LaDonna Martindale hopes that her new job at the local college will help to inspire her own painting. But every night, in the art school basement, she sorts canvases for the upcoming gallery showing. And every night, she feels the same strange, comforting presence of someone in the basement with her—even if she can’t see him.
When LaDonna suddenly discovers a beautiful painting on the basement wall that wasn’t there before, she realizes that her ghost is an incredible artist. Maybe, just maybe, he can be the muse she’s been lacking.
But when a string of murders on campus turns her small town upside down, LaDonna isn’t sure whom to trust—her best friend, Johnny; the art school director; or even her ghost. LaDonna can sense someone stalking her whenever she’s on campus, and she starts to wonder if she might be the serial killer’s next victim.
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The Dark Chronicles
By Barbara Steiner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Barbara Steiner
All rights reserved.
We all become blind at night. For some, night has been a frightening phenomenon since we were old enough to know that monsters slip out after dark. They live in our closets and under our beds and hide along the hall that leads to the bathroom.
For LaDonna Martindale the darkness was comforting. Darkness hid the squalid home where she never took friends. Darkness softened the tattered curtains and muted the water circles on the faded wallpaper in her room.
Neither her home nor her room was a place where LaDonna felt comfortable. Her mother had died when she was ten. She had always worked, so LaDonna learned household chores at an early age. Continuing them was easy, but she still missed her mother. They had been close, and her mother was in awe of LaDonna's talent. She was the one who always found money for paint, brushes, and canvas. "You must work at something you love, LaDonna. Never forget that." LaDonna repeated her mother's words to herself often.
Her father worked shifts, cleaning the buildings at the college, so she seldom saw him. His moods were unpredictable and LaDonna had learned long ago that avoiding him—not trying to guess what mood he was in—worked best for her.
The job she was offered toward the end of her senior year was perfect.
She was messing with a painting in the art room when Mr. Rodriguez, Roddy to his students, stopped and studied it for a few seconds.
"Awful, isn't it?" LaDonna said, wanting to cover her easel with her paint rag.
Roddy smiled and shrugged as if to say, it's not the end of the world. "It's not that bad. It's not that good either, not original enough. Anyone could have painted it."
"And I'm not just anyone." She said it before he could, not believing the words, even though he told her almost every day. The mantra kept her trying. I'm not just anyone. I'm not just anyone. I'm special. One person thinks I'm special.
"That's right. Now if you could just believe it." Roddy read her mind as he perched on the edge of a table. "Would you like an after school job, LaDonna?"
He caught her by surprise, but she didn't have to think it over long. "I—I sure would. I'm getting paint poor."
"Join the world of struggling artists. We buy paint before we buy food." Roddy didn't look like an artist. He wasn't thin with hollow cheeks. He had a round, Santa Claus face with brown eyes that squinted shut when he laughed. A silver Navajo belt buckle rode on his expansive stomach. But he dressed like an artist. His jeans had patches on the patches, his smock was paint smeared. His spattered tennis shoes had been cheap to start with, and the right one sported a hole where a toe poked up. She wondered if his wife, whom LaDonna thought incredibly beautiful, was ashamed to be seen with him.
Art class was last period, and Roddy seemed relaxed. But LaDonna knew he was eager to work on a mural the new rec center east of town had commissioned. Sometimes she stayed and painted for a couple of hours, too. She hadn't decided about today.
"A job would keep her off the streets." Johnny Blair overheard Roddy's question. He stepped over and tugged at LaDonna's single braid that hung halfway down her back. "Go for it, Martindale."
She made a face at Johnny and kept painting. "What would I be doing?" she asked Roddy.
"I have a good friend who runs the college's art gallery. Normally the job would go to a college student. And frankly, he's offered it to three people. One girl tried and quit after one hour on the job. None of them could work in the only room available in the art building—a basement room."
"That's curious," LaDonna said. "I wonder why not."
"Anyway, I've told Glen you'll be in his department next fall, so he'll bend some rules. They have a basement stacked with art left to them by estates—well-meaning alumni. Most of it has never been unpacked."
"And I'd unpack it," LaDonna caught on.
"Not just unpack it, but look it over, catalogue it, decide whether or not the work has any merit. If the gallery should keep it stored for rotating exhibitions, or dispose of it discreetly." Roddy smiled, probably anticipating LaDonna's next remark.
"They'd trust my judgement?"
"I assured Glen he could. I told him you were the most promising artist I've had in a long time."
"Uh-hum." Johnny cleared his throat loudly.
"Stick with your piano, Blair. Not everyone has multiple talents like I do." Roddy grinned at LaDonna. They both liked to tease Johnny, and he was sweet about taking it.
"And what are your other achievements, Rodriguez?" Johnny asked.
"I'm a great cook. Too good." Roddy pushed himself off the table and patted his round belly. "Both my wife and my doctor say twenty pounds have to go."
"You're the best teacher I've ever had," LaDonna added.
