The package arrived on a Tuesday afternoon, heavily wrapped in Styrofoam and extra padding on top of that, its actual size a fraction of the structure it had come in. Workers carefully ushered it past the back entrance. The hallways were quiet and warm with study, the tiles beneath their feet reflecting the soles of their shoes.
They arrived at the grand oak entrance of an office inhabited by a man of the name James Allen. His name, inscribed on a thin golden plaque on the outside, almost eyed the men carrying the package aloft their shoulders. Uneasily, they gently set it down on a massive wooden table, stepped back, and quickly exited. The man himself was a few doors down, getting a cup of coffee.
After the transportation company had gone through the security and left the museum, Allen trudged over to his office and glanced at the leather-bound wristwatch on his left arm. 1:07 p.m. He was supposed to have started the examination seven minutes prior, but then again the only witness to his delay had been his dog, Benson. The old beagle blinked up at him from his bed on the floor, before closing his eyes shut again.
“You’re a lazy dog, Benson. Lazy, lazy, lazy….” James Allen’s voice trailed off as he eyed the packaging label on the giant cardboard box.
“Florence?” he muttered. Setting down his cup half-filled with now lukewarm joe, he peered at it closer. His eyes widened as he picked up a museum-issued pocketknife and began opening the package.
It took him, with all the processes he’d become familiar with all these years to ensure protecting the art, over an hour to extract the work from its protection. Gently, he put on gloves and lifted it from under the thin sheet of plastic. Silence reverberated throughout the office.
Three minutes later, a phone shrilled in the welcoming office of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A burly woman sitting at the receiving desk had recently finished applying perfume, holding the capsule aloft to her neck and her soft wrists. The dimples of her knuckles deepened as she reached for the telephone and tucked it into the cradle of her neck.
“Call from the Examination and Admissions Office… line, Allen. James! What seems to be-“
“Agnes, I need to be wired to Head Office. Immediately.” His voice was thin and crackled over the remission, hollow in the berth of the receiver.
“Of course, right away. Rewiring.”
“Yes, this is James Allen from Examination and Admissions. I received a delivery at 12:50 p.m. today and require support for further conclusion.”
“Is this necessary? It’s your job to assess the delivery, Allen. Do you have the shipment log?”
“Yes, sir. It’s from Florence. I-I have legitimate reason to believe it is a work by a renowned artist.”
“Renowned artist? It will take more than that for-“
“I believe that Michelangelo painted it.”
“A representative is on the way. Send the final assessment to Head Office immediately.”
Twenty minutes later, a young man with heavy glasses atop his nose, shining with a thin sheen of sweat, knocked twice on James Allen’s door. It opened to reveal the man, hair skewed atop his head, an empty cup tossed aside on the floor, and a dog fast asleep.
“Good, good. You’re here. How long have you been..?”
“This is my third year here. I work under the Referral Office-“
“That’s fine. You know anything about examining paintings? You must, if they sent you.”
“I did it for a while in grad school.”
“What’s your name?”
“Matt. Matt Kim.”
“Fair enough, Matt. They’ll send the professionals soon.”
The pair walked over to the desk, where bubble wrap hung off corners and acrylic cloth lay ripped on the floor. On top of the table laid a painting in pristine condition, and Matt felt his blood turn hot and cold as it raced into his skull.
The painting depicted a woman, eyes soft and hazelnut brown, sitting on a marble floor under an arch, surrounded by fruits and other delicacies. Her hair tumbled down her shoulders blushing cranberry in tumultuous locks, her fingers lightly poised over a glistening pomegranate. It was beautiful and frightening.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” Allen murmured. Matt Kim couldn’t speak.
“There isn’t an inch that looks phony. All the paints are acrylics and oils older than 500 years. The molding on the edges is finger-pressed…”
A knock resounded at the door. Allen trudged over, running a hand through his hair, and opened the door. A woman in a pencil skirt with tortoise shell frames atop her nose stared up at him, a clipboard hugged to her body. She was young, and angry.
“James Allen? Rose Hutchinson, Office. If you truly are not rudimentary in your examination, there should be an entire team in here documenting the work. This is unacceptable.” She huffed and held her clipboard closer. “May I?” Allen nodded as she hastily stepped into the office and made her way over to the table. Her nose wrinkled at the site of the mess strewn around the painting.
