PORTRAITS OF THE DEAD
By John Nicholl
2:20 A.M. Saturday, 2 May 1998
Emma didn’t know how long he hid, silent and unmoving, in the large Victorian wardrobe to the side of her single bed. She didn’t know how long he peered out, salivating and drooling, between the two heavy dark oak doors and watched, mesmerized, as she slowly drifted into fitful sleep. She didn’t know what time he pushed the doors open and crept towards her in the drab grey darkness of the night.
But he did. She knew that he did. Emma woke with a start, tense, alert, and opened her bleary eyes, telling herself insistently that the dark silhouette slowly approaching her was the nightmare construct of her subconscious mind. But initial anxiety became blind panic as the inky shadow took on an obvious human form that suddenly gained pace and loomed over her. And then a hand, a large hot clammy hand, pulled the bedclothes over her head, clamped her mouth tight shut and silenced her scream before it materialised.
A myriad unwelcome thoughts invaded her troubled mind as he pinned her head to the pillow and raised his free arm high above his head, before closing his fingers tightly, forming his hand into a formidable weapon and bringing it crashing down, again and again and again, with all the force he could muster, rendering her unconscious and bleeding.
She didn’t know how long she remained senseless, or what he did to her whilst she slept. She didn’t know what time he lifted her from her bed and carried her from her student bedroom, down the creaking wooden staircase and out into the Welsh city street. But he did. She knew that he did.
When she first awoke from her enforced slumber, Emma thought for one glorious but all too fleeting moment that the events of the previous night were just a nightmare.
But, all too soon, the invasive throbbing pain seemingly erupting from every inch of her face and the congealed blood around her nose and mouth brought reality into sharp unrelenting focus, as she realised that one swollen eye wouldn’t open and reluctantly recalled events prior to the assault. Oh, God, it was real. It was all too real! Life had taken a dark and unexpected turn.
Emma fought to control her bodily functions as her apprehension escalated more and more rapidly and threatened to overwhelm her completely. The bed was too soft, the quilt too heavy, the room too warm, the total absence of light alien to her experience and terrifying, totally terrifying. There was no denying it, however tempting it was to try. She wasn’t in her familiar surroundings. Her memories were real.
Where was she? Oh, God, where on earth was she? What should she do? Should she shout out? Should she scream? Should she yell for help and continue shouting, louder, louder and louder, until someone finally responded to her plight? Surely she should call for help? But, no, hold on a second… What if he was there somewhere and hidden by the darkness? What if he was listening intently with eager ears and ready to feed on her fear like a rabid dog? What if he was poised, ready to attack and silence her as soon as she uttered the slightest sound? Come on, Emma, do something. Don’t just lie still, girl. You have to do something.
She ran her hands over her body and realised that she was naked, as she slowly eased back the quilt, sat upright, and climbed off the unusually high king-size bed, inch by cautious inch, with both her hands held out in front of her. Keep me safe, God. I’ll be a good girl, a really good girl. Please keep me safe.
Emma cried warm, silent, salty tears as she took her first tentative unseen step forwards in the gloom, then another, then another, then another, willing herself onwards, four steps, five steps, six steps, seven, until her probing fingers found a solid wall only seconds later. That’s it, Emma, that’s it, find a switch, you can do it, girl, find a switch. There had to be a light switch somewhere.
She sucked repeated gulps of warm stale air deep into her lungs in a forlorn and increasingly despairing attempt to calm her pounding heart, as she urgently ran the palms of both hands over every inch of the wall, in every conceivable direction. But she didn’t find anything of note, not a thing, nothing. Don’t give up, Emma. You’ve got all your life to live. You can do it, girl. Please don’t give up. It was much too soon for that.
She leant heavily against the wall, supporting her slight nine-and-a-half-stone frame for a second or two, before counting to three and forcing herself to move slowly to her right in a sideways motion, all the time keeping direct contact with the wall and hoping to locate a light switch, or better still an unlocked door through which to escape. But she found nothing on that first wall except for what felt like a large picture frame firmly secured to the hard, cool surface. Was she in a house? It seemed she was in a house… That had to be a good thing, didn’t it? Surely it was a good thing… Yes, yes, of course it was. If it was a house, there must be doors, there must be windows, there may be neighbours. There was a way out of there. She could feel her heart beating in her throat and the warm red blood surging through her veins and arteries. She was alive and relatively unharmed. There was hope. There was always hope. Keep moving, Emma. Be brave, girl, and just keep moving. There just had to be a way out of there.