"I can't do any more for you, LaDonna. You have to take a leap of faith soon or give it up."
Mr. Rodriguez had never mentioned giving up to her before. Was he getting discouraged with her work? She had to admit that she was. Maybe a change of scenery, this job would help. If she saw enough bad work, she'd believe in herself again.
She decided quickly. She wanted this job, spooky basement or not. "What do I have to do to get the job, and when can I start?"
"Today if you like. Glen's there till five. Go up on the campus and talk to him. You pretty much have the job if you want it. He can tell you what he expects of you, and your hours—which I think are flexible."
"I'll walk with you," Johnny offered. "I have a piano lesson at four, and then I'll practice for a couple of hours."
If LaDonna had a friend, it was Johnny. They both fell into the dweeb category at Bellponte High. Dweeb, nerd—whatever you wanted to call someone who wasn't in the popular crowd, those who walked to their own drummers—the label fell into the social register just above punker, cowboy, or druggie. The artists, theater majors, and musicians were at least looked on as borderline dweebs, weird, but still not popular cheerleaders or worshipped athletes.
Friends were the least of LaDonna's worries. She liked being alone. She lived to paint. There wasn't much time left over for a social life.
She dipped her paint brush in a jar of dirty water behind her. "Okay, you're on, Johnny Blair. This wasn't going well anyway."
Johnny glanced at it and went back to his own easel. He was honest enough not to say, "Yes it was, it's wonderful."
"Maybe you need a change of scenery," he said. "School buildings are depressing." His crooked smile lit up a face that was even plainer than hers.
One of the world's thinnest people, Johnny had a wry sense of humor usually ascribed to fat people. Everything was funny to him, and he had a repertoire of sick jokes that would fill an encyclopedia. If he wrote a book it would be called The Complete Guide to Dark Humor.
Bushy, corn silk-colored hair would never lie down. His horn-rimmed glasses were always slipping off. One or more zits exploded on his chin. But he had the most beautiful hands LaDonna had ever seen. Long, strong fingers, a pianist's fingers. If he wasn't at home at his own piano, he was at the college in a practice room. If anyone she knew succeeded in the arts, it would be Johnny. All he cared about was his music. And maybe, just a little, her. Not a romantic caring. But a human caring. They marched to a similar beat.
When the bell rang, they strolled, rather than marched, up the steep Seventeenth Street hill to the campus. Neither spoke. LaDonna took deep breaths of the reasonably clear air and marveled at the spring colors. Her paintings were usually darker, winter paintings she could call them. What if she tried a pink and lilac palette tomorrow? Would that be a leap of faith for her?
"This is my favorite time of year." Johnny finally spoke. "Everything is new, fresh. The smell is incredible." He breathed deeply.
"I didn't think you ever knew what season it was."
"I'm not a total recluse."
"You would be if you didn't come up here to practice," she teased, tossing a pine cone toward a searching squirrel.
"My parents can't afford a grand piano."
"And one would fill your entire living room."
Johnny lived close to the Martindales in a similar small frame house. "Isn't it amazing that two such talented people sprang from such a humble neighborhood?"
"Someday people will drive by your house and say 'Johnny Blair lived here. His first piano has been gold plated.'"
"Are you kidding? As soon as we leave those houses will be torn down to make room for more one-bedroom, ticky-tacky condos that rent for nine hundred dollars a month."
"I don't care. As long as our parents get rich from selling the land." Johnny's mother worked so hard, it was great to think of her retiring rich. LaDonna's father probably worked hard, too—if anyone was watching him. At home he was a couch potato.
Bellponte College had a beautiful campus. Scores of old trees lined the sidewalks and shaded grass that was fast becoming spring green. Sprinklers turned on and off automatically even though they'd had several good rains. A few students strolled or sprawled on benches visiting or studying, but most had finished classes for the day.
The art gallery was in one of the oldest buildings on the hill, square, covered with vines of woodbine. All the original college buildings were constructed from wine-colored brick with dark green wood trim. All had off white-tiled roofs.
"Break a leg." Johnny grinned and turned right toward Old Main.
The large building once housed the entire college. Now it loomed over the north campus like two Victorian ladies in tight corsets, reining over a central drawing room. Twin towers, each with a twisting, winding staircase, housed many small, soundproof practice rooms. In between, an auditorium was the site of concerts, plays, and special events.
Johnny had a regularly scheduled time for one room with a piano. Often he would drop by and hunt another that was vacant.
LaDonna waved and hurried toward the art building. There she learned Glen Walker was expecting her. Roddy must have called after she left. A secretary directed her down the squeaky hall to a musty room. All the rooms in the building probably smelled this way because of age. No amount of fresh air through open windows could blow out that hint of time.
"Miss Martindale." Glen Walker smiled and reached for her hand. "I expected someone with a New York success look after that build-up from Roddy."
LaDonna liked him immediately. "Sorry. This is my struggling student image. Less intimidating. I wanted you to know I needed the job."
