|Death preceded me.
That notion drifted into my mind like a ghost when I encountered the unknown, especially in the dark. Perhaps it was my spook, a lurking memory of all the bodies I’d seen.
Or maybe the heat of the August night—barely cooler than the day—had fried my brain like bacon grease crackling in a hot skillet.
Something conjured this foreboding as I walked toward the clay studio of the Wickham Art Center.
I went over to meet Kevin Densmore, businessman and Wickham board chair, to discuss a recent murder at the center. After two weeks, the police had turned up little in leads or suspects. Wickham’s leaders became worried about staff and student safety and the venerable institution’s reputation.
Densmore wanted to hire me, or so I’d been told by a friend on the center’s board. I’m Red Farlow, a private detective.
Down an alley through the darkness, the mansion’s back door light glowed. There, signs indicated the way to the pottery studio. I walked into a dimly lit chamber and looked back to the wheel room. I later learned potters had created mugs, bowls, and jugs on a wheel for thousands of years.
The whole place was a mess, with everything covered in a patina of gray clay. The dust layers reminded me of exploring a dry riverbed in my youth. The clay crumbled under my bare feet, leaving an imprint on the ground and a thin crusty layer on my skin.
I breathed the clay’s essence and looked around the room.
In the main studio, huge containers of glaze solutions had splashed over the floor. A hot plate overheated paraffin, which bubbled onto the table before someone unplugged the appliance. The paraffin pool hardened and suggested an icy pond on a winter’s morning. Bags of clay neatly stacked four feet high lined one wall, and a dozen or so mud-smeared aprons hung on pegs.
I found Densmore bent over his electric pottery wheel. He neither spoke nor looked up.
I thought the man had given up throwing a rather large mug spinning on the wheel. Beside the wheel on a small table was a snake of clay, likely the mug’s handle. Densmore appeared to be staring down at the unfinished piece, perhaps considering improvements to the clay form.
Then reality kicked in. We would not talk that evening or at any other time.
Densmore sat there, quite dead.
His left hand dangled between his legs and his right hand slumped to the side. Muddy water dripped from fingers and formed small puddles around the left foot resting on the cement floor. His right foot stubbornly pressed the foot pedal as the wheel turned. I looked around the device, found the switch, and turned it off to preserve any evidence.
Blood splattered wet clay and dripped into the newly born mug, which collapsed as the wheel made its final turns. Red blotches streaked the object and whirled to blend with the mud. The spinning wheel mixed bodily and earthen substances into a brownish pink color, which lined the hog pan.
I studied a scene conveying ritualistic fervor, with Densmore’s blood like sacrificial wine nearly filling the unholy, unfired mug. A blood mug.