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The Painting

by Casey Promise Thompson 10 months ago in Historical · updated 6 months ago
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A Raging Bull

Photo by Dylan Thompson

John removed his hat and then smoothed over his cowlick with some spit on his hands just before he entered the cafe. The door bells jangled as he pushed open the heavy wooden and glass door, and was relieved to see his favorite table empty.

It was a particularly hot summer in Georgia, and that day was the kind of day where it was so humid it felt like you were walking through a thick wall of hot steam as soon you stepped outside. Clothes sticking to every part of your body and the air smelled of asphalt and spoiled trash.

John made his way to his favorite dark corner spot and hung his hat over the back of the chair and laid out his pen and thin long leather-bound notebook.

He hadn’t slept much the night before. He had been having these nightmares that would abruptly wake him over and over, leaving him plastered in sweat-soaked sheets. Sometimes he’d wake up screaming, but that’s not something he’d ever admit to.

He pulled out his pen and scribbled down June 25th, 1952 at the top of the thin yellow-lined page.

“Johnny, you want your regular today?”asked Annie.

Annie was the regular waitress. She had been working in that cafe for as long as he could remember. She always smelled of cigarette smoke, a hint of rose perfume and coffee. He could never guess her age, but he was pretty sure she looked older than she was. A friendly sort of woman, but you wouldn’t want to set her off on a bad day.

“Yeah Annie, but throw in some ice water would ya?”

“Coffee, pie and water comin’ right up”, she said in her grumbly cigarette-stained voice.

She smiled and wiped her hands on her red floral-print apron and headed into the back.

Photo by Miche Thompson

Jules Cafe was a small joint near his office and he came in almost every morning. John liked his routines. He needed his routines. They helped to keep his head above water from the unbearably hard and cold grind of his job. Being a Detective in Atlanta hadn’t been easy.

The cafe was one of the coolest places in the Summer months as it was one of the few establishments that stayed mostly in the shadows of the skyscrapers.

With pen in hand, John started writing down a list he’d been memorizing in his head since he’d woken up.

Make an Appointment with Dr. Anderson.

•Call Big about the refrigerator.

•Pick up some daisies for Dorothy.

•Raging Bull

Annie interrupted his list-making with a cup of fresh hot coffee, a plate of apple pie and a cold cup of water with condensation already leaking around the outside of the cup.

“I swear Johnny, these ceiling fans can’t spin hard enough to cool off a fly”, said Annie.

She then wiped her face with her stained apron and then stood there staring at John with her hands on her hips.

“What is it, Annie? You don’t need your money now, do ya?”

Annie grunted and said, “When are ya goin’ to spill the goods about that robbery up on 4th the other night?”

John closed his notebook, sat his pen down and looked at Annie’s curly red hair now with a grey stripe running from the front.

“You know I can’t tell you about that stuff. Now why do ya keep askin’ me?”

“Well everybody been talkin’ bout it and I figured since it was my brother-in-laws place you might spill the beans”, she said with a slightly annoyed stare.

John shook his head. “Listen hun, all we know for now is that only one thing was taken. We don’t know why or who. I’ll let ya know as soon as the public can know.”

Annie gave him a side-eyed look as she turned her attention to the opening door and jingling bells as a woman in a blue dress walked into the cafe.

She quickly turned back and said “Well let me know anyways”, and scurried off to get the woman’s order.

There was a burglary at the Johnson’s antique shop the other night. It was a peculiar theft as there was only one item that’d been stolen. It was an old painting titled Raging Bull and it was supposedly of a war scene between the Navajo and the Spanish. It wasn’t from any famous painter and as far as anyone knew, that battle never happened. No money had been taken, just the painting. John didn’t deal with robberies unless a murder was involved, but he knew the Johnsons personally, so he had been keeping up with the details.

He opened his list back up and thought about how he needed to call Dr. Anderson. He hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about his nightmares, but he could only thrive so long with so little sleep.

John sipped his coffee and turned towards the window front where the woman in the blue dress sat by herself staring out almost aimlessly into the downtown street and its passerby's. She was tall and John thought was almost too well-dressed for such an establishment. Her dark feathered hat and silk blue dress shone in the light as her black braided hair slipped down her back. John caught himself staring just as she turned to look at him and he nervously turned towards his list. The woman then stood up, grabbed her purse, gently pushed her chair into the table and made her way over to him.

“May I sit here?”, asked the woman.

John was a bit perplexed as he didn’t normally have visitors at his table and most often preferred to be alone. That was a part of his routine, you see. The aloneness, the dark corner, his coffee and his lists for the day – they were all an every day event that he carefully guarded.

John stood quickly and mumbled, “Uhm, yes, of course. Have a seat ma’am.”