"Roddy will have one of my ears if I don't give it to you. But I think I should tell you, I offered it to several of my students already. They all said they didn't think they could work here in the basement."
LaDonna noticed he didn't mention the girl who worked for an hour and quit. "Let me guess. The basement is dark and gloomy and smells of hundred-year-old dust." LaDonna smiled at Glen Walker.
"Right on. Not to mention that this whole building is full of spooks. Let's go down there. I'll show you before you commit yourself." He led the way down the hall, then opened a door onto a narrow staircase.
LaDonna did feel as if she was going into some underground vault, each squeak of the stairs saying, Go back, go back while there's time. She laughed at her runaway imagination.
There was one wall switch at the bottom of the stairs. The rest of the overhead hall lights had strings to pull them on.
"The glamorous nineteenth century." Walker took them from string to string, fumbling for the last while LaDonna waited in dim light in the doorway. A hollow room was piled with boxes. A large wooden table stood in the middle of the room. Bare cement walls had only cobwebs and cracks running ceiling to floor for decor. "The room is cold, even in summer."
LaDonna glanced around, then peeked into one box that had been slit open. She pulled out a sketch and laid it on the table. It was of the misty, softly-rounded mountains that marked the western boundary of the city. Glen Walker studied it with her.
"People have always been fascinated by Bellponte, the river, the hills, the old architecture. This isn't bad, but I'd guess it's a study for a painting," Walker said as she started to reach back into the box. "So you think you can work in this space?" He stopped her. "You won't be afraid down here alone, will you?"
"Of course not. Roddy said I could set my own hours. Can I work at night?"
Walker stared at her before he spoke, his dark eyes serious. "I'll give you a key. You can work anytime you like. But you won't stay too late, will you? I'll worry."
"I like the night, Mr. Walker. The darkness will soften this old building."
He kept looking at her for a few seconds. "Okay. I'm glad. I don't have time to sort these paintings myself. And the job needs to be done. We got a small grant for your pay. When that runs out, I'll find more." He started back across the basement, expecting her to follow.
She did. But not until she'd stood still for a moment longer. A cloud of air swirled around her. She lifted her hand, palm up, as if testing for moisture from a cloudy sky. Something brushed her fingers, velvet-soft, kitten-warm, alive.
"What is it?" Walker asked softly.
"Oh, nothing," LaDonna said quickly. "I was just curious. It's nothing." She followed him, pulling off the light in the room, letting her fingers linger on the beaded metal chain and the dirty string.
There was a presence in the empty room. She couldn't explain it. But she knew it was there. And she knew it welcomed her. For one moment, she was startled, but she didn't feel the least bit frightened. She didn't think she ever would.
This was the perfect job for her. It was as if—as if he—as if the job—had been waiting for her to come along.CHAPTER 2
LaDonna waited until the next morning to tell her dad. "Yesterday I got an after school job. Mr. Rodriguez helped me get it. I'll work at the art gallery on campus."
Her father looked at LaDonna as if surprised someone had spoken at breakfast. He was on a day shift this week and had probably stayed up too late watching television. He struggled to wake up. On weekends or when he worked nights, he slept late, went to football games, basketball games, or baseball games—whatever sport was in season. LaDonna seldom saw him, but that suited her fine.
She usually came in after school, took a plate of food and a glass of milk to her room to study or paint and sketch. She found most of television programming dumb. If she read, the book was for a class. She and Johnny sometimes went to a movie on the weekend. Otherwise her life was pretty much solitary and one sided.
"Do you think we're normal?" she had once said to Johnny. "Of course not," was his reply. "Who wants to be normal?"
"How much are you getting paid?" Mr. Martindale asked, laying down his newspaper for a few seconds.
"I—I forgot to ask." LaDonna realized she didn't care. "Minimum wage, I guess."
"You won't be coming home at night, will you, LaDonna?" Her father sipped his coffee. "That campus isn't safe after dark."
"I can set my own hours. I might work some at night. I'm not afraid."
"Sometimes it's smart to be afraid."
"I'm careful, Dad. I'll be fine. You don't need to worry." It surprised LaDonna that her father even cared. He was in his mellow mood today.
"I know you can take care of yourself, honey," he said. "I'm glad you got a job." He went back to studying the newspaper.
End of conversation.
LaDonna had taken care of herself since she was ten. She didn't mind being on her own.
Nothing mattered to LaDonna except painting. When her work was going well, she was happy. When work was going wrong, nothing seemed right. Her last three paintings were amateurish, disappointing. She couldn't transfer what she had in her mind onto the canvas. She had dumped them into the trash bin at school. LaDonna would do anything to get back on track.
"How was breakfast at LaDonna's?" Johnny asked, grinning.
It was great to see that lopsided smile every morning. LaDonna realized how she depended on it. What would she do without Johnny?
Excerpted from The Gallery by Barbara Steiner. Copyright © 1995 Barbara Steiner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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