Daniel Rosen entered his apartment and closed the door behind him. Once the latch had clicked into place, he took a deep breath, inhaling the discreet herbal scent of the Italian potpourri he preferred. The tension in his shoulders eased. He was glad to be home.
He dropped his keys into the cloisonné dish on the small table beside the door. A round bellied lamp stood next to the dish. He reached beneath its silk shade to snap it on, then shrugged off his overcoat and hung it from a nearby hook on the wall. In the low light the fur collar glistened with melting snow. Beneath it on the floor was a rubber mat, protecting the antique pine floor from drips. Balanced on one foot at a time, he removed his wellingtons and set them neatly on the mat to dry.
In his stocking feet, he started across the room for the bar. He needed a drink.
Old Fashioned glass in hand, he padded to the hallway leading to his studio. The apartment was dim, lit only by the low-wattage bulb in the table lamp by the front door. All the curtains were closed against the December evening gloom and cold. The darkness at the end of the long hall was quite deep, an unnerving sinkhole, and Daniel paused to flip the light switch. Light flared for an instant, then died with a sizzling electrical pop.
He glanced up at the fixture in the ceiling. Oh, for Christ’s sake. Well, he was too tired tonight. He’d call the super about it tomorrow.
The large sphere of clear ice in his glass clinked as he moved carefully into the darkness. It was a sound that filled him with pleasant anticipation. When he crossed the threshold into his studio and flipped on the lights (I’m glad these work, at least), Daniel allowed himself his first sip. He closed his eyes for a moment and gave a little shiver as the sherry cask-aged scotch warmed his throat and worked its way down.
Thank God for dead pets, he thought. If not for them, he wouldn’t be able to afford the glass, much less the scotch in it. But the rich did love their pets, and after beloved Beauregard or yappy little Mitzi kicked off, many of them wanted a portrait to remember the animal by. Which was where Daniel Rosen came in. From photographs he could paint such a skillful, realistic likeness of porky Muffin’s squashed face that he had a waiting list of bereaved clients.
He raised the glass, admiring the amber liquid in it, and toasted the air in front of him. “To Daniel Rosen,” he said. “Celebrity painter to the wealthy, four-legged dead!” He drank, considering. “Plus five birds, two snakes and a carp.” He laughed, a hollow sound in the high-ceilinged room, then crossed the floor to the studio’s only chair, in a corner flanked by tall windows. He sat down, setting his glass on the dropcloth-covered floor, and looked around at the walls. His good mood deflated, the self-congratulatory cheer leaking right out of him.
Affixed everywhere around the room were the photos of his latest commission, a project that had given him fits for several months. Late this afternoon, finally, he had delivered the canvas to the grieving pet owner. Or rather, to the grieving pet owner’s housekeeper. The subject was a Norfolk Nahthonde, a breed unfamiliar to Daniel. The photos showed a dog black and enormous, with a coat of rough, shaggy hair that seemed to stand straight out from the body and crackle with a nimbus of fire. The dog’s eyes were dark brown, set far back in its skull under a heavy ledge of brow, but Daniel could see crimson sparks in their depths. How Rogers Farlow, the dog’s owner, had achieved such an effect, Daniel had no idea. Farlow, when asked, had told him icily that the photos were not manipulated. It was this very quality, of an animal charged and electric—a scary as hell animal, to be honest—that had given the artist such a difficult time.
It was also the reason he had not returned the photographs when he delivered the canvas this afternoon. Daniel had a feeling that, no matter how good the likeness he’d managed, Rogers Farlow would not find the dog’s portrait completely accurate. Daniel thought it highly probable that Farlow would require him to make adjustments. The prospect of spending more time on a canvas that had already taken him nearly twice as long as most of his subjects did was not appealing to Daniel. But he did want the other half of his fee. And he wanted Rogers Farlow to be happy. Rogers Farlow had important connections.
