At the last banquet she attended, Saphira witnessed the end of a murder. The dark-eyed killer followed her back to the banquet hall and swayed her in a dance, but she managed to break away from him and the mysterious effect he had on her senses. Ever since she’s been painting her angst away in the attic. But the killer has set a dangerous plan in motion, and her parents’ financial difficulties make her particularly vulnerable to it.
Find the first episode here.
The attic. The only place in the world I can really call my own, and the place I’ve locked myself in for fear of the mysterious killer. Like a virus he’s infiltrated my brain, and I think about him constantly. I refuse to paint him, though that’s what every cell in my body truly wants.
I keep swirling the brush in pasty color, but all that lands on the canvas is meaningless smudge. Some would pretend to see essence behind it with long faces and studied focus, unaware of how ridiculous they come across. Usually phony sharks like the baldhead Pukov who’s now torturing my phone with a hundred calls. I let the poor thing vibrate itself red on the cushion.
My parents desperately need his money, so they made it a must that I respond to his advances. Right now I consider picking up, letting him set a date, and spreading my legs for him just so that he’d lose interest. It should be enough to get him off my back, and secure him as creditor for the crumbling family business too.
There’s a knock on the door, and Mum’s head pops in before I get to answer. Years of emotional neglect and struggle to keep up the appearances left her emaciated and grey-skinned from compulsive smoking. Today her face gives off some light though, which melts me. My irritation evaporates.
“Your father wants you downstairs, Saph.”
“Oh, you’ll see.” She looks me up and down, assessing me. “We’d better find you something nicer to wear.”
“Overalls don’t fit the occasion?”
“Overalls don’t fit the woman. We should do something about the hair too.”
I dread the process, it’s tedious. “What’s wrong with my hair?”
“Trust me, once you step into the study you’ll wish to look your best,” she says and holds the door.
Of course she follows to my room, and waits until I take a quick shower. She’d trust no one but herself to style my frizz from the color of French fries into silky locks in record time, and choose the right hue of eye-shadow to turn golden eyes from disturbing into interesting.
She leaves the choice of clothes to me, which I’m thankful for. I go for the long silk dress, beige and decent, just in case Father has some other “prospect” in store for me. I press on “understated” with pearls, and request a bun. Mum isn’t fully satisfied, but she eventually accepts the lady-look might be an advantage. She leads me down the stairs and beams in anticipation as I turn the knobs and enter the study.
Dressed all-business in his best suit, Father has a content expression, a bit devious maybe. Big stomach ahead of him – liver issues, which he ignores again with a glass of scotch and ice cubes – he stands leaning with a hand on his desk. There’s something about him that resembles a mafia boss, but the years when he was truly dangerous are gone, he’s just a poser now. He’s facing someone sitting in the revolving leather armchair in front of him. I can only see the back of it.
“Ah, Saphira,” he says with a sly grin, “please, do come in.”
He hurries to my side. He must be tense, his salt-and-pepper hair seems on volts.
“Let me introduce you to the newest member of our community, the Marquis of Vandenesse.”
The chair turns while Father talks, and the dark-eyed killer appears before me. The blood freezes in my veins. Those eyes settle on mine as flashes of the dead face at his feet come at me again and again. I’m certain I just went snow-white.
He stands and approaches, tall and elegant in his black suit. He’s as close to me as he was on that dance floor a week ago, before I managed to break the trance he’d put my senses in, and make a fool of myself claiming out loud to have witnessed a murder no one found a trace of. As for him, he’d dissolved in thin air. Ever since I kept myself locked in, fearing a moment such as this.
“The Marquis,” Father pushes the conversation since it doesn’t pick up by itself, “has bought the manor with the fields. The perfect home for the perfect gentleman.”
The manor. That means a healthy realtor commission for my father, which blows away all the family troubles. Just like that, as if they’ve never been there. Father must be feeling dangerously grateful.
“We’ll sure be doing more business together,” the killer says in that deceitful voice of his, his eyes not leaving mine. Chills course down my spine.
“However I can be of service, Marquis,” Father replies, and pauses to be offered the Marquis’ first name. The Marquis doesn’t react as expected, but keeps looking hard at me, while my eyes wander helpless all over his young face. He’s so handsome, it’s compelling.
“Oh, you can, my dear Mr. Lothar,” he says. “Will you allow me to engage the assistance of your charming daughter?”
“In what way?”
This time the Marquis addresses me directly. “I hear you paint, Saphira.”
“Your mother mentioned you were up with brush and canvas before she went out to get you. The old manor could use some new fittings and decoration, so I would like to see what you have.”
“Oh, certainly,” Father cuts in. “We can show you an entire collection.”
“It’s not much worth,” I block.
“Word has it you sold two of your works for nice amounts last year,” the Marquis says.
“How did you hear that?”
“Quality tends to become famous.”
“Yes, well, quality hasn’t found its way out of this house since.”
He lifts his chin, and his eyes flash with cunning. “I’d like to get an impression of my own.”
I go weak at the knees as Father encourages the killer and invites him out of the study and up the stairs, all the while speaking highly of what he called until now a “craft for spoiled brats.”
The door to the attic squeaks open, revealing my work in progress and the crowd of finished ones, some rolled up, some leaning against the walls, the tripod and on each other. I thank God with all I have that I haven’t started to paint him, the dark-eyed killer. That would’ve been terribly embarassing right now, but if I survive this visit I know I won’t be able to resist putting what I feel in a portrait. Something very strange is bustling inside of me.
The Marquis walks right to my oldest painting that hangs on the wall. The Dark Castle. If I had some presence of mind until now, when Mum gets Father out of the room invoking the Marquis’ assistant’s asking for the host to see to the transaction papers, fear grips me.
I’m alone with the killer.
“This painting mirrors your soul.” His voice fills the wooden room, liquid and rich.
I want to say something witty, but fear’s got my lips bloodless and shivering. With small steps I advance to my working place and palm a nail. The Marquis still stands with his back at me, black hair glossy, hands in his trouser pockets.
“I can feel your special golden eyes on me,” he says calmly. “And I know what you have in your hand.”
I begin to shake.
“In my business,” he continues, “if I didn’t know when someone held a weapon behind my back, I’d be long dead. Or something similar to dead.”
He turns, and I’m certain I’m looking at a demon, as handsome as sin. He approaches, and I can’t detect the slightest trace of fear in his moves or in his face. I don’t unsettle him at all. Again he stands too close, his scent bittersweet, anaesthetizing my senses. His stare keeps steady on me, and I understand that he’s making himself available for questions. I take the chance.
“Why did you kill that man at the ball, Marquis?”
“Right to the heart of the matter. Don’t I deserve some small talk first?”
“Oh, you don’t want to hear what I believe that you deserve.”
He gives me an indulgent smile. “Are you so direct on all your suitors?”
“What did you expect, Saphira?” His voice lowers, threatening, and his stare deepens. “You have a secret of mine, so I can’t have you walking around free. It’s either this or the underworld.”
“What on earth are you trying to tell me?” My heart drums.
“That there’s more special about you than just the color of your eyes. You managed to break free from my grip on your senses when we first met. That’s a rare gift, you see. So knowing what you know, I need you completely in my power. And I’ll have you completely in my power, no matter how many houses I have to buy from your father.”
“I’ll run away.”
He laughs. It’s a quiet, but confident sound. “Tell me, Saphira. Do I strike you as someone who’s easily eluded?”
“There must be exceptions. There are always exceptions,” I attempt to defy to the very end.
His presence grows darker, crushing and chilling, not of this world. “None of them alive to tell the tale.”
Buy Saphira’s whole story here.