(Short Dark Fiction)
Artist Rick Stanton needs a commission. He faces eviction from his apartment and his latest project is on hiatus. Worse, his muse refuses to cooperate. A recent letter may contain the inspiration he needs. Inside is the photograph of a mysterious woman, her face hidden by an umbrella. But there’s no identification, no way for him to contact her. A month later, another envelope arrives, this time with a phone number. Realizing this may be his last chance, Rick calls her. The woman introduces herself as Elizabeth and tells him she wants him to paint her portrait..
Rick agrees, only to learn there are conditions. Elizabeth is a recluse who lives with her two servants in a Victorian manor. She never allows her face to be seen. Not only must he stay at Elizabeth’s residence while painting her, he can’t leave, nor can he ever tell anyone about the portrait.
Sensing something isn’t right, Rick is even more disturbed by the sinister undercurrent beneath the household’s genteel façade. It’s somehow connected to the family portraits hanging in Elizabeth’s living room. Could they be haunted? And why doesn’t Elizabeth’s housekeeper want Rick to finish the painting?
I flinched at the rattle of the thin glass pane in the studio door. No matter how often I warned my assistant, Daniel never seemed to understand the door wasn’t indestructible. One day, that glass pane would give us both a glass pain. Only it wouldn’t be me sweeping the shards.
“Mail’s here, Rick!” Daniel fanned himself with a fistful of envelopes. An unrelenting heat wave had settled over Louisville like a miasma. Even though he wore his shoulder-length red hair tied back, beads of perspiration dotted his hairline and dark spots stained his faded tank top.
Wiping my hands on a paint-stained rag, I reached for the mail. Probably bills and junk. A quick glance through the pile confirmed my suspicions. Collection agencies failed to understand the meaning of “starving artist.”
I tossed the envelopes on the banged-up, metal desk, its surface piled with sketches, drawing pencils, photographs, art magazines, fast food wrappers, and old mail. Crumpled newspapers and discarded paint tubes littered the floor. Fissures ran along the plastered walls from baseboards to the spackled ceiling. The odors of mineral spirits, paint, and stale coffee lingered in the air.
Somehow, I’d managed to lose my inspiration and suspected it had made off with my bank account. I prepared canvases, hoping an idea would knock my muse upside her head. Traitorous little…
I’d planned to paint a series called “Denizens of the Night,” portraits of people involved in Louisville’s occult scene. The problem? My call for models attracted Goth wannabes—posers who couldn’t tell Aleister Crowley from H.P. Lovecraft.
Discouraged, I had sent thank you notes to everyone who had expressed interest and told them the project was on hiatus. Not only that, but with no new ideas, my career had stalled. Or so I thought—until the photograph arrived.