With a sigh, Daniel picked up his glass and sipped, wondering when the phone call would come, preparing himself for the near-certainty of a dissatisfied client. He gazed around at the photos. What else could he have done? How was he supposed to capture a true likeness of a beast that looked as if it didn’t belong on this earth? He rose and went to the opposite wall to examine a 10 x 13 that seemed to be staring at him, a close-up of the dog’s face. For some time he stood there, scotch in his raised right hand, his left arm folded across his body. He was glad, not for the first time (especially with the snakes), that he never had to meet his subjects in the flesh. This unattractive monster would have frightened him out of his wits.
Trismegistus Twilight’s Obliquity. Overblown and ridiculous, like all show dog names. Instead of giving it a nickname, something easy and jaunty—like TiTO, for instance—Farlow, a cold, overbearing man, insisted on always using the dog’s registered name. “Trismegistus Twilight’s Obliquity this . . .” and “Trismegistus Twilight’s Obliquity that . . .” Daniel had grown quite tired of hearing it, and by the time he’d prepped the canvas and begun his work in earnest, the name pounded in his head.
Now Daniel had to stop himself from turning to look over his shoulder. From all around the room he could feel crimson-flecked eyes on him. He gave himself a mental shake. Don’t be stupid, Rosen. You’re just tired.
He returned to his chair, glad his back was to a corner. Averting his eyes from the 10 x 13, he set down his glass and made a decision. He took his phone out of his shirt pocket and scrolled through the contacts. Why wait for Farlow’s call? Much better to get it over with. The sooner he could be done with this job, the sooner he could get these photos back to their owner. He pressed a number.
The phone was on its third ring when the lights in the studio went out.
Startled, Daniel gave a high-pitched squeak.
“Well, hello to you too, Mr. Rosen,” the phone said smoothly into his ear.
“Mr. Farlow!” Daniel exclaimed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to, uh, sneeze into the phone like that.”
The other speaker greeted this with silence.
After a pause, Daniel ploughed on. “I’m calling to ask if you’ve had a chance to examine the portrait.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the dog’s name.
“As a matter of fact, I’m looking at it right this moment. Let’s see now . . .”
Daniel waited in the shadows. The studio’s north-facing windows were not covered, allowing light to shine in from streetlamps, passing cars, the windows in the buildings opposite. It was still too dark to suit him. An iron grey fog was creeping up the street, and even as he watched, the lights down the block dimmed and disappeared behind it. A chill crept down his spine. He picked up his scotch and took a large swallow. The sphere of ice, smaller now, rattled in the almost empty glass. He debated refreshing his drink, but balked at the thought of walking the long, lightless hall to the bar and back.
At last the phone said, “This is actually quite good, Mr. Rosen.”
At these words, Daniel’s temper flared, but he calmed himself. With a chuckle that he hoped sounded light and careless, he said, “I assume that’s why you hired me, Mr. Farlow.”
Silence. Daniel imagined the canvas propped against a brushed steel wall in Farlow’s frigid modernist house, and the man himself pacing back and forth before it, the lanky form bent like a comma, the head thrust forward like a turtle’s on the scrawny neck. Daniel tensed, preparing himself for the “But . . .” that he was sure would come next.
“But . . .”
There it is.
“. . . I don’t see the packet of Trismegistus Twilight’s Obliquity’s photographs that I lent you. Did you not return them?”
Daniel allowed himself to relax a bit. “No, not yet.”
“And why not?” the phone demanded.
How do I say this? I wasn’t sure my work would be good enough for you? God, no.
“I’m afraid I must withhold the rest of your payment until you return those photographs, Mr. Rosen.”
The tone was so frosty that Daniel’s hand on the phone went cold. What a bastard. Does he think I want these pictures of his ugly dog? “I needed to be sure you were happy with the portrait, Mr. Farlow. I, er, retained the photos only temporarily. To refer to, you see. Just in case I had to make any adjustments to the painting. If you’re satisfied, I’ll messenger them back to you tomorrow.”
“I suppose I must content myself with your assurance, then.”
Daniel struggled to remain composed. Finally he managed to say, “So may I count you as a satisfied client, Mr. Farlow?”
For a long moment the phone hissed emptily in his ear.
“I think so. Yes. Yes, you may. The eyes are especially good.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I’ll include my invoice for the balance with the photos, then.”
