by Joe Vadalma
An ominous feeling of dread gripped Goddard Van Brecklehoffer as he eased his Austin-Healey up the narrow winding mountain road. Who would ever guess that Ruebangelo’s home would be in this wilderness of the Catskill Mountains, or for that matter, that any place two hours from New York could be so absolutely rural? The area reminded him of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road.
It was late October. Raw winds and bleak hovering clouds chilled a day begun sunlit in the warmth of Indian summer. Here, deep in the mountains, the woods mourned the passing of autumn with almost leafless trees in somber hues of black and brown. A week earlier the forests were ablaze with color. Now piles of crumbling copper, gold and walnut leaves caught by sudden gusts of wind danced wildly across the road like hoards of whirling demons.
Goddard felt as though he was descending into Satan’s pit as he drove through this bleak landscape. Actually he was responding to an invitation from the artist Vincent Ruebangelo, whose career had been on the descent ever since Goddard maliciously panned his work after a minor altercation. As the art critic for an important national magazine, Goddard’s words came down like thunder from the gods, either making or breaking a painter’s or sculptor’s reputation. In Ruebangelo’s case he used his power in an arbitrary and brutal manner.
The truth was that Goddard no longer had the artistic sense that came to him so naturally years ago. Now he wrote his column to showcase his wit and ability to use words in a clever and sarcastic way. Although Ruebangelo’s works were beautiful, imaginative and creative, in a devastating, satirical column, probably the cleverest Goddard had ever written in its snide, patronizing way, he dismissed the artist’s paintings as the work of an untalented wanna-be. As a result, an important New York gallery, who was to present a showing of Ruebangelo’s works, canceled out. Chances of Ruebangelo getting another such opportunity were nil.
Because of the column and its consequences, Goddard’s own island of security became as shaky as San Francisco in the 1903 earthquake. Ruebangelo held a secret that could be his ruin if the artist chose to reveal it. Goddard’s fate would be a swift fall from his position. So far, Ruebangelo had not said a thing. So, why would he invite Goddard to his home. What could it mean? Blackmail perhaps? Some devious revenge?
Ruebangelo alone knew what he knew. If he did not exist, he could not tell. As Goddard shifted in his seat, the loaded thirty-two in his jacket pressed against his side, a reminder of its presence. He brought it as a last resort, in case Ruebangelo would not listen to reason. The idea of actually using it made Goddard’s lip twitch. He doubted whether he could personally perform an act of violence.
As a small thin schoolboy, he had been a target of hooligan bullies and had learned more devious methods of dealing with enemies. For example, there was Henri Porque, the outspoken sculptor, who dared to embarrass him in public. Henri was dead by his own hand after Goddard revealed his perversions in his column.
Goddard was aware that behind his back, people had said that this sort of cruelty was Goddard’s real self. In fact he had been openly accused of tormenting his wife to death. He felt that was unjust since he had loved her very much in his own way. He only treated her the way he did to assert the rights due a man in his own home. How could he know that she was so weak-willed that hurtful remarks would cause her to open her wrists and bleed to death in their tub.
* * *
The rounded tops of the blue hills to the west smoldered volcanically with the dying day as Goddard parked at the dead end of a long winding unpaved road. It had led to a gloomy hollow where a moss encrusted stone rectory squatted like an ancient tomb. As he gazed around, he had the eerie sensation that he had stumbled into a forgotten remnant of the long-dead past.
Grotesque shadows were cast by an unkempt apple orchard on one side of the building. On the other side weeds and vines tangled around the weathered stones of a long-forgotten churchyard. Did Ruebangelo really live here? He must. Goddard had followed the explicit directions scrupulously. Nevertheless, it seemed incongruous that the boisterous, volatile artist actually resided in this dreary relic of pre-Revolutionary times.
What disturbed the city-bred Goddard most was the awful silence, broken only by the snapping of twigs and the rustle of his steps through the piles of autumn leaves. It was the silence of a coffin. How isolated this mausoleum was. The most vile crimes could be committed here without detection. No victim’s scream for mercy or tortured howl could be heard by any ears except those of the fiend.
The weathered wooden door swung open to his hesitant tap. Ruebangelo’s deep baritone greeted him. “Come in, my friend. You’re late. I was afraid you’d succumbed to these treacherous mountain roads. It would be terrible if you met with some disaster — on the way up here.”
Goddard searched Ruebangelo’s gaunt heavily-bearded face for signs of irony and ended up being amazed at how youthful he appeared. Except for a few creases around the eyes and mouth, the artist had hardly aged since the last time he saw him.
“No, but I drove slowly. I’m not used to such narrow, twisting roads. You certainly are isolated here. Doesn’t it get lonely?”
The bear-like Ruebangelo let out a robust he-haw from deep within his barrel chest. “Quite the contrary. It’s a pleasant relief to be away from the city. Besides, I’ve made good friends in the area, people who still live like we did in the sixties, who still have the same idealism.”
