Public Anatomy
Excerpt

Eli climbed a dimly lit stairwell to the third floor loft while he thought about the name. 

Helen Claire. 

H.C. 

The initials on each crime scene sketch. 

That was all.  No last name. 

Eli thought about calling Lipsky before climbing this stairwell.  He knew that he should.  But it was just an art studio.  And he was right in front of it already.  He would simply take a quick look.  If he found anything, or anybody, Lipsky would be the first person he called. 

Pastel green paint peeled off in curls from the stairwell’s ceiling and from its walls along the baseboard.  Ironic, paint peeling in a painter’s studio.  He found the door that matched the sales log of the art store.  The door was closed but not flush with the frame, as though it had swelled and would not latch.  Eli knocked, softly at first, then when no one answered, harder.  He pushed against the door.  It was wedged tight.  He pushed with his shoulder and bumped it a couple of times until the door gave way.  He looked behind him.  Seeing no one, Eli entered the studio. 

A musty draft pushed against him.  A single window on the far side of the room had been left open.  Through a skylight, slants of sun captured a floating cloud of paint flecks and dust.  White sheets hung from loops of wire and swirled rhythmically in the breeze, dividing the loft into shifting rooms. 

Within each room sat an easel.  Paint brushes had dried against pallets and sketching tools lay scattered about as though the artist had left at an inopportune moment. 

Eli passed by the undulating sheets to find more and more easels occupying the space.  Each canvas was filled with sketches and paintings of the human form in fine anatomical detail.  The easel closest to him displayed a brilliant reproduction of the skeletal man.  On the easel adjacent to it, a skull, the zigzagging fissures drawn to perfection.  Eli raised an easel that had fallen over and set it upright.  An exquisite rendering of the muscle man greeted him with an outstretched hand, suspended effortlessly.  Eli felt an intimate familiarity with each of these sketches. 

Vesalius. 

Brilliant reproductions of the Renaissance anatomist filled the entire loft.  He recognized a plate from The Fabrica, the long bone of the leg and the foot.  At the bottom, a square block was cut out of the canvas.  From his pocket, he extracted an envelope containing the card left at the first crime scene.  He removed the sketch of the navicular bone.  The fabric of the canvas was an exact match and its shape was an exact fit for the missing corner of the original canvas.  Eli’s heart raced. 

He called Lipsky on his cell phone and told him where he was, what he had found.  Eli wanted to search the loft alone, to continue examining these fantastic sketches, but at least it would be several minutes before Lipsky arrived when he’d have to explain the anatomical art to the detective. 

He crossed the wooden floor of the loft to close the window.  As he reached for the high, open sash, a pigeon rousted from its perch at the loft’s apex, swooped down, and took off through the opening.  Eli watched the bird fly across the alley before he pulled the window shut and latched it. 

With the draft calmed, the flowing sheets collapsed like sails withdrawn at harbor.  Visible now in the center of the loft, he saw sheets of black plastic spread out like a tent from a single point near the ceiling.  Eli circled the wide base of the plastic tent and searched for an opening.  Whatever was contained inside must have been more valuable to the painter than the smaller easel works.  He circled the structure again and found a slit in the plastic that he had missed on the first pass. 

Protected by the tent, a large mural-like painting rested on the floor, supported by thick wooden beams behind it and to the sides.  The painting was at least ten feet high and equally as wide.  A lean-to rolling ladder on a rail across the loft, similar to one used to reach upper library shelves, was parked at the center of the painting. 

The painting showed exquisite detail.  Eli stepped closer to the marvelous reproduction of The Fabrica’s title page.  Numerous times, he had seen a page-sized reproduction of the marvelous illustration.  But he had never observed a life sized rendering.  

Centered at the top of the composition, a crest featured three small animals stacked vertically above an ornate nameplate that announced, in Latin, the leading man -- ANDREAE VESALII.  Stately Corinthian columns provided backdrop for the ragged audience who gathered for the public anatomy.  The ladder obscured his appreciation of the central figures in the painting, so he rolled it aside to view the female subject of dissection, her abdomen open for Vesalius to inspect her uterus.  

In contrast to the black and white original of The Fabrica’s actual title page, this oversized reproduction of the scene of public dissection came to life on canvas with the vivid colors used by the artist. 

Although the painting at first appeared complete, Eli realized that its central figure was missing.  Vesalius had yet to be painted, the entire piece suspended in time with a captive audience awaiting the anatomist’s arrival. 

Eli stared at the vacant spot on the canvas and imagined Vesalius there imprinted on the background, his face turned toward the viewer, hands displaying the intimate details of his subject.  Moments later, the vision disappeared and he was left wondering why the painting had been abandoned.  Why had the artist not started with Vesalius and worked outward toward the periphery?  But these questions were merely a prelude to the larger puzzle.  

Who was Vesalius’s modern day successor?  

And why must he kill? 

Eli heard the door to the loft open, a subtle creak of hinges.  He felt the draft, less now because the window was closed, but enough movement of air to lift the edge of the sheet beside him.  Perhaps he had left the door cracked – a breeze through the lofty old warehouse had simply pushed the door open.  Or maybe Lipsky had arrived and was casing the place before making himself known?  No.  Not enough time had passed for him to travel from the police station.  Then the door closed.  Hems of the sheets deflated once again.  He knew he was no longer alone.  

Eli listened to slow footsteps along the edge of the loft.  Most likely this was the artist returning to her work.  He was about to meet Helen Claire.  He started to call out.  

The footsteps stopped.  

Then the footsteps were heavier, faster, someone was running behind him.  He heard the crash of easels and turned to see the large mural falling toward him.  The bulky wooden frame struck his shoulder and knocked him to the floor where he landed on his injured arm.  Eli scrambled from under the frame and saw the sharp corner of an easel inches from his face.  The blow from it knocked him on his back.  Eli pressed the gash on his forehead, blood oozing between his fingers into his eyes.  

A blurry figure stood over him, winding up for another blow.  Before it could be delivered, Eli straight kicked his assailant in the knee causing him to stumble backwards.  On his feet again, Eli took two steps before a blow to the back of his head took him down again.  

This time, he did not get up.