The Da Vinci Cough and Code Formula
by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
It was almost midnight, the St. Louis Art Museum was dark with only a few lights burning inside. As I walked up, I opened my wallet and flashed my driver’s license at the two policemen standing at the top of the steps.
“You Smith...?” he asked, while looking at my picture and reading the word ‘Smith’ off the document.
“Yes,” I said.
I pointed to where it said “Thomas.”
“And... your connection to this case?”
“I’m not sure... I was called... told to get over here... by somebody named Inspector Foe.”
A tall man stepped out of a shadow. By the reaction of the uniformed officers I could tell it was the inspector. “I called you,” he said.
“About two weeks ago you acquired a series of books on art history... bought them at the police station on Clark Street...?”
“They were recovered property... recovered stolen property... property that was auctioned because the rightful owners weren’t located...”
“And you paged through them...?”
“Read them actually,” I said.
“That’s good... That’s wonderful... That’s more than most people do. We were hoping that might be the case... We need help. There’s been a murder.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Okay, I guess. I’ll do what I can.”
We walked inside. The first thing I noticed was that the fountain wasn’t running. Inside the main room of the St. Louis Art Museum there’s a big fountain and a statue of Neptune above; the statue carved in the late fifteen-hundreds by the Italian artist Bartolomeo Ammanati. The statue sits on a tall pedestal. A lot of people look down at the fountain, forgetting to look up at the statue. They look down at the coins resting in the shallow water. People toss coins and make wishes. If the coin comes to rest on one of the slanted parts of the pedestal, your wish is supposed to come true. I had thought the fountain would be running all night. It was silent. No water falling into the little pool. As we passed by I tossed a coin, but I was looking at the statue.
We walked past the fountain and I followed the inspector to a doorway. Across the opening there was a thick yellow rope made of woven plastic strands. Examining the rope I could see it had descended from the arc above our heads. It came down on tracks built into the door frame.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s automatic,” he replied. “If someone disturbs any art, it triggers an alarm and these descend.”
“Couldn’t someone just step over it?”
“Well, it’s clearly marked yellow... And it serves an official function.”
He used a key to unlock one side of the rope from the door frame. We walked further into the museum. It was eerie and quiet. We could hear the sounds of our own footsteps. Every time we passed a painting I had the feeling that the eyes were following us.
“Creepy,” I said.
“My wife likes me,” he answered.
I started to say, “No, I meant the art...” but by that time we were standing in front of the victim.
It was horrible. I can’t stand modern art. The body had been sectioned; sliced into thick slabs and positioned on the wall, then nailed in place. Each section was a little lower than the first and a little more to the right. It was a half dozen pieces of dead, pink and grey humanity, that simulated motion and descent.
“You recognize the positioning?” he asked. “’Cause we haven’t got a clue.”
“It’s by Marcel Duchamp,” I said. “It’s called ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’. It’s important in that it added the sense of motion to a painting that used cubist influences.”
The inspector wrote, “Castro involved” in his notepad.
“Is there a phone somewhere?” I asked.
While I was dialing he asked, “Are you sure we need to involve more people?”
“Well...” I said, “I’m here ’cause I read a couple of books. You brought me here because I’ve merely read a few books. The person I’m calling actually works in a library.”
I turned back to the phone. Far across town, someone picked up the receiver. I began breathing heavily.
“Tom...? Is that you...?”
I was as excited as Nancy Drew on her first adventure. “Cindy, you’ve got to get over here. I’m at the art museum. I’m in the middle of a murder investigation.”
While waiting for her to arrive we wandered around a bit, the inspector admitted he’d never been inside the building before.
“Then there’s something I want to show you,” I said.
Eventually we found ourselves standing in front of a painting called, “Dramatic Dancer.”
“I like the yellow...” he said. “And her eyes... She reminds me of warm summer evenings... Too bad summer is over.”
“Down by the arch, around the fourth, that’s when you see some really good halter tops. Not that this one is bad.”
“I guess during the winter we’ll have to come in here and just stare... to fulfill our craving for halters.”
“You think he slept with her?” I asked.
