Let me begin by saying that, “writer’s block” is no joke, folks.
‘Tis been nearly a year to the day that I last posted in my digital Sanctum Sanctorum of scribblings and geekified rantings. But I must say, it feels good to let my fingers and brain engage in their collaborative frolic, yet again. “Jesus take the wheel!” as my Catholic church-goers of old would say.
Speaking of which, if there was any truth to the religious fairy tales of my youth, I’d be thanking the absurdly “white,” old man in the sky for Chuck Wendig, and his decision to bring back his weekly Flash Fiction Challenge, without which I’d still be suffering from creative starvation (a creative hobo, if you will). Whether or not I remain a creative “hobo” has yet to be determined, however. I mean, for all I know, I’ve been a hobo from the start, like in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis doesn’t realize he’s been a ghost the entire time. But, I digress. Focus, hobo, focus.
The challenge set forth for us by the aforementioned good sir was to pick one of five prompts, and write a thousand-word story based on said selection. I failed to meet the deadline, which was this past Friday, but here’s what the “collaborative frolic” birthed when I finally put the proverbial pen to paper….
To the passerby, the two men milling about inside of MOCA – that’s The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, for those of you who are merely spectating visitors in our busy little city – simply appeared to be part of a night crew, such as you’d see milling about in any of the various museums quietly coexisting during this time of the night. But, like eyes often do, they can be deceptively misleading; because these two are not part of the museum’s night crew, oh no, far from it. These two gentlemen are currently heisting precious works of art meant for the exhibition slated to open tomorrow. Let’s drop in and take a closer look, shall we?
“How many did you say fit in these cases?”
Tim opened his case to observe several, neatly stored pieces. “About ten each. But remember, we’re only snagging the ones we’ve already confirmed are gonna fetch a pretty penny with our buyer.”
Ryan took stock of the load he was carrying. Being not much of an “art” guy, it was all the same to him.
“I can fit another three in mine.”
“Good, now get your ass moving, and I’ll meet you back here in a few. The night crew doesn’t come in for another few hours, which gives us plenty of time to finish up and skedaddle before they arrive.”
Tim and Ryan sauntered off in opposite directions. The museum itself wasn’t overly expansive, but a person could get lost if they didn’t know where they were going. Fortunately, these two had prepped for several days, walking around during visiting hours, and taking notes of the building’s layout; but it was still a slight task navigating through the darkness without drawing outside attention to the occasional beam of light needed to find one’s way.
Ryan had just finished packing the last of his portion and was making his way back to their meeting place, when he came upon the most peculiar of portraits. The painting had no credited artist information, only a title printed on a tiny white card at the very bottom of it.
“He Who Laughs Last,” Ryan read aloud. “Hmm, what an odd painting. Hey, Tim, check this creepy thing out.”
Tim, who had also just finished storing the last of his pieces into his case, walked over to where Ryan was standing, quizzically staring at the painting before him. He bent his head slightly so he could read the title card.
“He Who Laughs Last. Hmm, I’ve never seen this one before. Who’s it by?”
“Beats me,” Ryan shrugged, “there’s no name attached to it aside from the title. You think it’s worth somethin’?”
“I don’t know, but I bet our buyer can find someone who’d take it. Here, help me pull it off the wall.”
Tim put his case down and opened it up to make room for one more, when Ryan suddenly shouted.
“What the fuck?! Tim, this shit moved!”
Tim set his case aside and stood by Ryan, staring at the painting.
“What the hell are you talking about, dumbass? Are you high?”
Ryan backed up a few steps. “I’m telling you, that shit moved. Both their eyes opened and looked at me, man!”
Tim took a few steps towards the painting to better inspect it; although, in doing so, he couldn’t help but feel both ridiculous and annoyed for entertaining his partner’s absurd claim.
“You’re ridiculous, man, the painting is completely stagnant. Now, get over here and help me take it down.”
Apprehensively, Ryan walked over to grab the other side of the painting. Just as he and Tim were about to pull it down, the portrait began to expand from the frame. Startled, both men jumped back, hearts racing, chills trickling down their spines.
“I told you!”
Tim took several steps back to inspect the area. There had to be some sort of mechanical display set up for this thing to appear three-dimensional, that’s why it moved, he thought to himself. Maybe it’s all part of the gimmick, or something.
Perhaps if Tim hadn’t been busy trying to justify what had transpired moments before, he might have been able to prevent what happened next.
Just as Tim pivoted towards the portrait, both figures in it opened their eyes, and turned to face the two men standing before them. Gone were the smiles they previously held. Expressionless, and staring directly at Ryan and Tim, the figures appeared more like predators eyeing their prey than the jovial characters they were just a few moments prior.
Both men were cemented to their spots, neither being able to move a muscle, as they stared back at the menacing-looking figures before them. To an outside observer, it might have appeared like there were two art connoisseurs intensely critiquing a museum piece; nothing could have been further from the truth.
Suddenly, without warning, or any sort of hint, the two figures reached out and grabbed Tim and Ryan by the shoulders, neither able to resist because of the sheer horror of the situation. Before a final breath could be taken, or a prayer could be uttered, both of our would-be-thieves were pulled into the portrait they had been trying to steal only moments ago, leaving behind two cases of art that would never be delivered.
The museum was silent once more.
The morning arrived with the usual fanfare and sounds of traffic and people, commuters coming and going, en route to their places of business, or merely to enjoy a hot cup of coffee or tea at the local cafe. As the day’s staff arrived one by one, nobody seemed to notice anything unusually out of place; that is, until Mike, one of MOCA’s security guards, came upon several empty spaces where works of art previously hung. It wasn’t until he spotted two cases, with the aforementioned art housed within, that he called out to the other members of the museum’s staff. Amanda, one of the Senior Preparators, ran over, and stopped dead in her tracks, panic washing over her. She took out her phone and immediately called the police, followed by a call to Natalie, MOCA’s Director.
When Natalie arrived, Amanda and Mike were already speaking with some of the dispatched officers, while a few detectives paced around the museum with forensic analysts who were dusting for prints and snapping photos of the crime scene.
When Amanda was done giving her report to the officer, she excused herself and meandered around the building, taking note of what had been almost stolen, and what had been left alone. As she was about to pass the area where the cases were – nothing was to be touched per the detectives – something drew her attention to the portrait directly in front. She stood there, examining the portrait for a minute or so, before she called for Natalie to come over.
“Did you find something else?” asked Natalie.
“I’m not entirely sure. Take a look at that and tell me if something seems off to you,” Amanda gestured to the painting.
They both stood there, scrutinizing for a few seconds, when Amanda finally realized what it was.
“Oh my god! Do you see it?”
“Holy shit! What happened to the original painting?”
Perplexed, Amanda shook her head. “Natalie, I think that is the original painting.”
“It can’t be…could it?”
A quiet pause fell between them, unable to explain the unexplainable. Because in that very painting, the one entitled He Who Laughs Last, were two seemingly jovial men, no longer from a time long since passed, but from the present. A present which was just a few, short hours ago, when two thieves attempted an art heist, and were pulled into the very painting they were trying to steal. If you took a moment to look closely at the man on the left, formerly known as “Ryan,” you would faintly see a tear tracing down his cheek, the last emotion he would ever feel before being taken from this world; stolen, if you will.