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Aaron Polson
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specialcollections.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees 2010

Special Collections

 

Aaron Polson

 

 

          When Arthur Harper died, the town council met at his mansion to see what the old tycoon had left the citizens of Black Mountain. From down on Main Street, his house didn’t look like a bona fide mansion, although with twenty-three rooms, a full patio with built-in grill and kidney-shaped pool, it dwarfed the rest of our humble village. But the owner never seemed to thumb his nose at us. Before settling in Black Mountain, Harper raked in the cash as a construction magnate; after retiring, he spread plenty of his wealth around town: new playground for the elementary, a parking lot for the nursing home, and similar philanthropies around the county. Kathleen, my daughter, loves that playground.

 

           Well, Harper also had an eye for art—an appetite, some said, and the art became the town’s biggest prize upon his passing. He willed his entire collection to the City of Black Mountain. The value, and exact contents, of that collection remained a mystery—a source of endless speculation and gossip for the old men at Harley’s Bait Shop and the ladies of the Tuesday Twitters Quilting Club. His lawyers couldn’t even be sure of what we’d find, the way the Harper operated in secrecy.

 

          We met his chief solicitor, Mr. T.S. Jacobsen, at the gate that day.  He nodded and gave each of the councilmen a copy of the papers—I received nothing as a mere clerk—they perused and made pleasantries for a few minutes, but then turned to the front door. Jacobsen clicked open the lock, and the large oaken panels folded open with a puff of stale air like the breaking of a seal on a tomb. 

 

          Inside the foyer—a foyer bigger than my whole house—we found a man, dusted with a bit of frost around the temples and lined around his cheeks and eyes, sitting on a bench. He nodded and stood when we came in, and we shared a few awkward glances between us. Harper used to come to town, but nobody had seen this fellow before. 

 

          “Name’s Carter. Ezekiel Carter. I was in charge of acquisitions for Mr. Harper’s special collections.” Mr. Carter didn’t look like much of an art buyer, although I’m not sure I would know an art buyer if one fell out of the sky and landed on my lap. 

 

          He carried a strange air as he moved through the group, and we gave him plenty of space. When he came to me, he handed me a card—about the size of a credit card—and whispered, “You’ll need this.” Then he just walked out the front door and disappeared. I slipped the card into my pocket while the others moved into Harper’s galleries.

 

          We began to examine the collection. “Some pricy items,” Mr. Jacobsen said. Minor works from a few names I remember from college.  The town councilmen started salivating when they imagined the auction.  That card burned in my pocket, so I pulled it out and examined it—a magnetic key card. 

 

          I slipped away from the group, scanning the dark hallways for some sign of a door with such a lock. The place seemed to breathe—the air conditioning I supposed—in and out, like Harper’s own lungs. 

 

On the second floor, at the end of a hallway, I found the door with a card reader. The card slid in, a light blinked green, and I entered Mr. Harper’s special collection.

 

          At first, I thought of old pictures from my history textbooks, the ones that depicted Native American tribes who painted on stretched and dried buffalo hide.  The images on the “hide” were not the same, though.  There were bright dragons, painted skulls, hearts wrapped with barbed wire and detailed portraits in black ink. As I walked down the row, I grew cold, chilled by the realization that slowly poured into my thoughts. They were tattoos—tattoos on dried and stretched human skin, hanging in gilt frames like the fine craft of dead masters. 

 

          I stumbled to a bench at the far end of the hall, nearly sitting on a black leather book—the sort of book you might find in a gallery detailing the history of the exhibit. 

 

Inside, I found newspaper clippings from around the region, mostly about missing persons who disappeared from bars or roadhouses.  As I scanned a few articles, I began to understand where at least a portion of those missing persons ended their lives. On the final page, I read a hand-scratched note from Mr. Carter: “Mr. Harper developed a certain taste for special artwork. Don’t bother looking for the bodies.”

 

          But the FBI did bother. They searched the grounds of Harper’s place and nearly tore the house down brick by brick. Nothing. They were able to match the tattoos to the missing persons in the scrapbook, but they never found Mr. Ezekiel Carter. The only scrap of human remains, other than those hideous hangings, was a fragment of jawbone in the basement furnace. 

 

          I frequently think about those victims, how Mr. Carter must have lied to them, lured them away in the night, and how they ended their lives as a flayed piece of art for an eccentric old man. I think about the bit of jaw down in the furnace, and wonder where they ashes and other bits of bone could have gone. 

 

Sometimes, when I’m out on the playground at Black Mountain Elementary with my daughter Kathleen, I look at the concrete slab, and know who is beneath our feet.

 

 

 

Aaron Polson was born on the Ides of March: a good day for him, unlucky for Julius Caesar.  He currently lives and writes in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit.  To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence.  His stories have appeared in Necrotic Tissue, Northern Haunts (Shroud), Monstrous (Permuted Press), and other publications.  You can visit him on the web at www.aaronpolson.com.

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