The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 9)

March 4, 2013 § 2 Comments

Café Sperl

Café Sperl

(For Part 8, go here.)

Jessica gaped at Julia. ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’

There wasn’t a trace of mockery on Julia’s face. ‘I can promise you I’m not,’ she said calmly.

‘But – but –’ Jessica flailed, searching for the right words, ‘you can’t ask me to do that, it’s like asking a doctor to break the Hippocratic oath!’

‘How touching,’ Julia sniffed, ‘sacrificing your life and happiness for the sake of a drawing. Hoping to be canonised as the patron saint of art historians, are we?’

In less grave circumstances, Jessica would have flung back the barb with equal vigour, but she was too distraught to do more than repeat under her breath, ‘I can’t, I just can’t.’

Julia took her elbow in an iron grip and spoke in dangerously soft tones. ‘Listen to me, my girl, because I’m not going to repeat myself. If someone had sat me down before I took Rainer Freilich back to my hotel and told me what the consequences would be, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s entirely up to you whether you decide to save yourself, but rest assured, Schmetterling’s victims seldom get a second chance.’ Jessica flinched, cheeks crimson with shame, at a loss for words for the second time in as many minutes. ‘And if you still have any hesitations, I have three words for you.’

‘What?’

‘15 March 1938.’ Jessica glared at her, half furious, half terrified. ‘And no, I’m not looking forward to it either.’

Jessica scrambled to her feet. Before she could pull away completely, Julia clasped her hand.

‘Good luck.’

‘Thanks,’ Jessica managed, her voice almost strangling in her throat. With one backward glance, she reclaimed her hand and, schooling her voice and features into some semblance of calm, asked the butler to bring her coat and convey her excuses to Frau Zuckerkandl.

The cold night breeze whipping along the Ringstrasse concentrated her mind instantly. If Julia was right – and she had no reason to believe otherwise – she had mere hours to save herself and no strategy for doing so; a shabbily genteel New York childhood and half of a PhD in art history were woefully poor preparation for breaking and entering and wanton destruction of property.

Declan improvises all the time, she reminded herself. I’ll have to do the same. Even if music and crime have nothing else in common.

She hailed the first cab she saw.

‘Where to, miss?’ the driver asked.

Jessica leaned forward and said, low and steady, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. You’ll drive me to Hietzing and let me out at the corner of Hietzinger Hauptstrasse and Feldmühlgasse. You’ll wait for me for half an hour and you won’t follow me. If I haven’t returned at the end of the half hour, leave. If I do return, bring me back to this spot and I’ll pay you double. No questions asked. Do I make myself clear?’

The driver quailed visibly. ‘Yes miss,’ he mumbled, nodding rapidly as the engine roared to life. Jessica realised too late how much she must sound like a woman going to an assignation but her perceived virtue, or the endangerment thereof, was the least of her concerns at the moment.

By the time the cramped streets of central Vienna had opened out into the tree-lined boulevards of Hietzing, Jessica had cobbled together a plan that just might – if her luck held – work. Before she had a chance to congratulate herself, the driver was saying ‘Here we are, miss.’ He pulled up to the kerb and before he could open the door, Jessica sprang out by herself. She pushed a five-crown coin into his hand.

‘Remember what I said. If I’m not back in half an hour, go. If I do come back, I’ll double that.’ Before he could draw breath to reply, she marched off, heart hammering against her ribs.

It was just after midnight, Hietzinger Hauptstrasse all but deserted. Despite the lack of passersby, she felt horribly exposed standing before Schiele’s building. After casting a cautious glance in both directions, she shrugged off her coat and turned it inside out before putting it back on; she didn’t know how much the streetlights actually picked out the silver braid but she felt marginally safer with nothing on her to catch the light.

The door looked so solid that Jessica began to question the wisdom of her plan, but there was nothing for it – the only tools she had on her person were hairpins, united with a complete lack of experience with lock-picking. She plucked two pins from her plaits, unbent them, and thrust them clumsily into the keyhole with shaking fingers. For several agonizing minutes – she dared not look at her watch but was painfully conscious of time slipping away – she fumbled uselessly, as if sparring with an invisible opponent but then, when she was on the verge of losing hope, she felt one pin, then the other, catch on something. The tumblers clicked as they slid into place. She cautiously tried the handle. It sank in her grip, smooth and silent.

Don’t creak, please don’t creak, she prayed as she pushed the door open. Once inside, she tucked herself into a corner and unzipped her boots as silently as she could. Folding them over her arm, she tiptoed upstairs, torn between cursing at the chill of the floor under her stockinged feet and gratitude that it was stone and thus immune to creaking.

No light shone from under the door to Schiele’s flat – was he asleep or absent? Jessica hoped against hope for the latter. Either way, she’d have to be as quiet as humanly possible. As she racked her brain for a way to pick the lock less noisily than she’d managed to downstairs, she gave the doorknob an experimental twist. It turned easily in her hand. It was unlocked.