As Goddard gazed at the interior of Ruebangelo’s home, his mouth dropped open. Never had he seen anything quite like this. Only an insane man could live in such an atmosphere. The sun’s dying rays through the cobwebbed windows revealed a surrealist’s hell. Every inch of the wall was illustrated with grotesque murals in brilliant inharmonious colors; monstrous ugly bean cans, looming comic book characters in garish yellows and reds with thick black outlines, rows of full-length Elvis Preslys, beings from an UFO-obsessed person’s nightmares, overdeveloped nudes in obscene poses.
As Goddard stepped into that awesome room, his already taut nerves tightened around his windpipe until he thought he would strangle. It was so overwhelmingly hackneyed and vulgar he could not speak for several seconds. Finally he stammered, “D-d-did you do all this yourself?”
“Of course. Not to your liking? But you were never a fan. As I recall your last column...” He did not complete his thought, merely stared.
“I see. You thought I was too harsh. Well, water under the bridge. Unless you propose to do something about it.” Goddard tried to see behind the artist’s noncommittal expression, discern his motives. Does he want money? A retraction? Some sort of public humiliation or apology? Or revenge?
“I’ve already done it. It’s why I brought you here. But, let’s have a drink first. Name your poison.”
While Ruebangelo was out of the room, Goddard eased into a leather sofa. Perspiration dampened his forehead although the room was drafty. What was Ruebangelo up to? It did not sound as though he was going to expose him. Apparently he had a more diabolical revenge planned. Goddard wished he had not responded to the artist’s invitation and stayed in Manhattan. The devilish grin on the winking mural that loomed on the nearest wall seemed to say, “You’re in for it now. You’re about to get your just deserts.”
Ruebangelo’s booming voice sounded from the kitchen. “By the way Goddard, someone told me you were having health problems. Anything serious?”
“Insomnia. My doctor told me to go to a shrink. Said I was on the verge of a breakdown, that I was suffering from paranoid delusions. High-priced quack. Nowadays everything’s either in your head or due to high cholesterol.”
When Ruebangelo returned, he set two glasses of whiskey on a coffee table covered with a repulsive abstract design. It was splashed with an enormous amount of red, as though a bloody murder had been committed on it.
Goddard decided to get things out of the open. “Are you sore about the column I did on your paintings while you were negotiating for an exhibition?”
Ruebangelo’s lips twisted into an evil grin. “Sore? The first time I read it, I was so furious, I became a madman, completely out of control. That column changed my whole life. After I thought...”
Goddard interrupted, his voice rising to soprano heights. “I can write a retraction, praise you to high heaven.”
“That wouldn’t do me much good now, would it? You gave your honest opinion. Your reputation would suffer if you softened the blow simply because we’re friends, especially if your little secret leaked out. Besides, it makes no difference now that...”
“Look, years ago we were close. I never had it in mind to ruin our friendship.”
“That was a long time ago. But, what the hell, I suppose we could... No. We live in different worlds now. It’s too late. Too many years and too many tears.” Ruebangelo paused a moment. “Your speaking of those days reminds me of what murderous good times we had. We were quite a pair.”
At the word “murderous” Goddard straightened in his seat, his heart did a drum roll against his chest. He fell silent. He was certain that it was as he guessed when he first received the invitation; Ruebangelo’s revenge would be to reveal their part in a pledge’s death as part of a college hazing incident.
Ruebangelo downed the rest of his drink. “C’mon fellow ky-omega-alpha...” Goddard flinched at the mention of their fraternity. “...let me give you a tour of my home and show you what your ‘faint praise’ has caused me to do.”
Goddard shuddered at these words, yet allowed himself to be led away like a lamb to slaughter. They visited the kitchen, a bedroom, the john and a storeroom full of old paintings and art supplies.
Halfway down an ill-lighted hallway, they entered a room that housed an enormous weird machine. It reminded Goddard of a Rube Goldberg invention. This mechanism filled the room and was extremely complicated, a spidery complex of hammers, pulleys, gears, wires and belts. It was so complex he found it impossible to follow what would happen once it was put into action. Within it were unusual metallic and plastic shapes, flat surfaces, curved and straight-edged of different sizes, all painted with weird designs in many hues.
“This is it.” Ruebangelo made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “The Archipentura. Henri Porque started it and I completed it. You recall Henri, don’t you? Foolish man. Committed suicide. He left the beginnings of this to me in his will. We lived together for a while just before he died, y’know.”
Goddard felt ill. So he was to be blamed for the death of Ruebangelo’s gay lover as well. The room became extremely warm; his knees rubbery. He leaned back and brushed against a part of the machine. Without warning, it sprang into action. A sledge hammer swung down in an arc inches from Goddard’s head and clanged with a horrendous noise against a Chinese gong.
