Brushstrokes of Intrigue
Second Coat: The Telltale Paint Sample

A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Iris"
Originally featured on 06-26-2007
As part of our series "Breakfast Serial"

As Harvey stumbled out of the bedroom and into the hallway, he tried to clear his groggy head. Besides a headache, he felt fine so he figured the blood on his hands wasn’t his own.

What would Maxwell Henderson do? It was a question Harvey often asked himself when he was in a difficult or unfamiliar situation.

Maxwell had been the head of the Paint Department when Harvey was hired at the store. And from stirring paint (“always counter clockwise”) to filling out order forms (“always top to bottom”) he had taught Harvey everything he knew.

So what would Maxwell do?

Well, first of all, Harvey thought, he probably would’ve just let Jerry deliver the damn paint. Maxwell wouldn’t have chased after some woman he barely knew, not that he didn’t have his opportunities; with his striking mustache (the one Harvey had modeled his own after) and baby blue Le Car, he was the desire of nearly every soccer mom who ventured into the Paint Department.

But in this current situation Harvey was sure Maxwell would first clean his hands. Maxwell was nothing if not fastidious about cleaning. He would wash his hands sometimes 30 or 40 times a day. Even if he had only been stocking paintbrushes, he would scrub until his hands until they were bright red.

Ironically, it was because of cleanliness Harvey had been promoted. Maxwell had called the store one day to say he wouldn’t be in; he just couldn’t get his hands clean enough. A few days later Harvey was made manager and he never saw heard from Maxwell again.

Harvey found a small bathroom and washed his hands until they were spotless. As he dried them on a mauve towel, he suddenly remembered Ms. Rogers. Why had she been tied up? Had it been her blood on his hands?

He left the bathroom and quickly searched the rest of the house. It was empty and there was no sign of any foul play; could he have imagined the whole thing? He rubbed the back of his head — the swelling bump behind his right ear certainly wasn’t imaginary.

Harvey finally decided to go back to work. What else could he do? Ms. Rogers was gone and he had no idea where she was. For a moment he thought about calling the police, but what exactly would he tell them? That when he delivered some paint he found a woman tied up and then someone knocked him out and when he woke up, she was gone and his hands were covered in blood that he just washed down the bathroom sink? That sounded crazy.

Besides, after his numerous calls claiming someone had stolen cans of varnish (it turned out to be a misunderstanding with the nighttime janitor, Raul), the police were tired of hearing from him.

He would just tell Mr. McGregor that he didn’t need the rest of the day off, Harvey thought as he hurried to the front door; he could just count his absence as a long lunch.

As he reached for the doorknob, he saw something sticking out from under the rug. It seemed familiar and he bent down to get a closer look. It was one of the little cardboard paint samples from the store. This one had four colors on it: lemon, mustard, golden poppy, and amber. Harvey was perplexed. What would Ms. Rogers be doing with these samples? These colors were obviously all wrong for her. He slipped the sample into his front pocket and went outside.

He quickly drove down the driveway and just as got to the end, an ambulance with its siren blaring sped by. Harvey’s heart started racing and he slowly pulled out into the street.

Relax, just relax, this is all probably some big misunderstanding; you didn’t do anything wrong. Besides, I’m sure Ms. Rogers is fine; it was probably my mind playing tricks on me. Just like I’m sure it’s only a coincidence that that big, midnight blue car has been right behind me since I left the driveway.

When Harvey made his next left and then a quick right and Midnight Blue was still there, he didn’t think it was a coincidence anymore. Perhaps they’re also going to the store, he thought; maybe I can interest them in some spackle.

As he came around a curve, he saw an ominous color up ahead: international orange. There were several plastic cones and a large detour sign with an arrow pointing to the left. After he made the left at the sign, the street ended in a three-way stop with no helpful detour arrow in sight.