Though by now quite angry, Daniel forced himself to finish the conversation on a cordial note. Being courteous now could mean future commissions from Rogers Farlow’s wealthy friends, after all. Not friends. Connections. I doubt the prick has any friends. “Thank you for your business, Mr. Farlow. And I want to tell you that I’m very sorry for your loss. I know—” He stumbled a bit—“I know Trismegistus Twilight’s Obliquity must have been a noble dog. You must miss him very much.”
“What on earth are you going on about, Mr. Rosen?” The voice in the phone held a sting sharp as a wasp’s.
Daniel was so surprised at this that he blurted the first thing that came into his head. “But . . . your dog is dead, isn’t he?”
“Dead? No, I never said he was dead. You must have misunderstood.”
Daniel shook his head, trying to clear it. “I’m sorry, I thought—”
“At one time, perhaps.”
The phone’s voice sounded far away, and Daniel wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. “I beg your pardon—?”
“I’ll expect those photographs tomorrow.” The connection was broken.
Daniel rocked back in his chair and stared into the darkness, angry and bewildered. After a time he realized the studio seemed stuffy. He needed fresh air. Rising, he turned to one of the windows behind him and cranked it open as far as it would go. Moist, cold air poured into the room. He leaned over the sill and gulped it in. The fog had engulfed everything now, shrinking the world. He could barely make out the taillights of a passing car, pinpricks of red in the street, only one floor below his apartment. The sound of the engine was muffled. It occurred to him he should call the super now, not in the morning.
As he waited for the man to pick up, he wondered uneasily if the table lamp by the front door was still lit. Or if any lights in the rest of his apartment would work. And if he had candles. Or matches to light them with. He made a mental note to buy both.
The super didn’t answer. Daniel left a message.
He looked around the studio at the rectangular shadows on the walls. I can still see well enough to take these damn pictures down, though.
He started with the 10 x 13. When he tried to take it down, it didn’t budge and he was afraid at first he’d torn it. He stopped, horrified. Christ save me from Farlow if I damage the thing trying to get it down. He leaned closer, running his hands over the surface of the photo, feeling for rips. Relieved to find nothing, he tried again to remove it, gently working his fingertips under the corners where the poster putty anchored it to the wall. It was impossible.
A wave of dizziness washed over him, and as he staggered back from the wall, his sight blinked off and he was submerged in utter blackness. It was only for an instant, and when he could see again, he wondered if the whole city had momentarily lost power. Badly unsettled now, but still determined to take the picture down, he approached the wall and reached up. Rank, hot breath panted in his face, filling his nostrils.
Daniel scrambled backward so quickly his feet tangled in the dropcloth. He tripped and went sprawling on his back, the wind knocked out of his lungs. Something large and rough and dark pinned him to the floor, and when he struggled, pushing against it, he was sure he felt the smooth-horn curve of claws pressing into him. Then he saw them gleam as they caught a flash of crimson light from the two fiery globes that bore down on him out of the gloom.
Daniel lost awareness for a time. When he regained it he was on his feet again, his back pressed against the wall, watching an enormous form swirl slowly toward the open window. The thing crested the sill and filled the breach, swelling like the time-lapse of a rose unfurling. As it spilled through, it blotted out the world beyond, shapeless as the fog, but so much darker—black as tar. And then it was swallowed by the night.
Daniel knew he must shut the window. If the thing returned to claim him, he would be lost.
He crossed the room. Or meant to. But he saw the window was no closer than it had been before. For a few moments he considered this—the why of it, the how—and realized his emotions were curiously flat. He considered this also as the iron grey fog rolled into the room.
From his place on the wall, he watched it come.
Susan Rooke is a Pushcart-nominated poet and author of the Space Between fantasy series. Her work has appeared in such publications as Inkscrawl, Eye to the Telescope, The Twilight Zone Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, among many others. She lives with a husband and cows in rural Central Texas, and when she’s not writing speculative fiction and poetry, she blogs fortnightly about real life, food and cocktails at http://susanrooke.net.