She transferred her hands to the second wall and moved gradually to her right, one step, two steps, three steps, four, another picture frame, yet another frame, and then… a door. Yes, yes, yes! Surely it had to be a door. Come on, Emma, you can do it, girl. She’d be out of there before she knew it, wouldn’t she?
Adrenalin surged through her bloodstream as her hope of escape leapt and danced in her mind and left her as excited as an expectant child on Christmas morning. But her newfound euphoria was short-lived. The surface of the door was cold, not icy cold like the snow in winter but significantly colder than the wall. It wasn’t wood: it was metal. Oh no, it had to be metal. What other explanation was there?
She ran her hands over every inch of that cold, hard, steel door, again and again and again, before finally accepting defeat, slumping to the soft carpeted floor and dissolving into floods of uncontrollable tears that caused her fleshy chest to rise and fall as she struggled for breath. There was no handle, no way of opening it, just what felt like an approximate six-by-twelve-inch vent, or serving hatch, at the centre point of the door, at eye level. Like a prison door in the movies. That’s what she told herself. Just like a prison door in the movies. Oh God, that wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all.
Emma reached up and repeatedly clawed at the surface of the unforgiving metal until her clipped painted nails were broken and her fingertips bled. Suddenly, a dazzlingly bright white light burst into seemingly enthusiastic life and temporarily blinded her one good eye, making her flinch and cower on the floor, overwhelmed by fear.
At first, when she opened her eye and it gradually adjusted to the extreme brightness, the room’s comfortably furnished and flamboyantly decorated appearance reassured her in some strange unquantifiable way, as if the bohemian decor somehow introduced an irrational degree of normality to an outlandish situation. But, all too soon, as she slowly swivelled her aching head, taking it all in for the first time, she gasped and spluttered for oxygen as if hit in the gut by a powerful physical blow. There were no windows, not a single one, just four walls covered from floor to ceiling with garish red and gold flock wallpaper, adorned with large black-and-white portraits of individual girls of about her age in various states of undress, and a second door in the rear wall to the side of the bed, made of clear, polished and smear-free glass, through which she could see a white porcelain toilet.
Emma sat upright, shielding her face with one hand, and studied each of the photographs in turn. There were five in total, five grinning, pouting girls who Emma thoughtfully observed had an unmistakable air of sadness about them, despite their lipstick smiles. Each of the girls were white, young and slim and had shoulder-length blonde hair cut in a similar style. Just like her. That’s what she realised. They all looked just like her! It was too much to take in. Too terrible to contemplate. Where on earth were those five girls now? Would hers be the next portrait hanging on those gaudy windowless walls? Don’t think it, Emma. Just don’t think it and hope for the best.
As she folded her arms tightly and raised her knees to her chest, in a determined attempt to mask her nakedness and afford herself some small crumb of comfort as she sank into all-consuming despair, a sudden electric hum filled the space with sound. Emma slowly raised her sore and throbbing head, and saw a black plastic and chrome metal wall-mounted video camera located high in one corner of the room, directly opposite the oversized bed. The camera buzzed and swivelled slightly as she moved, focussed on her and only on her. She couldn’t actually see the shadow man of her waking nightmare, but she was certain that he was watching her every move.
As she sat there, lost in her thoughts, like a helpless caged creature in a human zoo, a booming disembodied male voice suddenly emanated from two white plastic speakers fixed securely in the ceiling at opposite ends of the room. The voice filled the entire room with vibrating noise that made her flinch, as the camera had only moments before.
‘Welcome to your new home, my lovely. I hope you find the accommodation satisfactory.’
She parted her lips as if to speak, but then closed her mouth tight shut when no words came.
‘I will refer to you as Venus Six during your stay. I hope that won’t be too much of an inconvenience for you.’
She looked up and focussed on the camera despite her injuries, her fear and the brightness of the spot lamps. She desperately wanted him to see her as a real person, an individual with a personality, hopes and dreams. Not some readily available fresh meat served up for him to devour at his convenience, but a girl with thoughts, feelings and a long life to live in that big wide world beyond the room, that now felt so very far away. ‘My name’s Emma, I’m a student at the university. I’m in my second year. I’m studying to be a sci…’
Even before she could finish verbalising her thoughts, the room was returned to darkness at the flick of an unseen switch, and was instantly filled with the noise of desperate female whimpers, gradually evolving into ear-piercing screams that got louder, louder and louder, causing her to clutch at both sides of her head and tremble.