Harvey peered into the rearview mirror again. Midnight Blue was gone. Unfamiliar with the streets, he took a gamble and drove down the road on the left. After glancing at a street sign, Harvey realized he knew were he was; he smiled, confident he would soon be back in the friendly confines of aisle 49A.

As he neared the end of the street, Midnight Blue suddenly came tearing around the corner in front of him. With tires screeching, it headed right for him. Suddenly he didn’t think spackle was what they were interested in.

Okay, Harvey, think: what would Maxwell Henderson do? He’d probably get his Le Car off this damn road, he thought, and made a quick right. As he narrowly avoided a parked car, he realized he wasn’t on a road at all; he was on someone’s driveway.

To avoid another car and a couple of bikes, he swerved to the left and, after skidding over a small skateboard ramp, was propelled onto the lawn next to the house. After a few yards, the lawn made a dramatic drop. Harvey slammed on the brakes but on the wet grass it was no use; he was headed down the steep hill towards a mass of large trees.

Harvey braced for the worst. Just before he collided with an oak, he noticed an asphalt path to the left. He quickly turned the wheel and after grazing some periwinkle-tinted irises and jumping a small curb, landed on the path with a clunk. It was obviously meant for pedestrians and bicyclists but his hatchback fit on it perfectly.

After a moment the path leveled off and Harvey started to relax. Let them chase me now, he thought. He glanced at the passenger seat; lying there was the paint sample he had taken from Ms. Roger’s house. It must have fallen out of my pocket, he thought and picked it up. For the first he time noticed that the golden poppy segment had a reddish scratch in it.

That’s when he felt something slam into his back bumper. And even though it was much wider than Harvey’s car and scraped every tree and bush it passed, Midnight Blue was back.

Harvey sped up, desperately hoping no one had decided to go for a walk or bike ride. The path made a series of twists and turns but the big car stayed with him.

After speeding around a tight corner, up ahead Harvey saw a man standing on the path with a small girl. Harvey honked feverishly, praying they’d have time to get out of the way. The man had his back to the car and was gazing up at a tall tree. Harvey couldn’t understand why he wasn’t moving, but then he noticed the man’s headphones.

He pressed down on the horn as hard as he could. The little girl with tangerine-colored hair stared with wide eyes as the car bore down on them and began tugging on the man’s shirt. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally turned around. His slightly annoyed expression instantly changed to one of fright and he grabbed the girl and dove off the path.

Harvey exhaled. Perhaps to remind him the worst wasn’t over, Midnight Blue rammed into him again. Up ahead was the end of the path and in the middle, with a wooden fence on either side, was a thick metal pillar.

Harvey knew he only had one chance to make it. He edged the car closer to the left; the tires slid off the path a little and onto the dirt. Just before he got to the pillar, he jerked the steering wheel hard to the right. And besides the side mirror being knocked off, the car went by untouched.

He quickly turned around in his seat to see what Midnight Blue would do. The driver had slammed on the brakes but it was too late; the car went right into the pillar. It was a satisfying crunch and Harvey smiled.

Only when he glanced back at the road did he realize he was headed right for the back of a large, cream-colored building. He slammed his foot down and the brakes squealed as he swerved. He closed his eyes and the seatbelt yanked him painfully as the side of the car slammed into a dumpster and came to a stop.

After a moment, Harvey opened his eyes and looked around. The passenger-side window had several cracks in it and the other side mirror was now gone.

Taking his shaking hands off the steering wheel, he put the car in park. He got out slowly; his back hurt and his head still ached from the paint can. He looked the car over and, all things considered, it really didn’t look that bad.

He was about to get back in when he noticed a shoe lying next to a set of stairs. Harvey thought it seemed odd there, somehow out of place. He walked over to it and picked it up. It was a burgundy-colored high heel, one that he was sure he had seen before.

He gazed up at the big sign attached to a light pole; it read “Parking for Golden Poppy Restaurant Only.” He glanced inside the car at the paint sample; suddenly he was pretty sure he knew where Ms. Rogers was.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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