“What a mess. Clearly you-“ her voice softened as she stepped towards the painting. Matt Kim’s eyebrows rose as her eyelids softened and a film sheered her eyes.
“It-it… are you… sure?” she asked, a wondrous lilt in her voice. Allen stepped forward, hiding his surprise.
“Almost. The only doubt I would have is if you or somebody else insisted otherwise. Everything checks out…”
She turned around and found a box of latex gloves on the desktop behind her, and with a gloved right hand gently pressed her fingertips to the edges, then the center, and around the strokes of paint sticking out like ridges of scapulae.
“I… I would believe so. Head Office told me you said Michelangelo?”
Rose straightened and took the gloves off and carefully skirted the edge of the desk, writing furiously on her clipboard. The time was 2:37 p.m.
“This is so very interesting — I’ll have to make a report to Head Office. Thank you for showing me this, I have to go now.” She smiled, briefly, at the two men and left the office. A silence reverberated in her absence as James Allen cleared his throat.
“It’s my time to take my leave, sir. I come back around 5:30, if you would like to be here when the official committee comes in.”
“Sure, I’ll be here,” Matt murmured. His eyes could not leave the painting, the woman’s gaze seemed to follow him wherever he went.
An hour later, Allen sat in a coffee shop two blocks from the Met, eyes glassy and fingers idly preening the gloss on his mug. This was his third cup today, and he had left Benson in the office to sleep. Leaflets of paper lay strewn before him on the desk, and the clerk at the counter had continuously eyed him for the past thirty minutes. He almost jumped when he felt his phone buzz in his pocket, earning him a suspicious look from the clerk.
“Hello?” he muttered.
“Afternoon, Allen. This is Rose Hutchinson. I have received backup from Head Office and a committee will meet with you in twenty minutes for final examination.”
“Alright. I will see you then.” He hung up, crumpled the papers before him into a ball, and threw it into the trash on his way out. He felt the clerk’s gaze on his back as he walked back to the museum, an odd sense of dread creeping up his spine.
The walk back to the museum was cold and bitter, snow lining the edges of the sidewalks. Allen wondered if he’d fed Benson in the past three hours.
He quietly flashed his card to the security, and entered the back entrance of the museum. Down the halls and into his office, he briefly swept up the mess he’d made and refilled Benson’s bowl of kibble. No later than 4:10 PM did a knock on his door startle him.
A peculiar looking group of two gentlemen and one woman greeted James Allen. An old man, with thick spectacles cut to the shape of slim rectangles squinted at him over a tumbling beard of gray, a tweed suit and briefcase clutched to his round body. Allen couldn’t help but think of Santa as he shook his meaty hand, before moving on to the next person.
The second man was short and already red in the face, hair slicked back with too much pomade. His leather shoes clicked against the tile as he straightened his too-tight collar and glared up at James Allen. The two nodded, almost uncomfortably, as James directed his gaze elsewhere.
The face that greeted him rendered him speechless. Or thoughtless. He couldn’t remember. The woman across from him was Asian, tan and almost golden in the lamplight, and the sheen of her strangely auburn hair glinted. She was tall, and graciously statured, her brown eyes wise and large. She nodded at him, briefly, before entering. He almost didn’t shut the door, before he realized the others were watching him in odd suspicion.
It had been awhile, he’d realized, since he’d thought of love. Ever since he’d lost Meredith, he’d dedicated his life to the museum. It scared him, the thought of it, and he pushed it away and ushered the group to the painting.
James watched as everybody stared at the work in awe, particularly the Asian woman. Her eyes widened ever so slightly, and she pursed her lips in examination. He shook himself and stood upright.
“I reckon all of you are familiar with methods of examination. The art style and technique, thus, indicate Michelangelo. I have no other words for it.”
“It’s… amazing,” the old man crowed, ruffling through his briefcase. The short man stabbed his finger at James Allen.
“How are you so absolutely sure? My colleagues and I, if given a day, would be able to-“
“You need no more people, Salazar. It is clear. We just need to fill out forms.” Her voice startled James as she chewed the tip of a pen in her mouth. The short man, Salazar, muttered something and ruffled through a clipboard relinquished from his suit. James nodded, and reached for a manila folder with an extremely thick packet of papers.
“We begin now, then.”