“I would have,” he said. “If I could paint, I’d have nude models in my house all the time.”
“What would your wife say?” I asked.
We heard someone walking down the dark hallway. It was her. Cindy. She had a flashlight and a gun. She was walking towards us.
“Quick... to another painting,” I said.
We moved. The painting we were now standing in front of was dark green and unusual.
“Look it’s Spock.” I said, taking in the strange image. I spread my hand, parting my fingers with difficulty. “Live nice and prosper.”
“Close enough,” Cindy said. “But that’s not Spock. It’s a self-portrait. A portrait of somebody named Otto Mueller.”
“I told you she knows everything.”
“It’s right there on the card,” she said, pointing at the card on the wall next to the painting.
“Cindy, it’s a murder. We get to investigate. Like Scully and Mulder. Remember the movie? Where he’s about to kiss her and then she gets stung by a bee?”
“Where’s the body?” she asked.
I ran ahead, using my hand to beckon them on.
“He’s dedicated,” said Foe.
“He’s looney,” said Cindy.
When we got to the body I took Cindy’s flashlight. She put her gun away.
After looking at the body from all angles and prodding bits of the carcass with a pencil I stood up and placed my hands on my hips: “He did this to himself.”
They both stared at me.
“Look for other clues,” I said. I began tearing paintings down off the walls.
“Stop.” she cried. “You just ruined a Renoir.”
But I was right to destroy all those pieces of priceless artwork, because behind one worth about a hundred dollars I found a hidden message. It was written in black magic marker on the back of a portrait of dogs playing poker. It was a poem. I started reading it out loud.
People die and people must ashes to ashes and dust to dust I used Duchamp only because there’s no Da Vinci... vaults or walls If you wish more clues from me
And then the strange spellings stopped me. The next line had to be seen to be understood. It said...
fin th rustic statu wit on kne
“It looks like we need to locate a statue.”
“Are the statues congregated?”
“You mean all together?”
“No they’re mingled in with the other art.”
“Then we’ll just have to walk about till we find something by Da Vinci.” I said.
“Not Da Vinci...” She said. “It says there’s no Da Vinci, vault or walls. It clearly means there’s no Da Vinci in the building. We’re looking for a statue with only one knee.”
“That new statue of Franklin Roosevelt in Washington, that looks like he just has one knee.” I offered.
“He’s wearing a blanket on his legs.”
“Who?” I asked.
Inside her jacket pocket she toyed with her pistol.
“Did you know, along with everything else he invented, Da Vinci designed a Bordello. He made it so the customers had these private entrances and exits so they didn’t run into people they knew. Remember in Death of a Salesman where the father runs into his son at a bad place in his life?”
“How do you know Tom?” It was the inspector talking to Cindy.
“Let’s just say I met him at a bad place in my life,” she said.
“This could be it.” I was standing in front of a small statue from India. It was about six inches tall. It was a woman with lots of arms and some really big knockers.
“Wrong,” Cindy said. “That’s that goddess from India, and she clearly has two knees.”
I looked further down. “Oh, yeah,” I said.
We almost passed it up. If Foe hadn’t glanced at the card on the wall we would have walked right past. It was a statue of St. John, and it was classically elegant but terribly damaged. Like many works of art it was religious in nature. It was supposed to show St. John as he carried the infant Christ across a stream or maybe a puddle. The thing is, John didn’t have any legs. At least his statue didn’t. And Christ wasn’t up on John’s back. At least his body wasn’t. The statue was very well rendered, but it had gone through a bombing or earthquake or something, and all that remained of Jesus was his knee on St. John’s shoulder.
“One knee,” I said. “And look, the statue is by a guy named Gian Francesco Rustici.”
“That explains the strange spellings on the last line of the poem,” Cindy said.
For the second time in one evening I started tearing paintings off the walls.
“We need clues,” I said.
“I already found it,” she said.
It was a rolled-up scrap of paper in a strange plastic tube. I unrolled the paper. Another clue.
It was in my hand and now it’s gone They were in the building and now they’re home.
