by Kelli McMillin
part 1 of 2
Her skin was the color of pale gold, her hair just a few shades darker. The sheer material of her garment was light in color, though the exact hue was indeterminable in the slight, pale light. Her bright, soft form stood out starkly against the black stage as her body swayed seductively to the soft music, so that she looked very other, almost faerie, to the voyeurs.
There was a darkness to the music, a whispering promise of touch. It wasn’t overtly sexual, like that played in many so-called gentlemen’s clubs. That would be too base, too déclassé, for Petite Mort. This was a place where not just flesh, but anonymous intimacy, the fine art of seduction, were on display.
The entirety of the night’s clientele, but for one, stood gathered around the black stage watching the almost hypnotizing dance with blank eyes and slack expressions. The single, lonely figure not among the admiring throng sat slumped at the bar, staring into the amber depths of his drink as though to divine the future.
Mirabel Lackley, the owner of Petite Mort, watched the stranger with a lazy half-smile for a moment before gliding down the bar toward him. Mira liked black. She expressed her enjoyment of the color through a monochromatic color scheme in her establishment, as well as in her wardrobe. Tonight, an elegantly cut black dress hugged against her curves before dropping to pool around her knees, and shiny black curls spilled around her lovely, pale face.
She regarded the man before her silently for a moment, tasting him with her eyes.
His face was lovely, finely featured with dark, burning eyes and full lips. His dark hair was just long enough in the front to fall forward around his eyes as he stared downward. His body was long, lean and muscular, outfitted in a dark t-shirt and jeans. Strangely, his casual garb didn’t seem at all out of place in his elegant surroundings.
“You look lonely,” Mira said, breaking the silence at last and drawing the stranger’s attention to her. “Are you not enjoying the show?”
The man’s eyes flicked to the black stage and quickly returned to Mira’s face.
“Shows like this usually make a man more lonely,” he replied. “Not less.”
“So, it takes more than illusion to erase your melancholy,” Mira said.
The man’s lips twisted into a self-deprecating smile. “Do you offer that kind of companionship here?”
“No,” Mira replied, her eyes flashing with amusement.
The man shrugged as though it hadn’t mattered to him in the first place.
“I can offer an ear,” Mira said, taking the stool next to him, “and a shoulder to cry on if you need it.”
The man’s smile broadened, though remained bittersweet at the edges. “My mother always told me not to talk to strangers, even beautiful ones.”
“My name is Mirabel Lackley,” she said. “You may call me Mira.”
“It’s good to meet you, Mira,” he said. “My name’s Vincent. Vincent Stone.”
Mira inclined her head. “It’s nice to meet you, Vincent. Now tell me what’s brought you to my place.”
Vincent’s eyes widened just slightly. “Is this your bar?”
“Oh, yes,” Mira replied. “Everything you see here belongs to me.”
“It’s very nice,” Vincent said.
Mira smiled. “I know, but thank you for saying so. Now tell me what’s on your mind.”
Vincent picked up his drink and tossed it back, letting the warm liquid burn down his throat as he contemplated his answer.
“I’m looking for someone,” Vincent said, finally. He pulled out his wallet and extracted a picture. “Her name is Rachel Fischer. She’s my girlfriend and she disappeared a few weeks ago. There have been some reports that she was seen in this area last week. Maybe you’ve seen her?”
Mira took the picture and studied it with her unfathomable eyes for a moment before shaking her head.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Her features do look familiar with her dark eyes and hair, but there are many girls like that around here.”
Vincent looked dejected for a moment before laying the picture on the bar in front of Mira. “You keep it,” he said. “My name and cell number are on the back, in case you do see her.”
Mira picked up the picture with a nod and Vincent tossed a few bills on the bar, thanked Mira for her company and said goodnight. He could not deny that she had been kind, but there was something about the woman, an otherness, that made him uncomfortable.
He walked to the door, keeping his eyes averted from the black stage and the pale beauty that danced there. Once outside, Vincent stuck his hands in his pockets and walked hunch-shouldered down Fulton Street to the cheap motel he was staying in.
As he approached his room, he slipped out the large, plastic key ring with his room key, only to find the door unlocked and slightly ajar. His heart thumped painfully in his chest, pumping a rush of adrenaline through his veins.
He stepped quietly into the entrance and braced, using a foot to push the door wide and, when nothing happened, slipped soundlessly inside.
The flashing neon vacancy sign outside illuminated an empty room before him and, after a quick scan of the bathroom and under the bed, he was satisfied that he was truly alone. He wasted a moment cursing the housekeeper and going through the few things he’d packed, but found nothing missing.
Taking a deep, ragged breath, Vincent locked the door and turned on the television that sat on the scarred table across from the bed, then stepped into the tiny bathroom and flipped on the overhead light. Rachel’s face reflected back at him from the mirror above the sink. His breath caught and his vision swam before disappearing in a wash of black.