She’d never felt so alone, she’d never felt so helpless, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d never been so terrified. She lifted herself onto all fours, crawled forwards and threw up against a wall in a dark corner of the room.
After what seemed like an age, but in reality was no more than two or three minutes, blessed silence prevailed once more and the light shone again and dazzled her for a second time. ‘Emma is dead and buried, my lovely. She’s gone. She no longer exists. Your name is Venus Six now, although we’ll just call you Venus for the sake of convenience. I hope that’s clear enough for you. It would not be a good idea to displease me again. I went to a great deal of effort to get you here. Others have made the same mistake and paid a heavy price.’
She just sat there in stunned silence, not knowing what to do or say. The situation was so foreign to her experience, virtually impossible to comprehend or compute.
‘What’s your name, my lovely?’
She raised her head slowly, looked directly at the camera lens again and forced a less-than-plausible smile in a further effort to be liked and to be seen as a human being with a life to live. It seemed sensible to cooperate, sensible to appease him for as long as she could and in any way she could. Maybe if he liked her, he wouldn’t hurt her again. Maybe he’d even let her go. Maybe if…
‘I’m waiting for an answer, my lovely. Your life depends on doing exactly what I tell you. I suggest you respond before you anger me any further. Disappoint me one too many times and the last sound you will hear will be your own screams.’
The creeping hand of death reached out, touched her with icy fingers that lingered and caused her blood to run cold, as his words resonated in her mind and unwelcome images played and flickered behind her eyes like a dark cinematic film.
‘V-Venus, my name is V-Venus.’
‘What was that? What did you say? I couldn’t quite hear you despite my excellent hearing. You appeared to be choking on your words, my lovely. I wouldn’t go giving me any ideas, if I were you. Strangulation isn’t a particularly pleasant way to die. The victim’s eyes bulge and dim as their life force slowly drains away. I can tell you that from experience.’
She repeated her allocated name, much louder this time, and hated herself for it. But she had to buy time. She had to survive. What else could she do? What else could she say?
‘You will call me master for as long as you’re here. You’ll use the term each and every time you address me. You will never forget to use it and no other term is acceptable. Respect is everything in my eyes. It would be in your interests to remember that and to act accordingly.’
She nodded once, searching her increasingly traumatised mind… Did she recognize his voice? That erudite soft Welsh accent was somehow familiar to her… Surely, she’d heard it somewhere before… But where? Think, Emma, think… Perhaps, if she could just call him by name her plight may change for the better. Or was that a stupid idea? Yes, it was probably a stupid idea.
‘I suggest you respond unless you want to live out the remainder of your miserable existence in perpetual darkness, my lovely? I can arrange that for you if you so wish. It would be a minor temporary inconvenience to me, but nothing more.’
She shook her head aggressively and squirmed as the pain in her head escalated from a score of eight out of ten to a resounding nine, becoming virtually unbearable.
‘No, please, no, I’m begging you; I really wouldn’t want that.’
‘Oh, really? If you’re sure; I can play the recording again easily enough if you’d like to hear it. I’d raise no objections. I rather enjoy the vivid memories it engenders. It’s music to my ears, a pleasant melody that I’ve come to love, but it seems that’s not the case for others. One of my previous guests endured it for nearly three days before finally repeatedly charging the wall and smashing her skull. It was quite a spectacle, as I’m sure you can imagine. Picture it in your mind’s eye as I am. It was rather impressive, in a pathetic sort of way… Give me a second, I’ll just check my notes. Ah yes, it was Venus Four. I was fortunate enough to catch her entire performance on film for future reference. Perhaps I’ll show it to you one fine day. I’m sure you’d find it interesting.’
She couldn’t stand to hear that pitiful bawling sound for another second, let alone witness such a horrendous scene on screen. But, was he telling the truth, or just trying to terrify her still further? If he was, it was working. Yes, it was probably true. How did the poor girl stand it for as long as she did? She must have been so despairing, so desperate to die and escape him. ‘Please, master, I don’t want to hear it again.’
‘Was that a no?’
She nodded and wiped away her tears with the back of one hand. ‘Yes, I said no, no, no!’