Goddard leaped away in sheer terror. “Goddamn it Vince, I could’ve been killed.” His fear turned to cold anger and suspicion. “That was deliberate. You lured me here to have this insane machine kill me. Well, not if I get you first.” He yanked the pistol out and waved it wildly at Ruebangelo.
Meanwhile, the machine creaked and groaned like a tortured animal. Every few seconds the sledge swished through the air and the gong sounded, completely unnerving Goddard. The noise of the machine drowned out whatever Ruebangelo was trying to tell him. All he could understand were isolated phrases, “... gone mad?... gun away... leaned against switch...”
Ruebangelo raised his hand. Something was in it. Did he have a gun too? Crazed by fear, paranoia and the awful screeching and gonging of the awful machine, Goddard was certain he did. He pointed the gun with two trembling hands, closed his eyes and fired round after round until the clip was empty.
When only empty clicks came from the weapon, his eyes went wide. Ruebangelo lay in a crumpled heap, motionless. The wall behind where he had been standing was splattered with blood and riddled with bullet holes.
Blood thundered in Goddard’s ears. He dropped the pistol and fled. He stumbled to the front door before he came to his senses. He had left enough evidence to convict him ten times over for Ruebangelo’s murder. As he comprehended the enormity of what he had done and its consequences, long years in prison, twenty five-to-life at least, even the death penalty was possible, his mind became a maelstrom of fear and regret.
At first he was frozen with indecision. His pumping heart and frayed nerves told him to flee instantly — to get as far away as fast as possible. But the rational part of his mind told him that no one had known he was coming here. If he cleaned up any incriminating evidence, the police couldn’t prove a thing even if they suspected him. He forced himself to stagger past the sinister murals and back into the gloomy hallway.
Somehow he had forgotten which room held that terrible machine and Ruebangelo’s corpse. Was it the room on the left or the right? He tried the door on the left. Only darkness and silence greeted him. He flipped on a light switch but no light came on. Again he felt faint and slowly slid to the floor. When the door swung closed, he heard a loud click of a locking mechanism.
While he tried to gather his strength and collect his thoughts, he heard a strange clanking as though an iron chain was being dragged across a rough surface. An overhead fixture came on, brightened into a fountain of colored light patterns that sprayed the room with kaleidoscopic shadows.
Was it an effect of the eerie light or his imagination? The far wall was moving slowly toward him. From somewhere, a Hindu sitar repeated the same note pattern over and over in an ever-increasing volume and pitch until it threatened to burst his eardrums.
That terrible stroboscopic light and ghastly sound knifed into his skull agonizingly. At the same time, the walls came alive with fantastic moving images of hangmen and slavering demons who danced and cavorted in wild unspeakable orgies of torture and bloody murder.
With nightmarish slowness, Goddard crawled toward the entrance but a delirium of terror pressed upon him like an enormous weight that allowed him to move in slow, slow motion as though he were underwater. Finally, the madness of the room overwhelmed him. He fell into a black chasm, withdrawing into madness from the unreal phantasmagoria that surrounded him.
To his crazed mind his sins had pushed him into the bottomless pit of hell. Causing his fellow student’s death started him on his way. The way he drove his wife to kill herself placed him on the edge. Henri’s suicide had him clinging by his finger tips. Ruebangelo’s murder sent him over the edge. Down and down he fell, screaming and tumbling into a place of flames and endless pain.
* * *
Hours later, Ruebangelo’s crumpled form stirred, blinked and finally regained full consciousness. Slowly, he got to his feet. He held his handkerchief to his bleeding head where one of the bullets Goddard had fired so wildly had grazed it. He heard strange noises coming from the room across the hall and staggered to the switch box to turn off the computer that ran the projectors, floor-tilting mechanism, surround-sound stereo system and other devices that produced the fantastic effects in that chamber. He entered it to find Goddard screaming shrilly with his eyes glazed and a look of sheer horror as though viewing his own private hell.
After the police placed Goddard in a straitjacket and carted him off in an ambulance, a detective asked Ruebangelo whether he had any idea what might have pushed the critic over the brink.
“I really don’t know, officer. We were talking in that room over there when suddenly he pulled out a gun and began firing it wildly.” He showed the policeman his wounded scalp. “One of the bullets grazed my head rendering me unconscious. Good thing too. If I’d remained standing, he might’ve killed me.
“While I was unconscious, he must’ve gone into the room where I have my masterpiece. It’s a new art form which I call technomedia. It uses the latest technology: computers, surround-sound, special holographic projectors and so forth. For some reason he turned it on. What else occurred, I have no idea. I found him in the state you saw him.
“At least he got to see my work. I’d invited him up for that reason. I wanted him to be the first to view it. I owed him that much. His criticism of my paintings made me realize that I was wasting my time in such a passé medium.”
Copyright © 2007 by Joe Vadalma