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The Mystery of the Weeping Curator
I was late. Again. Scrambling to arrange my papers and stuff them hastily in my briefcase, I practically ran down the sidewalk, plowing my way through the thick crowd. The sun was just starting to peak over the horizon, bringing the promise of a new day with it. I felt my phone buzz violently in my pocket and I whipped it out to see what was going on. But before I could read the message I ran into something, tripping over it and dropping my briefcase in the process. It snapped open and all of my papers flew out and blew across the busy street, lost in the wind and the crowd. Looking down to see what I tripped over, I saw a man, hunched over on the curb, weeping. He was frail with wispy white hair and thin framed glasses that were sitting in his lap as he aggressively wiped his eyes. His skin was wrinkled and pale, but bright red and irritated in some areas.
I put my hand on his shoulder apologetically. “Are you alright?” I asked. “I’m so sorry for running into you. I should have been more careful.”
He slowly raised his head to look up at me with sad, longing eyes. He was deeply hurt. But not physically. I suddenly felt a connection to his sorrow and vulnerability, a curiosity to know more about him. Obligated to make up for my carelessness, I wanted to offer a helping hand, a kind, reassuring smile. But first I needed to know more about him and what was wrong.
Sitting down on the curb next to him, I introduced myself. “My name is John Richardson. I’m an aspiring novelist.”
With a wince of sympathy, he seemed to make the connection between my current profession and all of the papers I had just lost.
“Don’t worry. They were just a few notes I had about a possible novel. I was supposed to turn them in to my editor today, but they weren’t any good. It’s not a big deal.”
He nodded. “Dr. Rutherford Brown,” he stated, extending his hand for me to shake. “I am— was the curator of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for thirty years. But now it’s gone. History. Everything I cherished so deeply has been burned to ashes.”
“What happened?” I asked softly.
“Last night. We were having a gala to celebrate the opening of our new exhibit of contemporary art. I was overjoyed to see how many people came to the museum. It was as if people’s passion for art had been revitalized, giving me hope that the museum could return to its glory days where people came and respected the art, enjoying it. But I was wrong. People were more focused on the party than the precious art. Eating, drinking, talking, laughing. But not observing. Not appreciating. Only disrespect and contempt. My flicker hope for the future of art and museums was extinguished as quickly as it had come. Then—” his voice broke as he tried to hold back another sob. “Then somehow there was a fire. And now everything is all gone. It’s all ruined. Thankfully everyone made it out relatively safely. But the art didn’t.”
There was a brief period of silence after he finished speaking. I didn’t know what to say. I opened my mouth to begin speaking but nothing came out.
“It— it was an accident, I’m sure,” he mumbled, bursting into tears again.
“Or maybe it wasn’t,” I replied. “I’ll try to help you find out what happened. There’s not much I can do to fix it, but at least I can figure out what caused it. Or who.”
He just continued to sob, his body violently shaking. But I knew he would appreciate it if I solved this mystery. And there just might be a story behind it that would be worth writing.
“Don’t worry, Dr. Brown. I’ll figure this out,” I promised, picking up my briefcase and walking with a spring in my step, a newfound determination and curiosity driving me forward. I decided I would go to the scene of the crime to see if I could find any leads. I had to admit, that was the first time I would be going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and I wasn’t even sure if it counted, because it wasn’t exactly a museum anymore. I didn’t even know where it was or how to get there. I hopped on a bus and looked at the map, following the route for almost an hour until I arrived a few blocks away from the remains of the museum.
It was charred, dilapidated, and desolate. There was hardly any structure remaining, only a pile of black ashes and scraps of brick, wood, glass, and stone scattered around randomly. After a significant amount of scavenging through the rubble and accidentally stepping on a few pieces of broken glass, I didn’t find anything else helpful there. But at least I knew that Dr. Brown was telling the truth and there was indeed a fire. That was a good start. I jotted a few ideas for my novel in my notebook then decided to consult my next resource. The internet.
Back at home in my small apartment I researched everything there was to know about the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Its history, exhibits, staff, agenda. There was plenty of information out there. I continued scrawling thoughts in my notebook as I worked, starting to feel a story forming. But what I really wanted was a list of guests for last night’s gala. Who was there and why. Eventually, after much searching I found a spreadsheet of names that were checked off as the guests arrived. After a quick glance I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. A few people who didn’t show up. And I’m sure there were a few people who did show up who were not on the list. That’s when I thought to look at security camera recordings. Of course I wouldn’t be able to access them. But I knew someone who would.
I received an email back from Dr. Brown the next morning, with a link attached for the security recordings. I opened them excitedly. As the video began, everything seemed to be occurring normally with guests entering, checking in at the desk, then proceeding further into the museum. There were guests walking around, talking to each other, eating, and drinking.
Then I saw Dr. Brown standing alone at one of Monet’s paintings and I felt a pang of sympathy for him. He was right. No one really cared enough about art anymore to stop and look at it in this highspeed world.
Suddenly my screen flickered in and out, and I was temporarily unable to make out what was going on. I checked my power line and internet connection, but everything seemed to be fine. By the time I looked back at the screen the video had returned. Flickering flames quickly enveloped the room and snaked over to the camera. Then the recording stopped abruptly.
I was beaming with joy, but not because I was any closer to solving the mystery. I thought of the final piece of the plot to finish my story idea. Staying up all night, I worked on my story until I had all of my ideas down in a first draft. Although I felt a little guilty for not coming any closer to solving the mystery, I allowed the excitement about my new story to fill me with energy and motivation. I emailed Dr. Brown again, asking him to meet me for lunch at Sonny's Cheesesteaks the next afternoon.
There I handed him my journal excitedly. “I thought you might want to read it before I give it to my editor, because you were my inspiration. I hope you can read my handwriting. And just because I have my story doesn’t mean I’m done helping you,” I assured. “We’ll solve this mystery eventually.”
He opened my journal and began to read. I watched his facial expressions as he progressed through the plotline, turning from excited to approving to worried to sad. Then he reached the final plot twist at the end. And I knew right when he did because his eyes widened in shock. But then he suddenly burst into tears again.
“What’s wrong?” I exclaimed. “You don’t like it? I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“How did you know?” he finally asked me between sobs.
“Know what?” I replied. Then the idea struck me. “You mean— I can’t be right! I just added that twist for excitement! Did you actually—??”
“I did it!” he exclaimed loudly, his face exploding with guilt. “It was me. I started the fire!”
I was shocked. How could someone who cared about the museum so much burn it down? But then I thought about the inspiration for my story and how I must have come up with the idea for the plot twist at the end. The evidence was all there. When I first met him he was almost an hour away from the museum. He had run away and was still sobbing with guilt and regret by the next morning. The video recording glitched because he had edited it to cover his tracks. He had been so full of anger, disappointment and sadness that no one cared about art that he had burned it all down, tearing himself apart with it.