‘You’re certain? I was hoping you’d like it. I can give you some time to think, if that helps?’
‘Y-yes, I’m certain! A thousand times, yes.’
‘Then, I suggest you say it again, but correctly this time with the appropriate degree
of veneration and devotion. Come on, I’m listening.’
Was he laughing again? Was that the sound of muffled laughter? Yes, it had to be the sound of laughter. The vicious demented bastard was laughing at her.
‘Please don’t play it again, master.’
‘Now, that was much better. You’re learning the way of things here in your new home. Give yourself a robust pat on the back for me… Do it. Do it!’
She reached behind her and did as she was told, like a performing seal in a travelling circus.
‘That’s it, Venus, pat away, my lovely, pat away. I can see that you’re a fast learner. That’s to your credit. It may just save your life one of these days. Now, is there anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable? I’m here to accommodate your needs, within reason. This isn’t a five-star resort after all.’
Should she plead for her freedom? Should she throw herself on his mercy? No, it was too soon for that, far too soon for that. It wouldn’t go well for her.
‘I’d like my clothes, please, master.’ A reasonable request. Surely that was a reasonable request. Surely it wasn’t too much to ask.
She listened as he dissolved into a fit of giggles that angered and unnerved her simultaneously.
‘I’m afraid you bled rather badly on your recent journey here, my lovely. I had to dispose of your student bedding for the same reason. Head wounds tend to flow red and create quite a mess in the process. Your clothes were soiled rather badly and have been discarded accordingly. A regrettable inconvenience I’m afraid, but such is life. I feel certain you’ll understand and forgive me in the circumstances.’
She raised a hand to her swollen, puffy face and sighed deeply as a single bead of salty sweat ran down her forehead and found a home on her bare chest.
‘You’ve no objection? Can I take that as read?’
She wanted to scream, she wanted to yell and cry like a spoiled child, but instead she said, ‘No, master,’ as respectfully as she could.
‘Then I suggest we start as we mean to go on. I think it’s best if you take a hot shower and attend to that pretty yellow hair of yours. Do it now, please. Come on, straight away, no delays. It’s important to look your best if at all possible. If your outward appearance is pleasing to me, I may be less inclined to cut you open and enjoy the internal view. You do understand that, don’t you?’
She nodded, but didn’t speak. He was insane, completely insane! What other way was there to describe him?
‘I require an answer, my lovely. Silence is not a viable option if you wish to survive for very long in this new world of yours.’
He sounded agitated, displeased by her lack of verbal response. She raised her head, looking directly at the camera again, and spoke through her unrelenting tears. ‘I understand, master.’ That’s what the bastard wanted, she was certain of that, her total and utter subservience. Like it or not, she had to play his games.
‘You’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that I’ve left some suitable clothing in the bathroom for you, you lucky girl. Now would be an opportune time to indicate your appreciation. I’m a great admirer of good manners.’
Perhaps if she said the right things, she’d get out of there in one piece. Maybe… What was the point of thinking it? It didn’t get her anywhere. ‘Thank you.’
‘Thank you, what? Thank you, what?’ There was a steely edge to his voice this time that withered her delicate soul.
‘Thank you, master.’ The words stuck in her throat, but she felt she had to say them.
‘Thank you, master.’
‘Thank you, master.’
‘Shout it out. Announce it to the world. Shout it, Venus, shout it at the very top of your voice.’
‘Thank you, master. Thank you, master.’
She was yelling now, repeating the phrase again and again and again, like a crazed eastern mantra.
‘You can stop now.’
He remained silent for thirty seconds or more before speaking again, as if carefully considering the quality of her presentation and weighing up his response. ‘Well, I have to acknowledge that your performance was rather impressive, Venus. Not all my previous guests were nearly so compliant or enthusiastic. Based on my early impressions, I’m inclined to keep you. I do like an intelligent subject. You’ll no doubt be glad to hear that they tend to live longer than the more limited creatures I’ve entertained over the years. I’m easily bored, you see. And who can blame me, eh? I’m sure you wouldn’t be critical, what with your circumstances and all.’
She lowered her head and wept as a trickle of warm yellow urine ran down her left leg and soaked the carpet at her bare feet.
‘Oh dear, is the pressure getting to you, my lovely? What a sad sight to see.’
She didn’t respond. Perhaps silence was best. How could one reason with the unreasonable? What could one say in light of such irrational cruelty? Perhaps if she stilled herself, she’d become less visible. No, that made no sense.