She pushed the door open as slowly as she could and slipped into the flat. It was dark and apparently empty. The only light was the moon and streetlight spilling through the studio windows, the only sound that of her heart pounding, magnified tenfold by the pervading silence. As she entered the studio and crossed the floor to the table on which Schiele’s open portfolio rested, one of the floorboards creaked and she froze, the blood roaring in her ears. Nothing else stirred. She heaved a muffled sigh of relief and finished picking her way to the table.

Her portrait stared up at her from the top of the pile, drained of colour in the moonlight: the vivid purple of her cardigan and the copper red of her hair were two dark blotches, the paper cockling around the dried pools of gouache. For one mad instant she considered folding it up and slipping it into the pocket of her coat.

Schmetterling will know exactly what you did, her more reasonable self piped up, and this will have been for naught. She knew herself well enough to realise that if she left the studio with the drawing, she would give into the temptation to try to hide it and keep it. She would have to destroy it before she left. But how? Tearing it to bits would not only leave evidence, the noise would attract attention. There was only one tenable option.

She plucked the drawing carefully from the pile, taking care not to let it rustle against the others, and edging out of the studio. What she needed was in the kitchen. She’d only taken a cursory glance at the rest of the flat the other day but she remembered two other doorways opening off the hall. One of them would be the right one.

The door of the adjoining room stood open. Jessica’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough by now that she could just make out the shapes of a stove and a sink. Before she could slip inside, though, the floor creaked under her feet again and she stood transfixed, this time as much with fear as with what she saw at the end of the hall.

The door to the bedroom was open, the curtains undrawn. Schiele and Wally lay fast asleep, curled together like spoons, Schiele tucked against the curve of Wally’s body. Even in sleep her features were set in an expression of fierce protectiveness, ginger-fringed eyelids screwed tightly shut. Schiele’s nightshirt was pulled askew at the neck, the exposed skin gleaming white in the moonlight, a shadow pooling in the hollow between shoulder and clavicle. His mouth was open. He was snoring softly.

He looks so young, Jessica thought helplessly for the thousandth time, heart quaking with pity. She had known him long enough, in books and now in person, to be well aware that he was sarcastic, impatient, occasionally cruel, but as she watched him sleep the adjectives that looped through her mind were trusting, vulnerable, generous.

He was going to give me the drawing for nothing. He’s shoulder-deep in debt and his landlord’s going to threaten him with eviction in a few weeks’ time… and he simply wanted me to have it. Her eyes smarted with unshed tears. The drawing shook between her fingers and her thumb.

Just then, Schiele shifted in his sleep, his mouth falling closed as his head tilted further to the side. He sighed almost inaudibly and fell silent. Now his lashes cast a shadow on his cheeks. He looked familiar.

Jessica suddenly saw an image of Declan asleep superimposed on the scene before her. Declan, his long lashes curling against his cheeks, his lids fluttering minutely as he dreamed. For most of the first year they’d been together Jessica had suffered from insomnia because she couldn’t bear not to watch him sleeping and even now, sometimes, she’d wake in the middle of the night and feel a stab of tenderness lance her heart at the sight of him.

I’m sorry. She backed away, eyes on the floor, until she reached the kitchen doorway. Slipping inside, she gently pushed the door shut. Despite the darkness, she managed, with little fumbling, to find the match safe next to the stove.

The match flared to life on the first strike. She stood over the sink, holding the drawing by its upper edge, and took one last look at it before she touched the flame to the bottom. For a moment she saw the image in a blaze of amber light and then, almost before it could register in her mind, the sheet was shrinking and blackening, the image dwindling to a bright, curling edge. In a few seconds all that was left was a scattering of ash in the sink and the faint odour of phosphorus and burnt paper hanging in the air.

She couldn’t risk turning on the tap to wash away the ash. Fortunately, there was a carafe on the table with a few inches of water left in it. She tipped out the water carefully, watching the thin trail of ash dissolve to nothing as it sluiced down the drain.

Replacing the carafe, she fished in the pocket of her coat – forgetting momentarily that it was inside out – for her wallet. She peeled off a twenty-crown note, folded it carefully, and slipped it into the match safe. After a moment’s hesitation, she added a second note and closed the safe. She didn’t dare glance in the direction of the bedroom as she slipped out of the flat, gently pushing the door closed behind her.

It was only when she was on the pavement outside, boots back on and coat turned the right side out, that she realised she was still holding her breath.

The cab was waiting for her at the corner of Hietzinger Hauptstrasse and Feldmühlgasse. The driver opened his mouth to say something, took one look at her and recoiled without a word.

‘I’ve changed my mind, drop me in front of Café Sperl,’ she said. Her voice sounded foreign in her own ears, as if it belonged to someone else.

‘Yes, miss.’ Neither of them exchanged another word. He drove as if pursued by furies – more to hasten getting rid of her than anything else, she guessed.

Sperl was closed by the time the cab pulled up in front of it. Jessica paid the driver and, with murmured thanks, alighted with as much dignity as she could muster. It took all of her self-restraint not to run the remaining three blocks to her hotel.

The moment she closed the door of her room, the wave of adrenaline that had carried her all the way from Frau Zuckerkandl’s salon ebbed to nothing and she crumpled on the bed, limp as a marionette with its strings cut. Her face burned, her cheeks bathed with tears. She was safe.

But at what a cost.

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