The woman pulled back the chair and sat down and smiled as her bright red lips anxiously greeted him as she started opening up her purse. She was a strangely beautiful woman. Brown eyes, a light chestnut-colored skin and a long neck with a hint of clavicle showing. He started to feel antsy as he was both unnerved at the sudden shift of his morning and the mysterious and mesmerizing woman sitting right across from him.

She looked at him for a moment and then spoke, “I hear you’re the Detective in these parts. Am I correct?”

“Yes ma’am. The name is John. John Lucas.”

John stared down at his closed notebook and then nervously stirred his coffee.

“What does this woman want?”, he thought.

As he kept awkwardly stirring away at his now room-temperature coffee, the lady began opening her purse ever so delicately as to not grab the attention from the other patrons. She then pulled out a piece of paper and placed it in the folds of his notebook. She looked up to meet his eyes and gently spoke, “I hear it’s going to be a cold winter this year, don’t you think?”

John looked at her and then down at his notebook and started to grab the slip of paper. She quickly, but delicately, placed her hand over his hands, smiled, and just barely shook her head indicating a “no, not yet” sort of gesture. He pulled back and took in her startling dark eyes.

In the same small voice with a northern accent he couldn’t quite pinpoint, she leaned in and whispered “Winter will be early this year. I’d start buying up bags of salt if I were you.”

She then grabbed her purse and stood and fluffed down her dress. She opened her wallet and walked back to her table where she left Annie the money for her coffee. She made her way through the heavy glass door and disappeared from view.

Perpexled, he looked around the room and made sure no one was staring over at him. He then opened his notebook to find a piece of paper with an address and a scribbled note underneath it that said “Come quickly”.

John stuffed the paper in his upper pocket and signaled to Annie to close his tab. He grabbed his wide-brimmed hat and placed it on his head and stuck his notebook in his back pocket.

“Leaving so soon, Johnny?”

“Yeah, Annie. I just realized I need to head into the station early. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

John put down his cash and quickly stepped out the door into the heavy heat that was barreling down as he headed down the alley. He found a quiet and shaded empty spot by the cafe dumpster and looked at the address again.

“221 8th Ave”, he said aloud.

“That’s near the shoe factory.”

Photo by Miche Thompson

John tilted his hat forward and began walking up the blocks leading toward 8th Avenue. He had no idea why he felt he needed to go, but that whole event in the cafe with the woman was awfully peculiar and he wasn’t needed at the station for another half hour.

He walked passed the bakery and waived at little Suzanne who was wiping down her father’s shop windows. He passed by Jeffrey, the shoe polisher, and tipped his bowl and waved. Sweating and slightly irritated, he kept hauling past each city block where he turned left on 8th. Off in the distance he saw the giant lit shoe sign hanging off the old factory walls.

He rolled up his sleeves and took his handkerchief and wiped the back of his neck as he headed towards the sign. Finally he came to the address of 221. It was a tall building that sat between the larger shoe factory and a department store. There was a black wooden door with its paint peeling marked with the address in crooked gold numbers. He buttoned up the top button of his now soaked shirt and knocked on the door. There were no signs indicating whether or not this was a business or a residence.

Suddenly he heard a yell and a pop of a gun coming from deep inside the building. He put his hand on his revolver and quickly pulled open the door and went inside. It was dark with a hint of light coming from a large set of double doors at the other end of the hall. He quietly made his way towards the sounds and pulled out his revolver and unlocked the safety. Another scream echoed out and through the hall and what sounded like someone running and knocking things over.

John softly walked to the doors and opened one ever so slightly to peek in. There, in the light, he saw a warehouse and several garage doors. The room was full of mounds of salt. It seemed to be the city’s salt supply for winter that was used to de-ice the roads. Which, with it being Georgia, was rarely needed.

He took a deep breath, sweat beading down his cheeks, and kicked the door open.

Photo by Miche Thompson

There, in the middle of the room, was that very same woman in the blue dress holding out a knife towards a man with a gun. She seemed to also be holding something flat and large.

They both stood there in shock when John yelled “Freeze! Atlanta PD!”

The man, dressed in all black, immediately shot at John and missed. John ran behind a desk and checked his barrel for bullets. He peered out to see the scraggly tall man run behind one of the salt piles. The woman slowly backed away, holding out the knife, gripping it so tightly her knuckles were as white as the salt.

“John!”, the woman screamed. “John, he’s right over there. John! Please. Please help!”

John peered out over the desk and met the woman’s startled eyes. He checked for the armed man and then signaled for her to come behind the desk with him.

Suddenly, the other man screamed out “Betty, don’t you dare. Don’t make me do it!”

She stood there in horror – frozen and unable to look away from the gun pointing over the salt pile. John motioned to get her attention. She turned towards him, tears rolling down her face, and then pulled the knife towards the flat object and cut into it and down. For a moment nothing happened. Then there was a cry from the tall man, now peering out.

“No!”, he screamed.

After another moment of deafening silence, she bent over and laid down the flat object. John peered over and realized that it was a painting. The woman then ripped apart the canvas in a disemboweling frenzy and turned it over. Out fell a large envelope and an outpouring of papers that came slithering all over the floor.

“Papers?”, thought John.

The other man came barreling out from behind the salt pile and started shooting at her. She ducked and John stood up and fired back at him, making him leap back behind the pile.

“John, help me”, cried Betty. She began frantically piling all of the papers into her purse. John came around the other end of the desk and ran up behind her.

“What are you doing?! What is this? What’s going on?”, he frantically whispered.

“Just help me get out of here.”

Out of nowhere the armed man, who was old and red-faced, ran towards them. Bullets flying in the air and bouncing off the walls. John shot off one, two, three bullets before finally striking him in the chest. He stood eerily still for only a second, mouth gaped open and eyes wide. Then he dropped to his knees in a sort of slow motion before falling face first onto the concrete floor. John looked at Betty as she curled over her purse and took in short and sharp breaths, shaking and retracting into herself.

“What the hell is going on? What are these papers? Who is that guy?”, John asked angrily.

She just shook her head and he peered over at the gutted painting. There on the cold concrete floor, were the battling Navajo and Spanish soldiers. But, it was now split in two by the knife’s edge. He took the papers from her trembling hands and she reluctantly gave way her grip.

The papers were a mix of things. Photos of children, churches and schools. There were lists of names, ages and dates. At least a hundred papers with what looked to be information about young children living at some sort of schools or churches in Canada.

“Canada?”, he thought to himself.

Betty laid there crying, her hat on the floor and her dark black hair sticking to the sides of her face mixed with sweat and her now rolling bands of tears.

Photo by Miche Thompson

“What is all of this? Who are these children?”, asked John.

Betty slowly sat up and wiped her tears on her dress. With an unnerved tone she finally caught her breath and said, “This painting used to hang at a Church that was a part of a boarding school in Canada. It’s where I’m from. I’m part of the Saulteaux people from Sault St. Marie. These people were my family and their friends. They were all rounded up and sent to these boarding schools, but they never came home. They died. They all died, John.”

John sat back and watched the woman, who all of a sudden seemed much older, and he shook his head in astonishment.

“What do you mean they all died?”

Photo by Miche Thompson

Betty, looking down at the pile of papers, went on to tell the story of how the Canadian Government rounded up thousands of indigenous children and brought them to boarding schools and how so many of them were never heard from again. How the people of the First Nation tribes knew their children were dying but nothing could be done.

John pointed at the body slumped into the now red-stained concrete, “Well, who is he?”

“He was a Priest at one of the schools. The painting mysteriously disappeared several years ago. Someone had found out that the information about the children was hidden in the painting and many thought it was lost forever. I had spent years looking for it and so was he.” She motioned with her head at his body with a dissociative stare.

“His name is Richard. He’s been stalking me and the Raging Bull for years. I had been calling every museum and antique store I could find, both here in the US and in Canada. I called the store here in Atlanta and they described the exact same painting I had been searching for. By the time I got here, which was only a few days ago, I found out it was stolen. I knew it was Richard. I went looking for him and saw him come into this building with the painting. That’s when I went looking for you. The people here told me you were always at that cafe.”

John just stared at her – confused and still breathing hard.

“But…..why didn’t you just tell me at the cafe? Why didn’t you just tell me everything there?”

Her eyes lowered and then rose up sternly to catch John’s gaze, “Would you have even believed me? Would you have believed the story of my family or of the mass killings? Would you have just let me walk away if I said I knew about the stolen painting? It was up to me to find this. I just needed you to find me and protect me.”

John solemnly looked down at the stack of yellowed pages of small children with their names and dates of birth and death, now all scattered across the floor. He couldn’t help but feel bewildered and shocked. How could no one know about this? Why had he never heard about this in the news? Where were all their bodies?

They gathered all the pages together and John helped her up to her feet.

“People aren’t ready to hear about this yet, but one day they will know the truth. One day we will have our say.” Betty then held his hand and thanked him – eyes black, deep and sorrowful.

And then in a sudden jolt, she scurried off and out of the door. John reached his hand out and asked her to stop, but he didn’t go after her. He didn’t know what to do, let alone what to say.

He holstered his revolver and stood there in a state of astonishment. He took a deep breath and walked over to the dead man now lying there motionless and legs bent.

In his back pocket was a priest’s white collar and a rosary wrapped round his neck, now soaked in his own blood.

“How did we not know?”

Photo by Miche Thompson

-This story is dedicated to my wife and her family as well as all of the other indigenous families in both Canada and the United States who’s loved ones were torn apart for from each other for decades by both Governments.


About the author

Casey Promise Thompson

I’m a Visual Artist, Omnist, Wordsmith and Chronic Daydreamer. Most of my work is fictional/fantasy short stories and poetry. See more below:


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