CONDUCT IN QUESTION
Was it wrong to take a life so young?
Such beautiful skin was soft, smooth, and white as cream. He stroked her lustrous brown hair. A nervous smile flitted across her face.
He stared into her eyes. She was a university student, filled with the idealism of youth, but her lips and nails were painted red.
The ceaseless debate pounded in his head. A painter should not discard a sketch for its lack of finish. With time, a musician could weave a simple tune into a great symphony. A true artist never rushed to judgment. He shuddered at the prospect of mistakenly snuffing out a life of promise. He had to contemplate her value before the final moment.
In time, she might become a doctor, a judge, or a professor. But how could that be? Her dress was tight and low-cut. She would create a scandal wherever she went. He could resist no longer.
He caressed her long, slim neck. Fear flickered through her body.
His fingers dug deeper. She gasped. Like tiny birds, her hands fluttered upward to pry away his fingers.
Passion overcame his reason. The desperate pleading in her eyes drove him to heights of ecstasy. Her arms and legs thrashed pitifully. Her fear thrust him into his dark world of freedom, where only he could redeem her soul. It was an act of compassion.
Lacing his fingers around her throat, he twisted his hands hard and fast.
“Just a common harlot, begging for it,” he panted.
At last, she was quiet.
He stroked her long neck and hummed a lullaby. An exquisite subject, he thought. He withdrew a silver knife from his pocket. An artist, who sought new challenges, deserved the finest tools.
Carefully, he drew back her long black hair and exposed her face. On her cheek he carved a tiny petal. Pausing to admire his work, he drew another petal close to her chin and then scrolled a graceful stem down her neck.
Disappointed, he sat back. He had not yet perfected his artistry. The line lacked the easy flow of a master. But with his mark, now she was truly beautiful.
The next morning, he sat at a café on the mews, which was suffused with a calm, ethereal light. He sipped his coffee and scanned the front page of the newspaper. He wanted to savor the latest review of his artistic work. The media called him “The Florist.” He would send the editor a sketch of his next carving. Soon he would be known as an artist with daring in his soul.
Trapped next to the open casket, Harry Jenkins glanced at the deceased woman, an elderly client whose face was rouged into a grotesque parody of life. Poor Miss Richardson. Only at her death did her relatives come out of the woodwork. He brushed back his thinning hair and swallowed hard. His senior law partner, Richard Crawford, stood close by. His fine features and elegant attire made Harry feel clumsy and overblown.
Crawford always found just the right inflection for his softly spoken words of condolence. Even after countless funerals, Harry’s own phrases seemed stilted and woefully inadequate. Crawford moved gracefully amongst the damp-eyed mourners, greeting each one with a grave but gracious air. Taking the hand of one, giving a dry kiss to another, Crawford worked the room for new clients. Harry’s teacup rattled in his hand as he sought a place to set it down.
Natasha Boretsky, a realtor for Crawford, gently touched Harry’s arm and drew him closer. “Harry, good to see you. I called you the other day.”
Her hair was dark and lustrous. He caught a hint of her perfume. Smiling, he awkwardly took her hand and managed to say, “Really? I’m sorry I missed your call.”
Her dark brown eyes widened with pleasure. His cup threatened to tip, but still he held her hand for just a moment longer, until they were parted in the crush of the crowd.
His back turned, Crawford stood in front of him. Trapped, Harry gazed over the sea of mourners and out the window. Caught in the afternoon light, dust motes hung motionless in the funeral-parlor air. A promising spring day lay beyond the curtain. Outside, a man and a woman were kissing. She laughed and broke away. A gentle breeze lifted her broad-brimmed hat and sent it soaring upward to the sky. Enchanted, Harry watched the man rush to catch the hat and place it on her head. Arm in arm, they disappeared down the block.
Suddenly, he had to escape. He touched Crawford on the arm in order to pass by, and the old man jerked backward. Harry’s cup was knocked to the floor. The clatter silenced the mourners only for a moment. Harry swept the shards of china to one side and strode from the room. Crawford shook his head and smoothly returned to his conversation.
Harry heaved open the heavy brass doors of the funeral parlor to find a congregation of smokers huddled under the canopy. As he shouldered by, conversation rippled about him.
“The police are calling the killer ‘The Florist.’”
“Because of his handiwork?”
“Yes. Apparently, he carves naked flesh in absolutely beautiful designs.”
“Must be a real fruitcake on the loose.”
Harry hurried past. He could not conceive of a being who could ravage and create in one instant.
