Opinion » Bill Cope

The Book of Norman

Excerpting a work-in-progress


The following is the prologue to my new novel, The Rockwell Code, which will be on the shelves as soon as I write the rest of it.

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When the curator's body was found, posed with such veiled meaning in the Glossy Cover Art wing of the museum, Captain Maché brought me into the investigation immediately, as I am the world's pre-eminent authority on veiled meanings.

The corpse was seated on a straightback chair, facing into a large, gilt-framed mirror as though he were studying the details of his own, deceased face. Slightly to the right was a partially-completed portrait of himself. A pipe--the long straight kind ... a "Hefner," we call them back in the faculty lounge of Harvard where I am one of the students' favorite professors, if not the favorite--jutted from his mouth. The body's right arm was elevated, hovering over the canvas by the miracle of rigor mortis, and in his hand was a No. 6 paint brush, held there firmly by the miracle of Super Glue.

"This montage is familiar," I mused, cogently. "I know it ... but from where? A man. Representing all Mankind, I presume. Contemplating a reflection of himself. Caught in the process of reproducing an image of himself. Could it represent the Tantalizing Triangle of Self-Consciousness, familiar to many secret societies both ancient and modern? If I could only recall where I've seen this scene before. And what does it mean that such a morbid display is here, in the very heart of MoMA?" My cogent musings were more to stimulate my own dilemma-unraveling prowess than to keep Maché informed of my keen observations.

"Exactymonté, Professor," said the Captain, as though I were listening to him. "The Museum of Maudlin Art is one screwé place for a psycho curator killer to go about his nasté business."

I turned my back to Maché--slowly, studiously, significantly--and could only hope the Captain would grasp the ritualistic symbolism of me ignoring him. As I rotated, suddenly, there before me, on a wall all by herself, was she. The enigmatic, quizzical expression on her ambiguous face. The ethereal beauty that transcends the ages. The delicate brush strokes and structural balance that defines the genius who brought her to eternal life. The sandwich in her hand. And with her visage, came my answer.

I spun around, barely keeping my footing on the highly-polished faux parquet floor that I knew so well from my many previous visits which occurred because I am the sort of man who visits museums often. "Maché! I know where this all leads!"

"Sil voo play. Feel free to call me Papiér."

"This bizarre arrangement before us can only be a reproduction of Norman Rockwell's self-portrait. Don't you see? The image in the mirror, the portrait on the easel. And the dead fellow. It's an exact rendition. Only Rockwell wasn't a dead fellow when he painted the real thing, as you might suppose."

"But why would someone abuse a corpse in such a manner, Professor? And what is the meaning?

"The meaning remains to be de-veiled, Captain. But as to who did this ... the curator did it to himself, of that I am certain. He was obviously trying to leave behind a clue to an arcane and ancient conspiracy. Notice how the mirror is situated so that the dead fellow's reflection appears to be looking straight at the masterpiece on the wall behind me?"

"You mean ... Rosie? Rosie the Riveter?"

"Precisely. And note how both Rosie's eyes and her rivet gun are focused to her right? As though she was trying to guide our attentions, perhaps? Through that door over there, perhaps? Plus, there appears to be a cryptic message written with some nearly invisible substance. There, under Rosie's sandwich."

"What is it, professor? And what does it say?"

"It appears to be ... yes, it is. Chapstick. How clever. I might never have noticed it were it not strawberry flavored. And it says 'Go through that door over there.'"

"But the only thing through that door over there is more of Rockwell's masterpieces."

"Ah, yes. Of course. I might have known." I strolled slowly, cryptically, through the portal into the next gallery, pausing every few steps to look intensely thoughtful. The Captain followed, trying his Gaulic best to look thoughtful, too. In my peripheral vision, I noticed a large albino monkly-dressed man standing furtively behind the Hummel figurine exhibit. He was watching us, thoughtfully, and pinching his nipples with a religious fervor.

"Maché, are you aware that Rockwell's middle name was "Perceval?"

"Mon Doo! And I thought 'Norman' was bad."

"Captain, you do not see the significance of this revelation because you do not possess my vast talent for interpreting the hidden interconnectivity of disparate emblems and ideologies ... a talent for which Harvard pays me quite handsomely. Allow me to lead you through a labyrinthine saga of profoundly intertwined histories and events which has lead from the mists of yore to here, now, and this unfortunate dead fellow." I paused for a breath while Maché looked at me in that way so many do when they think I'm not looking.

"You see, Perceval was the Round Table champion most dedicated to the search for the Holy Grail, which, whatever it is, has been protected and hidden for centuries by the Order of the Temptars, known in the New World variously as the Priority of Scones, Opus Popus, and the Knights of Columbus, the later of which included, possibly, Norman Perceval Rockwell--which is clearly an anagram for 'NORMAL LANE PERV ROCK CLEW'--and at the very least, we know Rockwell had every opportunity to join one or more of those secret cabals had he been so inclined, and even if he wasn't, it is probable he knew of their sacred mission, which had something to do with the Holy Grail, though it's not clear exactly what, and therefore, I steadfastly believe Rockwell may have included many a 'CLEW' right here in these iconic treasures, since what else can it all mean?" I paused for another breath. The albino had crept into the gallery behind us and was now trying to hide his bulk behind a full-sized plaster garden gnome while simultaneously banging his head on the wall. "Do you follow my logic, Maché?"

"Non. But whatever you are getting at, Professor, I fear it will soon leave more churché types in a pissé mood."

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Read more of The Rockwell Code on my Web site as soon as I write more. And when I get a Web site.