Four hours later, the odd conglomeration of painting experts sat frantically working, hardly speaking to one another unless about details of a section of the frame or the hue of the paint. James had routinely fed Benson, who seemed not bothered by the company, and occasionally bothered Salazar for food. In return, the man had muttered “Nasty mutt.” Over and over again, much to the internal displeasure of the old man, Geoffrey. Geoffrey had taken a liking to Benson, old and drowsy, a peaceful companion.
The woman looked up at the clock mounted on the wall. “It is 8:36 PM. The museum closed a while ago. How have we not noticed?”
Everybody looked up from their work and checked their wristwatches. There was a shared pulling out of telephones and dialing. A murmur of confusion rippled through the company before James Allen uttered a small groan.
“The museum has shut down the reception wiring. Since we are all frequent employees, our phones aren’t wired to other networks. I guess this is the end of our examination. Final results will be finished by tomorrow.”
Everybody silently packed up, and James saw them to the back exit. He walked alongside the Asian woman, who he learned was named Faith Kim, and duly impressed him with her quiet yet careless nature. She ran her hands along the cream ridges of the walls, meeting his eye every now and then. He found himself dreading when she would exit out the door.
Surprisingly, the two ahead of them had stopped and were standing muttering at the exit.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, walking forward. He tried the handle.
“I’ve got the museum keys right here. A plus, of being head examination.” He inserted the key, and it jammed. Hard.
Before the rest of the sentence could be uttered, the lights in the hallway blinked out, and they were quickly enveloped in matte black.
“Okay, everybody. It is winter, after all. Let’s head back to the office where I can-“
A crash resounded throughout the hall.
“I’m here. It’s alright. Just a power outage.”
There was a sound of scurrying, and James smelled something foul. He turned around to feel for the walls, but remembered there weren’t light switches; the control panels manipulated the lights in the museum.
The veins in James’ arms turned to ice as he fumbled over his feet, waving his arms wildly around him. Panic started to set in. “Guys-“
“James.” Faith’s voice brought him two steps forward, and he grabbed her arm and led her feeling for other people. The dark dumbfounded him, rendered him helpless. His feet felt as if they’d swelled to twice their size, he was always tripping over them. His groping hands, searching for the other two, were met with empty air. At last, they soon found Salazar, cursing loudly. As soon as James touched the fabric on Salazar’s lapels, the lights turned on.
“Is-is everybody okay?” James straightened his sleeves and looked wildly around the room. A trash can, behind them, had toppled over and its insides were strewn across the hall.
“Yes, this goddamn museum haunted or something?” Salazar growled. Faith stood oddly still, the golden light casting shadows on her cheekbones.
“Faith?” James walked towards her. She lifted her head and stared down the hall.
“Where is Geoffrey?” she asked.
Salazar and James froze.
“Crap,” Salazar muttered.
“He probably bolted and knocked over the trash can. We’ll find him, but let’s sweep aside this mess first-“
Faith shook her head. “He would have made a noise. He would not have just run off in silence. And look,” she said, pointing to the trash.
James peered at it before realizing. “It fell to the right.” The trash can had originally been next to the left wall, and falling away from it would eliminate the possibility that he had kicked it aside.
“What is going on, Allen?” Salazar asked.
“I work here the same as you, Salazar. I don’t know.” James uneasily turned in a circle before walking towards where they came. “Let’s clean this up.”
The three quickly used the lid to scoop up the trash back into the container before banding together to cross the hall. At the middle, the hall intersected with another that led to the communal center of the employees.
“Geoffrey?” James called. Silence.
“That’s not right. That’s not right at all. He should have answered us.” Salazar glared in all directions as he spoke.
“Geoffrey? Geoffrey! Ge-offrey!” James’ voice echoed, lonely throughout the halls. The hall to their left led to an open hall, windows to view the outside that were pitch black. It was nighttime, James reckoned, but Salazar stopped.
“We should be able to see the café across from us. The lights. Where are the damn lights? They don’t close that quickly.” Salazar broke apart from them to go examine the windows. James cast a look around the hall before following, Faith in tow.
“Well, would you look at that.” Salazar’s voice crept into James’ ears, and he hurried to see what the little man was looking at.
“Oh my god,” James murmured.
The windows, originally thought depicting the night outside, were actually painted with pitch black. It was impossible to see anything through them. Salazar tried using a pocketknife to scratch away the paint, but there was a layer of paint on the outside of the windows as well.
“This is not normal,” Faith said. “Nobody paints the windows over. We should go back to James’ office and call Head Office.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” James said.
