubble of her left armpit. Over the next several minutes, with almost robotic precision, Alan tattooed her with two-dozen black dots, along with six long black streaks stitching together various portions of her body, including the stomach, the right buttock and the very small of her back.
For the third time in as many minutes, she called her name – the sound raised at the end in questioning.
He finally looked up at her.
“Please let me go.” There were tears in her eyes.
He turned his back to her, made his way back to the table filled with instruments. He opened the satchel and drew out something black and heavy. He turned to face her. At that moment, Eleanor saw something lunch behind his eyes.
From the nearby room, a crooning Bing Crosby did his very best to smother the sounds of her screams.
Yenne was beyond angry at Alan’s grinning, his small and soiled hands neatly folded into fists.
“Whores and wenches,” he spat. “Remember me sayin’ that, Alan? Whores and wenches. How many times have I said that to you, you smug son-of-a-bitch? How many years have I been telling you that?”
His voice was carrying, and heads at nearby tables were turning their way. Yenne wanted nothing more than to crawl across the table and throttle the bastard. Instead, he closed his mouth and slumped back into his chair, his anger spent.
The two sat there like this, entrenched enemies staring across a smoking No Man’s Land, before Alan stirred to wave a flag of truce.
“Whores and wenches,” Alan said, pausing to pat at the corners of his mouth with a linen. “I understand, Jonas.”
“But…” Yenne said.
“But there was a threat.”
With those last five words, Yenne noticed with a sudden chill that Alan’s voice had suddenly changed, had hardened, words formed into a raw and rough dialect.
“You, Jonas, know how far I’ve come. How far I’ll go to see all this,” he gestured at the bustling art gallery around him, “continues.”
Yenne held up his hands in silent submission. Indeed, he knew exactly how far Alan would go to protect his status and power. The Stain hanging above their heads was living proof of that.
Thirty-seven women. Thirty-seven women had contributed in some way, shape or form to Alan’s twenty-plus Stains. The first had been Nicole, a 15-year-old prostitute. She’d been slashed open with a straight razor, her blood staining the canvas in pre-selected spots, her screams smothered against a water-drenched towel.
“Eleanor-fucking-Livingston,” Yenne said in disbelief, again slicking back his greasy hair with an opened palm.
Alan merely shrugged.
“Well,” Yenne continued, heaving a long-winded sigh, “ironclad alibi, Alan. Ironclad. You were with the missus and me, of course — dinner and that new talkie picture… y’ know, with that Hepburn dame? What the hell’s its name?”
“Bill of Divorcement,” Alan said.
“That’s the one. So no worries. I’ll talk to some of my newspaper friends, palm some green here and there, try to smooth out the ripples. Probably’ll do the same with the coppers, now that I’m thinking about it.”
Alan nodded with approval. Moments later, he was up from the table and already eyeing the nearest exit.
“Whores and wenches, Alan,” Yenne whispered at him, his voice a high-pitched, almost canine-like whine. “Whores and wenches, remember?”
Alan nodded once and flashed him a wide grin before disappearing into the milling crowd.
He had work to do.
We are lucky to have Kevin McClintock's work here. Stains captures the intelligence and craft Kevin displays in all of his work, and gives a zoomed in look at what could be a good book. Known for his fresh perspective and thought-provoking stories, Kevin has made a name for himself as both and author and an editor. His work, including "No Vacancies," continues to be inspiring to me, as both a fan and author.
Taken from Amazon: Kevin McClintock (1970-) was born in Carterville, Missouri and has lived in the very-haunted Ozark Mountain region of Southwest Missouri for most of his life. He is an 18-year, award-winning veteran of journalism, presently working full-time as a special projects writer for The Joplin Globe as well as associate editor for the Joplin Metro Magazine. He is the proud writer of numerous horror and dark fiction stories, and has published 27 of them in various markets since mid-2009. His collection of five novellas, "No Vacancies," was published in 2011 by Dark Moon Books. He was named SNM's "Writer of the Year" for 2010. For more information, visit his page, "Author Kevin McClintock" on Facebook, HERE.