“Another poem,” I said. To get ideas flowing I started brainstorming. Little did I know most of the gullies were already flooded. “Electricity... the Warren Report... Costa Rica...”
“What are you doing?”
“Just doing wild guesses to see if it triggers anything.”
“The answer is, ‘the staff’“.
“Oh yeah,” I said, seeing it instantly.
We were in the elevator headed for the rooms where the staff worked.
“Another thing... his quickness of vision was superhuman.”
“Da Vinci’s. He even sketched the wing motions of hummingbirds. And we only know what their wings do because we’ve seen pictures in slow motion, like in commercials. But he could see things we never even thought to pay attention to. He sketched turbulent flow, and water drops hitting stones, and smoke coming out of different shaped openings; those vanes that spin around and suck air out of attics, he invented those.”
“I don’t know what that has to do with our present situation.”
“You’re just jealous, because most of the people in ancient times were men,” I said.
Cindy put her hand back in the pocket that held the gun.
The elevator doors opened. Stepping out, Foe slipped on some drops of water on the floor and almost fell. A voice to our right startled us. “I’ll get that,” the voice said. We looked over and a slender woman in coveralls was coming towards us. She had a long ribbon of paper towels in one hand. She came and bent over and started wiping the water off the tiles.
The room was big with a dozen desks, and off to one side some nice rooms with glass going from floor to ceiling.
“Yes. Everyone else has gone home.”
I pointed to her accusingly. “Name three players on the Cardinals baseball team,” I said.
Cindy and Foe looked at me. “What...?”
“She could be a spy,” I said.
On the way back down I told them the bad news. “Not everything he did turns out commendable.” I said. “He used to pay grave robbers for body parts. He was fascinated by cadavers. Did you know he discovered parts of the human heart that are named for him? I think they’re like restrictor bands of the left ventricle... something like that.
“I once read a real neat horror story about a young man chained to a wall, and a group comes in and the first thing they do is force the old guy’s mouth open and they use these long pliers and grab the man’s uvula — that’s that little thing that hangs down in your throat — and they snip off the guy’s uvula and then they make him drink scalding hot melted wax during which time he screams and gurgles and his eyes get all big and round and eventually he dies.
“And then the men in the room cut open his chest with breaking ribs and blood on the floor, real medieval torture, guts on the ceiling, horror murder... And the kicker is... when it’s all over they carefully remove the wax impression of the man’s lungs and place the red wax mess on a big platter and carry it over and show it to a man in fine clothes and he nods and his face gets filled with the glow of new knowledge. And we see by the light of dim candles that it’s Leonardo Da Vinci examining the world.”
“All night you’ve been talking Da Vinci.”
“We still have a murder to solve.”
“I gave up on that. I still think it’s some kind of suicide, a protest against modern art.”
We were almost out the front door when she stopped. She walked back and looked in the water by the fountain. She called me over. “That coin yours?” she asked.
“So?” I said.
“So... where are all the other coins?” she asked.
I looked in. Except for the water, the fountain was empty. At the far end of the hall the cleaning lady was trying to leave. She had a heavy bucket in each hand.
Cindy pulled her gun. For three long seconds she had it pointing at my chest then reluctantly she turned and shot at one of the buckets. It split open and a ton of quarters spilled out on the floor.
Foe made the arrest.
We took samples of the cleaning lady’s handwriting. She killed the real janitor so she could steal the coins from the fountain. She left clues thinking no one would be able to follow her diabolical plan to its conclusion.
At the trial, months later, I was sworn in.
“Da Vinci also worked as a military adviser to Cesare Borgia,” I said, “an illegitimate son to Pope Alexander VI and a relative of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Da Vinci was buried at Amboise, his bones scattered by shells fired into the cemetery during a war. And then, years later, the French Romantic poet Arsène Houssaye gathered some likely bones and had them transferred to a grave that bears the name Da Vinci.”
“Could the recorder read back the question, please?” It was the defense lawyer asking for some clarification.
The stenographer read back the question. “Could you state your name and address?”
“Oh that.” I pulled out my license and began pointing.
Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith