Les Visages

by sherlockette  

 

 

“I’m beat,” announced the fit young man in the back seat of the silver Chevy Monte Carlo. “I don’t want to see any more fish, squid or whales for at least a month! Right now I just wanna sleep so I can jazz the glass tomorrow.”

“Not even vampire squid, batfish, ghostfish or spider crabs? chuckled one of his companions. “It’s Halloween, buddy.”

“And the kids’ll be here soon,” added the driver. They’ll be expecting treats. Come on, Stu, you wouldn’t wanna disappoint the kids, would you?”

“Yeah and we live in this great old Victorian. We can really do things up right. The kids’ll love it.”  

“Yeah, the kids will love it. Why can’t I just leave all that to you guys? Halloween’s not really my favorite holiday.”

“Come on, Stu, it’s really about the kids…”

“Yeah, think about the kids…”

“All right, already, enough of the guilt trip. Drop me off at the house and you guys go get the stuff.  I’m gonna take a shower and have a nice cold pop.”  

It took only minutes for the trio of bachelor crewmen from the submarine Seaview to reach the outskirts of Santa Barbara and the two story house they rented. After easing out of the coupe, Stu Riley stood up and stretched his long legs, then walked to the trunk and removed his sea bag. Once his friends had pulled away he bound up to the front porch and reached inside the bag to locate his house keys. When he glanced down he noticed a small fragment of what appeared to be broken plaster lying on the porch and he snatched it up. “Mrs. Quigley is renovating again,” he said to himself before tossing the item into the bushes.    

“Creeeeaaaaakkkk!” The wood and leaded glass door never failed to remind the house’s occupants that it was over one hundred years old and even though he anticipated it, Riley always found the noise a little unsettling. Shaking off a shiver he tossed his bag on the entrance rug and scooped up the mail that had accumulated beneath the slot.  As he set the bundle on the table, he had an uneasy feeling that someone was watching him so he peered over his shoulder then slowly turned around. His jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide at the sight before him. The parlor that typically served as the TV room was draped with white thread-like material that resembled a massive spider web. Hanging from the chandelier was what appeared to be a human head, partly covered in blood.  

Though his first impulse was to ignore his friends’ handiwork he decided instead to take a closer look at the display. The strands were some type of cotton batting that had been carefully pulled apart and twisted into a web-like mat. The head turned out to be a painted plaster mask but the expression on it was very sad and very realistic. Even the gaping wound across the lower cheek and nose was life-like. The blood appeared real, so much so that Riley thought he detected the odor of iron. The fact that it was still dripping added an eerie touch.  

The blond scratched his head. I have to admit those guys did a pretty good job but when did they have the time to do all this? We just got back from the cruise. Then something else occurred to him. Mrs. Quigley is gonna have a cow over them spilling that stuff on her rug!  

“I think I’ll go get that shower and change,” he announced to anyone who might be hiding nearby before grabbing up his bag and ascending the stairs two-at-a-time. After a brief stop in his room to gather some towels he made his way to the back of the house where the shower was located. It didn’t take long for him to discover something was very wrong. The outside of the bathroom door was smeared with blood. Swallowing hard, he pushed the door open with his fingertips and poked his head inside. Bile rose in his throat as he saw the extent of the so-called decorations. Several masks similar to the one in the parlor were floating in a tub filled with blood. On the floor beneath the tub was a pig, or at least what was left of it.

A clearly spooked Riley backed down the hall then scooted down the stairs and for the next few minutes he paced the front hallway wondering what, if anything, he should do. If he overreacted his friends would tease him mercilessly, yet there was something sinister about the exhibits and he couldn’t help but feel threatened. With some trepidation he stepped to the kitchen and popped his head through the doorway. After looking around and finding no signs of blood or animal parts he let out the breath he had been holding, opened the refrigerator and grabbed a can of cola.

The presence of red stains on the dining room carpet again raised his hackles and when he took full measure of the macabre display his mouth gaped open. Taped to one wall were a number of old sepia-toned photographs, each a portrait of a badly maimed man and some were soldiers in uniform. Next to each portrait was an obituary, the text written in what he recognized as French. On the opposite wall, smeared in blood were the phrases “faces of war” and “repent your crimes”.  Needing no urging he ran for the telephone and grabbed up the receiver. Like a scene from a bad b-movie he found no dial tone and dropped the handset as if it was on fire. After practically running to the front door he flung it open. His heart nearly leapt from his chest when he was met by three pint-sized ghosts.

“Trick or treat!”

*****  

Seaview’s XO, Chip Morton, was elated to finally have some time away from his duties. After their mid-afternoon arrival in port he had been held over at the institute by the boat’s owner Admiral Harriman Nelson. The flag officer had grilled him on preparations for the next cruise before Nelson and Seaview’s captain, Lee Crane, set off for a meeting in Geneva. Only after their departure was the exec able to handle the routine end-of mission inspections and those had taken significantly longer than usual.

Due to the late hour, Chip opted not to partake in any Halloween related activities, deciding instead to head home for a long, relaxing shower. He spent nearly twenty-five minutes in the cascading water before he was satisfied that the grit and stress from the cruise had been sufficiently washed away and he flipped off the water. After grabbing a towel from the rack he vigorously rubbed his short blond locks and became immersed in more pleasant thoughts about the very special female friend with whom he had made plans for the upcoming weekend. He was so distracted that when the doorbell rang several times in succession he was startled.

The blond padded over to his nightstand and picked up his watch. At 2100 hours it was too late for trick-or-treaters so he grudgingly slipped on a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, ran a comb through his hair and went downstairs to answer the door. He flipped on the porch light and peered through the peephole, grimacing as he recognized the visitor as Sharkey, Seaview’s Chief of the Boat. It was never a good sign when the COB visited, as it usually meant something was wrong either with the boat or one of her many crew members.  

“Chief,” Chip said flatly.  

Sharkey winced. “Sorry, Mr. Morton, but this is something you gotta know about.”  

Chip sighed to himself and waved the COB inside. “Who is it this time, Chief?”  

“Ah, Riley, sir…”  

“What did the others drag him into?”  

“To be honest, it’s not him, exactly.” Sharkey handed over one of the old photographs. “Sir, some of these and some old obits were stuck up on his wall when he got home. And there was a mask hangin’ from the light.”  

Chip studied the photo then flipped it over to look for any writing. “So it’s a grisly photo. It could be a Halloween prank. The men have been known to be pretty creative.”

“None of the guys are ownin’ up to this one, even after I told ‘em I’d be callin’ you.”

The corners of Chip’s mouth turned up ever-so-slightly.  

“Riley thinks it’s kinda creepy and I gotta agree with him.”  

“Is it possible there’s an angry girlfriend out to get revenge?”  

“That’s what I figured at first, but they all said no way. When I saw the masks, and the blood….”  

Chip furrowed his brow. “Come on, Chief; better tell me the rest of it.”  

Sharkey reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out several Polaroid photos of the damages. “Sir, that’s just how Riley found it. I called security and Mr. Gordon said to wait and let you decide how to handle it since it could be some kinda threat.”  

Chip glanced at the latest pictures and winced. “Okay, Chief, head back over there and keep an eye on things. I want this kept quiet for now and tell the men not to touch anything. I need to do some checking first but I’ll be over later.”

Sharkey wagged his head. “I’ll take care of it, sir.”

After sending Sharkey on his mission Chip found a clear plastic bag and placed the soldier’s photograph into it. He then studied the image carefully, noting the insignia and the cut of the jacket. While he wasn’t a historian, he had studied military history and determined the photo was that of an infantryman, likely from the early part of the century. Armed with that information he shrugged on his own uniform and headed for the Nelson Institute and the one tool he knew would have some answers at any time of night: Seaview’s high powered computer.   

 

****  

“It is French, World War I era. The French had several different versions of the uniform, from gray to blue to khaki then gray again. This one looks to be from around 1917.”

Sharkey looked at the two-by-five inch piece of newsprint hanging by one of the photos. “That would make this guy maybe twenty five when died, if this notice is his.”  

“That’s not much older than me,” whispered Riley.

Chip nodded. “In trench warfare there were a lot of face and head injuries due to machine gun and artillery fire. The injuries were hard to hide and since many men were blinded they couldn’t get work to support their families. Early deaths and suicides by those men were common, unfortunately.”

Riley studied the remaining photos. “Mr. Morton, who would want to keep a morbid collection like this?”  

“Some joker with bad taste,” declared Sharkey.  

“Family members, collectors of war memorabilia, even photographers might have had an interest. Before I go I want to take a look at those masks.”  

After first checking out the one the living room, the three men made their way upstairs. Though Chip was surprised by the bizarre presentation he didn’t show it and leaned over the carcass and closely studied the items in the tub. He was drawn to one mask in particular. It had a gaping scar running down the cheek and across the throat.  

“Sir, those masks look real, kind of like they were made from the faces of real men.”  

Chip nodded. “Real men with real injuries. I was thinking of that myself, Riley.  I’m guessing the masks and photos are related somehow.”

After they made their way back to the downstairs hall Chip turned to the men. “While the artifacts are interesting we need to work on finding out how all this got here and why it’s here. Chief, where did the other men go?”

“I sent ‘em to stores to get some supplies to clean all this up. They should be back soon.”

“When they do, have them stay put until I get back in touch. Take a lot of pictures but leave everything just as it is.” Chip reached for his briefcase and pulled out a satellite radio set and handed it to Sharkey. He reached in again, this time retrieving two pistols. “It may take a day to set up but I have an idea how to smoke out whoever did this.”

 

****  

Riley looked through the picture window and panicked. None other than the woman from whom they rented the house was strolling up the front sidewalk and she always carried a key. Knowing that if no one answered she would let herself in, he quickly stepped outside and yanked the door closed so hard that it rattled the glass. “Stuart, that door should not to be slammed like that. You disappoint me.”

“I…I’m sorry, Mrs. Quigley, but I was just going out. It’s work, an emergency.”

Quigley looked around. “Without a car, Stuart?”  

“I…I need to…I’m waiting for the guys to pick me up. They’ll be here any minute.”  

The woman eyed him suspiciously. “Hmmmm.”  

“Is there something I can do for you, Mrs. Quigley?”  

“My carpenter left a piece of crown molding on the back porch and I want to try and have it matched. Could you get it for me?”  

“Sure thing, Mrs. Quigley.”  Riley scurried around back but found the screen door latched. He was attempting to pull the wood strip from around the screen so he could reach in when Quigley snuck up behind him.  

“Stuart, stop that this minute. Why don’t you just go through the house?”  

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Quigley, I was in a hurry and locked myself out.” Before Riley knew what was happening, Quigley took off. When he caught up to her he practically begged her to let him unlock the door.  

“Nonsense,” she said as she turned the key.  

In a last ditch effort to keep her out of the house Riley pushed past and closed the door in her face. He raced to the porch but after half a minute of searching he was unable to find any loose pieces of wood. Girding himself for yet another tongue lashing he took in a breath and stepped into the hallway. To his chagrin Mrs. Quigley was staring into the parlor, hands on her hips.  

“Stuart!”

 

****  

Martha Quigley knew her tenants worked for the prestigious Nelson Institute but had never inquired about what they did there, so when she had been informed by Riley that his boss would be stopping by to pay for any damages, the last person she expected to see was a tall, handsome naval officer. She ushered him inside and offered him coffee, which he declined.

“I hope Stuart isn’t in too much trouble. He really is a nice young man. All of them are.”  

Though Chip found her comments amusing, he maintained his stoic facade. “The men will receive discipline appropriate for what they did. Again I apologize for the damages and I’m prepared to pay whatever you consider to be a fair price to repair or replace the rug.”  

Quigley wrung her hands. “That rug is antique. I will need to see if it can be cleaned without removing any of the dyes. That will require a specialist so I’m afraid at this point I cannot give you an exact cost.”  

Chip reached into his briefcase, pulled out a bank check and handed it to her. She slipped on her reading glasses and glanced at the document. Her raised eyebrows told him she liked the number. “I believe that is sufficient but if not, please let me know.” He then handed her a business card. “If I’m not in, ask for Beth, my administrative assistant.”  

“I certainly will, Commander.”  

“All I ask is for you to give us a couple of days to clean up the rest of the room before sending someone over.”  

“All right.”  

Before closing his case Chip removed what he considered to be the least offensive of the soldier portraits and held it out. “Ma’am, do you by any chance recognize this photograph?”

Quigley studied the image carefully. “No, I can’t say that I do but my instincts tell me it’s very important to you. Family?”  

“Not my family but I am looking for the owner.” Chip rubbed the back of his neck. “I have to admit that before I came over I checked into your background and I learned you were very involved in historical preservation. I thought you might have seen it or one like it, maybe in someone’s collection?”  

“I appreciate your honesty. It’s true that local history is a passion of mine, but no, sorry,” she said as she returned the photo.

Chip stood to depart. “Thank you, Mrs. Quigley, and again, my apologies.”  

As he sat in his car Chip contemplated his next move. With his plans to make the rental house appear unoccupied scuttled by the landlady’s impromptu visit, and no real leads on the source of the decorations he was tempted to contact the local authorities and let them handle the investigation. However, something about the collection was nagging at him; something that just would not let go.

With a sigh, Chip reached for the ignition. He happened to glance in the rearview mirror and noticed a “Woodwork America ” truck pull into the drive. Riley said something about a carpenter being at the house.  I wonder…  Chip quickly climbed from his car and flagged down the driver. “Hold it right there. I need to ask you a few questions.”

 

****  

“Mr. Morton, I never would have known that was there!” Riley looked at the narrow opening of what used to be a dog door and scratched his head. “I thought it was just another piece of the paneling.”

“We better check out the rest of them to make sure they’re sealed up. The carpenter says some of these old places had secret passages and storage nooks. Any one of them could have been the burglar’s point of entry or a potential hiding place.”

For nearly two hours the men knocked on panels and ran hands over creases looking for anything that might indicate a trap or pocket door. They finally found their quarry in an old pantry that had been converted to a mud room. A sharp rap on a piece of the bead board revealed a hidden latch, one that allowed the panel to be slid to one side. Riley grabbed a flashlight and peered inside. “It leads under the house.” He pulled his head out of the opening and looked at the others. “I can see a pile of candy wrappers.”

Chip nodded for the other men to go check out the crawlspace. In less than five minutes they had located an underground root cellar. “Anything?”  

“No, sir, it’s empty, except for a lot of trash.”  

For Chip the picture was becoming much clearer. “Riley, are there any kids that live nearby?”  

“Sure, Mr. Morton, lot’s of ‘em.”  

“Any teenagers? Maybe some who have it in for the military?”  

“There’s a family with two boys, around the corner and couple of houses down. They have anti- war bumper stickers all over their car. Sir, you don’t think…”  

“Large amounts of candy, small space, anti-military message. It all adds up. I don’t want to tip them off, but I need to check them out. Have they ever spoken to you? Introduced themselves?”  

“No, sir.”  

“Somehow they figured out you men were military. They could have been hiding and heard you talking.”  

At the thought of some person or persons lurking under the house listening to his personal business Riley bit his lip.  

“I’ll head back to the institute to run a background check. You three keep a low profile. I want the masks, photos and news clippings boxed up but go ahead and clean up the rest.”  

As Chip stepped off the porch a familiar car pulled up in front of the house. He quickly walked towards the street to meet the driver. “Mrs. Quigley, I thought you were going to give us a couple of days.”  

“I am the landlord,” she said with a smile. “That photo of yours, it was a French soldier, am I right?”

“Yes, ma’am, World War I era.”  

“I have a friend who’s a local newspaper archivist and I took the liberty to tell him about your photo. I asked him to check for any local connections to injured French soldiers during that time frame and he recalled seeing something about a couple who had served with the Red Cross in France settling here in Santa Barbara. He was able to find this pretty quickly.”  She held out a photocopy of a news clipping dated August of 1936. “It says that the couple both served but Anna Coleman Ladd, a sculptress, founded the American Red Cross Studio for Portrait Masks. She made masks for disfigured soldiers. Her work earned her the Légion d'Honneur Crois de Chevalier and the Serbian Order of Saint Sava. I think this Anna Ladd might be your photo’s owner.”  

While Chip was amazed by the history surrounding the photos and masks he was awed by the research done by Mrs. Quigley in such a short amount of time. “That is fantastic. Thank you very much for your help.”  

“We’re not done, Commander. You need to find out where Mrs. Ladd lives, and it just so happens I have connections at the deeds office.”    

Chip smiled broadly. “Mrs. Quigley, why am I not surprised?”

 

****  

While ironic, it was no coincidence that the former residence of Anna and Maynard Ladd was the very same house now occupied by a Jonathan Griggs and his family. Research had revealed that Griggs had been a leader of anti-war protests in the Viet Nam era and apparently he had instilled those same ideas in his children. Chip wanted to find out whether there were any more materials belonging to Anna Ladd in the house so he decided to pay the Griggs a visit.  

“What do you want?” demanded the clean-shaven man in a suit who stepped out onto the porch.  

The man’s manner of dress was not what Chip expected, but his attitude was on target. 

“I believe I have something that you or your boys will recognize.”  

“What are you talking about? My boys have no business with the Navy.”  

Chip reached into his canvas bag and pulled out one of the bloodied masks. “This…”

Griggs cocked an eyebrow.  

“…was found in a house, and I believe your boys put it there.”  

“It’s a bloody Halloween mask! Trick or treat! Maybe someone just pulled a trick on your me… “  

“On who, Mr. Griggs? How did you know whose house I meant?”  

“Unless you have proof my boys did something you better leave.”  

“I happen to know this house was once owned by a woman who made these masks, so they can be traced right back here to you.”  

“If you don’t leave I’ll call the cops.”  

“And tell them what? That I’m accusing your boys of burglarizing someone’s house? Where they cut up a pig and let it bleed out all over the floor? Where they left several of these masks inside the house in a tub of blood? Where they left threats for my men? How do think all that will go over with them, Mr. Griggs?”  

Griggs stood in angry silence.

“I’ll make a deal with you. You turn over all the rest of the items, anything belonging to the former owners and your boys stay away from that house and we’ll forget this ever happened.”

“My boys didn’t …”

Chip held out a business card. “Think about my offer, Mr. Griggs. Think hard.” 

 

****

After Chip had been informed by the institute attorney that Anna Coleman Watts Ladd had died in 1939 without a will he sifted through the contents of the small trunk that contained some of her personal papers and photos. He couldn’t help but be inspired by the woman’s war service and her dedication to its fighting men. Without plastic surgeons or modern techniques she and others like her created copper prosthetic masks to cover missing noses, cheeks and eyes. An artist, she had carefully painted each mask to match the individual soldier’s skin tone and eye color, even stippling the areas where facial hair would be expected. It was no surprise to find out she followed up with each man she helped, and had paid for each one to have a portrait made with his new face.   

As he stacked up the letters to return them to the trunk Chip came across one that was labeled “unfinished business”.  Lifting the flap of the envelope he pulled out the single piece of paper and unfolded it. It was a letter labeled “Last Will and Testament”, written in Ladd’s own hand and dated May 10, 1937 . It listed various household items still in the woman’s possession and gave instructions that they were to be donated to one of the local charitable organizations. It also provided a list of names of people to whom she wanted to leave her few remaining art pieces.

It was the final statement in the letter that really grabbed Chip’s attention.

“Any remnants of masks or molds from my work in the Great War, be they copper, clay or plaster, are to be buried with the men to whom they belong. If that is not possible, it is my wish that these items be destroyed.”

For several minutes Chip held the letter in his hand and considered his options. An un-witnessed will was not legally binding but Ladd’s wishes were made crystal clear and he intended to do everything he could to ensure they were carried out.  

 

****

Seaview had barely docked in Marseille when Chip Morton asked his captain for permission to go ashore. Since Chip had never mentioned knowing anyone in the port Lee was instantly curious. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?”

Chip shook his head. “Not this time. It’s something that I’ve needed to take care of for awhile.”

“Sure you don’t need me to go?”

The blond held up a small box “I don’t think delivering this package for a friend will be a particularly hazardous mission, but thanks. I’ll see you later.”

After clearing customs, Chip caught a series of buses that took him to an older neighborhood up in the hills south of the center city. He climbed the last hundred yards on foot then stood outside the two story cottage, gathering the courage to knock. The middle aged woman who answered the door studied the officer curiously.

“Madame Etéle?”

“Oui.”

“Madame, j'ai quelque chose à vous donner, pour votre père.” (I have something to give you, for your father.)  

 

Finis

 

 

If you are interested in reading more about this unfamiliar bit of history here are a couple of links:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/mask.html

http://www.projectfacade.com/index.php?

 

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