* * *
She sat in the dark on the stairs. The quiet sounds of her sobs wrenched at his heart and he reached out a hand to touch her. To comfort her.
“Kill me,” she said. “Please, just make me disappear.”
* * *
Vincent jerked awake. He was lying on the floor on the threshold between the bathroom and the bedroom. He gingerly touched the back of his head with his fingers and was rewarded for his effort by the large, sore goose egg he found there. He pulled himself to his knees and crawled the few steps to the vanity, where he cautiously climbed to his feet.
The face that greeted him from the smooth, silvery surface of the mirror was darkly handsome, if frightened and confused, and very much his own. Vincent closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cold glass.
Once he might have been embarrassed by such an incident, but the previous few weeks had pushed him to a plane beyond such frivolous emotions.
He lived in a state of constant confusion, with fear as his only companion. Fear that bordered on paranoia. He had wondered more than once if insanity could be contagious, if you could catch it like a flu, by a germ on the air and pass it on to some poor, unsuspecting, previously sane individual. He wondered often if he hadn’t caught that kind of sickness.
He pushed away from the mirror, carefully avoiding the reflection, and stepped toward the tub. The faded shower curtain was pulled forward, but on the wall where the shower head should have been, there was a thick, black X of tape. Vincent sighed and turned on the knob to the hot water, letting it wash across the tub and draining it before pushing in the dingy, white plug.
As the tub began to fill, he walked into the bedroom and pulled a clean pair of boxers from his duffle bag and grabbed the soap and shampoo he had bought earlier that day. He didn’t trust the dusty bottle of shampoo or the tiny, packaged soap the motel provided.
When he re-entered the bathroom, the mirror was fogged and steam rose from above the shower curtain to form soft clouds that hung in the air. Vincent deposited the soap and shampoo on the side of the tub and shut off the water before shedding his clothes, which had become heavy with damp, and piling them beside the toilet and pulling back the shower curtain.
Steam poured over him, enveloping his body in warmth before drifting across the room. He looked down into the water, beneath the rising steam, and saw his figure reflected there, but not alone. His heart froze and his blood chilled in his veins.
Vincent refrained from jerking his gaze upward, knowing if he did, he would find nothing next to him, but empty air and a view of the stained bathroom wall. He didn’t want to lose the apparition that stared at him from the hot, still water of the tub.
Her reflection was as transparent as his, but what he saw filled him with cold horror. Her once flawless skin was tinged grey and her dark eyes were pale and filmy as though her very soul was decomposing.
“Rachel, what the hell?” He asked. “What do you want me to do?”
The reflection moved as though to reach a hand out of the water and, just as it would have broken the surface, the steam rising up gathered tight, forming a ghostly hand that continued upward.
Vincent stumbled back, the fear that had coiled tightly in his stomach bursting outward, threatening to rip screaming from his throat. It took him a moment to gather himself, to take a step forward and into the misty embrace of the figure that that had risen from the steam, until they stood together in the quickly cooling water. Then she was drawing him down, until they were immersed, the water closing around Vincent’s head.
* * *
“Do you believe in God?” she asked in a desolate whisper.
Vincent didn’t answer, but looked at the doctor in the corner of the room. The diminutive man made a note in the pad in his lap and gave a slight nod. The two men got to their feet and stepped into the hallway.
“I’m recommending long-term hospitalization,” the man said, in his quiet, unassuming voice.
“Isn’t there another way?” Vincent asked, unable to keep the pleading from his voice.
“She’s suffering from paranoid delusions, Mr. Stone,” the doctor said. “She believes that she has made a deal with Satan, and the only way to save her soul is to commit suicide. I’m sorry, but, in my opinion, she is a danger to herself, if not others.”
Vincent opened his mouth to argue, but the bedroom door opened and Rachel’s voice was shrieking, “He’s one of them!”
A gunshot blast thundered in his ears and a warm spray of red rained over his face as the man next to him crumpled.
* * *
Vincent surged from the tub, icy water streaming from his face. His skin was prickly and rough with goose bumps from the cold. He reached for the thin towel hanging from the crooked rack and climbed, shivering from the tub.
In the bathroom, pockets of steam still hung in the air and the mirror was wet with condensation. He stepped carefully onto the cracked linoleum floor, wrapping the towel around him. The room was still warm with the heat of the bath he was sure he had run only moments before. His teeth chattered as freezing water slipped from his hair down his scalp to run in tiny rivulets down his back. He stepped across the room, around the swirls of pale mist, to survey his blue-lipped reflection in the mirror.
Dear God, he thought. What did I do?
Copyright © 2007 by Kelli McMillin