He grabbed Salazar, still looking at the painted windows, and led them to his office. The door had been left slightly ajar since they’d departed, and he quickly drew them inside before locking the door behind them. He patted Benson on the head. The quiet dog looked at the frantic three and decided the commotion too much, for he fell back into sleep. James dialed Head Office from the phone and waited. A dull buzzing met his ears, and fear slowly trickled into the backs of his eyes.
Salazar approached him from behind. “Are they picking up?”
James shook his head. He slammed the phone down, walked behind his desk, and collapsed in his chair. Salazar paced back and forth, hard hair glinting in the light, as Faith sat silently poised in a chair next to the door.
“What do we do?” Faith asked. The question loomed above them, threatening.
“We have lost all communication. Our phones don’t work and Head Office is closed. Electricity in the museum is unstable, and Head Office has access to the emergency system.”
As he said this, the lamp on his desk flickered. He swallowed. “The windows are painted over with black. And Geoffrey is missing.”
It almost overwhelmed him, the situation.
“We all know this hell is somebody’s work. The museum doesn’t just lose power like this. Plus, who the hell painted over the windows? To stop us from seeing out?”
“Or,” Faith interjected, “to stop people from seeing in.”
“I- Faith, I don’t like that at all, this… this can’t be happening. There’s a logical explanation.”
“Logical explanation? To what? Somebody turning off the lights, kidnapping Geoffrey, and caging us in?” Salazar grew angry, the sweat on his brow practically sizzling off.
“We should check the exits,” Faith suggested. “The others besides the back.”
“We can’t just leave Geoffrey here,” James muttered. “What if he’s in an unsafe situation?”
“We are all in that situation, Allen. It makes more sense to get us all out to the authorities and then call in backup for Geoffrey.”
James weighed the two decisions, but before he could do so the lights in the office started to dim. He glanced worriedly at Benson, who was still asleep.
“Goddamn, it’s starting again. Allen, get a pair of matches from your desk or something, c’mon!” Salazar shouted.
James fumbled throughout his drawers and somehow got a hold of a matchbox. He pulled it open. Empty.
“What the f-“
The lights shut off, and James shot to his left. He found Faith’s arm, found Salazar, grabbed Benson’s bed, and dragged them under the desk. He laid a hand on Benson’s stomach and willed the dog to not wake up now, of all times.
“Be quiet,” he whispered.
The three heard the door open, and a triangle of light entered the side of the room. A figure, shrouded in shadow, stepped a foot into the office. Took another step, tentative.
James felt Salazar stir to his left. He turned his head and glared at him. Don’t you dare, his eyes read. Salazar, it seemed, did not know how to read. He whipped out a pistol, which James hadn’t even known he’d had on him, and jumped out from underneath the desk.
This is how people die in horror movies, James thought sullenly. We are going to die.
“Hands up, felon! It’s over! The coppers are outside!”
“Salazar?” a voice questioned. James’ eyes widened as he jumped up and saw Geoffrey standing in the doorway, a hand wrapped around the edge of the handle.
“Geoffrey!!! Oh thank goodness. Where did you go? How did you-“
As he said this, the lights turned back on at once. James went to embrace the portly man, and Faith tapped his shoulder after she’d emerged from under the table. James stepped aside, expecting her to embrace the old man as well.
Instead, she shoved Geoffrey against the wall and wielded a blunt pocketknife under his chin. The thing had come out from nowhere. Salazar, in shock, didn’t move, and James stuttered as Faith spoke.
“Geoffrey. I know not to trust you unless you can tell me why you left when the lights turned off.”
“I-I-“ Geoffrey started to sweat, eyes bulging at the blade.
“Faith! Stop it! It’s Geoffrey-“
“Geoffrey,” she said calmly, without looking at James, “is just a coworker of mine and nothing more. I have not crossed his path before today. I know nothing of him except that he abandoned us in the dark of that hallway and we are in an extremely suspicious situation.”
Her voice, cold and calculating, was almost as piercing as her words.
“Okay, okay miss,” Geoffrey said. “I will tell the truth. We were in that hall and when the lights turned off, I ran around in circles feeling for you all. I could not find anybody, and somebody wrapped a cloth around my mouth, and I blacked out. I woke up just now, in the dinosaur exhibit. I have reason to believe that there is a perpetrator in the museum, after us.”
James’ face paled. His worst suspicions were confirmed.
“Jesus,” Salazar muttered and turned away.