In his car, he stared blankly at a beer advertisement on a billboard. Funerals always made him restless with questions. At forty-two, the great divide of half a century loomed in his path like a foreboding angel. Time had been steadily measured out to him in hours and days, to the point of tedium. Yet, twenty years had passed in just a moment. What did that mean for the future?Despite his years of faithful tutelage under Crawford, Harry was still trapped under the old man’s thumb. All his offers to purchase the practice had been adamantly refused.
Backing up, he slammed on the brakes. Good God! He had almost smashed the side panel of a Jaguar parked way over the line. Carefully, he exited the lot and headed for home. He and his wife, Laura, could have a relaxed dinner together. Lately a silence had grown between them, and the house had acquired a hollow sound. It wasn’t too late to mend the rift, he hoped.
When he opened the front door, he saw the note, which read: Out for dinner with Martha. Laura. Slowly, Harry set his briefcase down. In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and found some cold meat for a sandwich.
As Harry entered his office next morning, Miss Giveny (the secretary for the firm Crane, Crawford, and Jenkins) announced, “Mr. Crawford needs a trust prepared by noon for Marjorie Deighton.”
That’s it! No more last-minute demands. “I have a client at ten, Miss Giveny,” Harry said.
Miss Giveny bristled in the doorway. “Mr. Crawford said that it’s urgent.”
“I have to close the Robertson purchase today.” Harry sat behind his desk and peered at the large spectacles perched on Miss Giveny’s narrow nose. “Are all the documents ready for signature?”
“Of course they are,” she sniffed, as if greatly offended. “The bank called. The funds are ready for closing.” She turned abruptly and walked away.
“All right,” he called after her. “Bring me the file, and I’ll look at it.”
When his secretary, Miss Giveny, returned with the file, Harry rifled through it, searching for instructions. Nothing made sense. Turning the page, he caught his breath. The entire sheet was scrawled with intricate and detailed pen sketches of female genitalia, viewed from the most surprising angles. A neat border of rose petals edged the drawing.
Harry gasped, then choked with laughter. At the foot of the page was written: R. A. Crawford…secret trust/will instructions from Miss M. Deighton. Holding the page at arm’s length, Harry squinted, then turned it upside down.
There was absolutely no doubt about the subject matter. Harry was quite impressed with his partner’s skill. The prim Mr. Crawford must have hidden his lustful artistry as he diligently recorded Miss Deighton’s will instructions.
Richard Crawford always presented an image of elegance and refinement to the world, but his file revealed the dark cracks of derangement in the old man’s polished surface. Adjusting his reading glasses, Harry stole another look at the drawing.
Crawford strolled into the waiting room with a newspaper neatly tucked under his arm. He softly whistled to himself. Instead of going directly into his own office, he knocked and entered Harry’s office.
Harry hastily closed the file.
“My good man,” Crawford beamed, “I see you have the Deighton file. Be sure you get Marjorie’s secret trusts right. If you’ve any questions about technical aspects, just ask me.”
Harry was speechless. His face burned with embarrassment for the old man. Finally he asked, “But where are the written instructions?”
Crawford waved impatiently and spoke as if to a lowly student. “Everything you could possibly want is in the file, Harry. Study it carefully.” Crawford paused. His eyes glazed over. Apparently lost in pleasant recollection, he sighed, “Marjorie.” Suddenly, he turned on Harry, eyes hardened with the memory of lust.
Harry hastened to stand.
“That delectable woman!” Crawford seemed to be addressing someone over Harry’s shoulder, just outside the window. “She has the spirit of a saint, but, as God is my witness, the body of a…” A nasty purple flush rose from Crawford’s collar. “Do you understand how a woman can possess a man?” he demanded, teetering heel to toe. He whispered hoarsely, “Jenkins! Have you ever experienced the passion, the thrall?”
For an instant, Crawford’s left side sagged with the ravages of stroke. He sought to right himself. “If you have not, my good man, then you have not lived.” The old man’s eyes momentarily turned upward. Only the whites could be seen.
Harry panicked. “Richard, are you ill?” He rushed to his partner’s side, but Crawford did not answer. His face engorged with dark pleasure, he gave a lurid and distorted wink. The effect was horrific. Harry’s stomach heaved.
Crawford lurched forward. His chin struck the desk with such a crack that Miss Giveny came running.
Harry shouted, “Richard! Are you all right? Can you hear me?”
Dropping to all fours, Harry pressed his ear to Crawford’s chest and listened intently. He shook his shoulder, making Crawford’s head loll to one side. One glassy eye stared up at him. The ghastly wink had frozen the other eye shut. Ravenous demands of the flesh had consumed his body and soul. As the paramedics crowded in with the stretcher minutes later, Harry tore up the artwork.