‘And don’t go thinking that anyone else may have heard your animalistic howling. It wouldn’t do to get your hopes up unnecessarily. You can yell away to your heart’s content, my lovely. Don’t hold yourself back on my account. Your room is suitably soundproofed to the highest possible standards. It was installed by experts some years back, on the pretext of being a recording studio. It proved rather costly, but was well worth every penny. I’ve had a great deal of fun as a result of their efforts. I think you’ll find they did an excellent job. There’s no one listening but me.’
‘I didn’t think there w-was.’
‘Oh dear, now you appear to have soiled yourself. Perhaps now would be an opportune time to take that hot shower I mentioned earlier. You can clean up that mess before bedtime. You’ll no doubt be glad to hear that I had the foresight to fit a stain-resistant floor covering. It seemed advisable in the circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?’
She forced a fragile, quickly vanishing smile and nodded, desperate not to irritate him still further. Perhaps if he grew to like her, he’d be kinder. Perhaps he’d leave the light on rather than return the room to darkness. Perhaps if she followed his instructions to the letter, he’d eventually let her go. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps! Was she deluding herself? No, no, no! Whatever the odds, there was nothing wrong with hoping.
Emma stood and rushed towards the glass door, acutely aware of her nakedness and the smell of excrement, but there was a second wall-mounted video camera in the small white-tiled bathroom, and she realised that any hope of privacy was lost to her.
Just for a short-lived moment, she was elsewhere, in a happier time and place born of determined denial, as an imagined and beautiful operatic aria filled the room as she turned on the water, stepped into the cubicle and took sensual pleasure in the hot water warming her skin. But the music stopped as suddenly as it began and was replaced by that intangible and unchanging masculine voice that she’d already come to intensely loathe with every part of her increasingly frail being. ‘Now would be a good time to switch the water off, dry yourself, attend to your hair and put on the make-up, clothing and shoes I’ve so kindly left for you in the cupboard directly below the sink. Take your time and make yourself beautiful for me, Venus. I may pay you a brief conjugal visit in an hour or two, if I feel so inclined as the day progresses.’ He laughed. ‘Not that we’re married, of course, not in any legal sense of the word. But, honour and obey, till death us do part. I feel sure you can see where I’m going with this.’
Emma didn’t move, lost in crippling indecision born of fear.
‘Well, get on with it, my lovely, get on with it. I’m losing patience and that’s never a good thing. We haven’t got all day.’
Emma took repeated deep breaths, in through her mouth and out through her one relatively unrestricted nostril, in a further forlorn attempt to calm herself before stepping out of the glass cubicle, right foot first, and taking a large fluffy white bath towel from the stainless steel heated towel rail located next to the toilet. She wrapped the towel tightly around herself in a further unhappy attempt to protect her modesty, before stepping to her immediate left and peering into the large wall-mounted mirror secured to the tiled enclave directly above the sink. She was aware of her injuries and had prepared herself accordingly, expecting the worst, but she was still taken aback when she first witnessed the extent of her wounds. Her once pretty face resembled a grotesque Halloween mask with a grossly swollen and discoloured eye, a large purple bruise covering most of the right side of her face and dark congealed blood still smeared around her swollen mouth and fractured nose despite her shower. What had he done to her? What on earth had he done to her poor face? Deep breaths, Emma, deep breaths. Hold it together, girl. No need to panic. What would that achieve? Nothing, nothing at all!
She stood there, staring into the mirror for a few seconds more, reluctantly contemplating her new reality before eventually ensuring the towel covering her nudity was secure and bending gracefully at the knees to open the cupboard with trembling fingers. She was glad of the opportunity to get dressed, glad of the chance to recover her dignity to some degree despite her circumstances. It seemed a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. One small step in the right direction. One small step towards normality and potential freedom. That’s what she told herself. That’s what she yelled inside her head. But, her raised mood was all too short-lived and all hope suddenly evaporated. All she found in that single cupboard were various items of half-used thrift store make-up, a softwood hairbrush matted with long blonde hairs, black polyester lingerie, sheer stockings with elasticated tops and a pair of matching, ridiculously high stiletto shoes, of a type she’d never have chosen to wear. Just like those worn by the sorrowful girls in the black-and-white portraits. That’s what she told herself. Just like them.