A woman died.
She was sixty-six years old, in good health, active, a nonsmoker who rarely drank. She had simply gone to sleep and never woken up. Her family and friends mourned, a funeral was arranged, flowers were ordered, a service organized.
Viola Jillian was thrilled.
She had never met the woman, never even known of her existence until she had heard of her death. But she was glad she’d died. Viola was vaguely embarrassed by the emotion but selfish enough not to be too embarrassed. After all, the woman’s death presented her with an amazing opportunity. And opportunity, as she kept reminding herself, didn’t come calling too often, and when it did, you had to grasp it with both hands. This was her opportunity. The buxom brunette with the Elizabeth Taylor eyes had spent the last few weeks in the ensemble cast of Drury Lane’s reprisal of Oliver! The woman who had died was the lead’s mother, and now the producers had informed Viola that she was going to play Nancy the following evening.
The young woman had immediately gone to sympathize with the distraught Nancy, but only after she had shifted her publicist-almost-boyfriend into high gear to ensure that there would be sufficient press in the audience for her debut. This was her chance, and she was determined to make the most of it.
Viola Jillian had always wanted to be a star.
Usually on Sundays, Viola would grab a few drinks with some of the other girls in the cast, but she wanted to be well rested for her proper West End star turn. Viola knew her theater history: Every great star was discovered by accident. And she knew, deep in her selfish heart, that she was a great star. She fantasized that she would be discovered. She had the talent, the looks, and the drive. And she wanted to move beyond the stage and start acting in films. She had already played small parts in the British soap operas EastEnders and Coronation Street, but she was tired of always playing second fiddle, or even fifth or sixth fiddle, and was afraid that she was becoming typecast. She was nearly twenty-four; she didn’t have much time left. Let the others drink all night in the Ku Bar, she was heading home to bed.
It was a spectacular fall night, cloudless and balmy, when she left the bar early, and she decided she’d walk to her nearby Soho flat.
She’d not gone more than two hundred yards when Viola felt the skin on the back of her neck tingle. She’d been a dancer all her life, and every dancer had experienced the same sensation, usually when someone in the audience was focusing on them.
Viola knew that someone was watching her.
At eleven thirty P.M., the London streets were filled with Sunday night carousers. Viola pulled her bag closer to her chest and picked up her pace, walking briskly down Shaftesbury Avenue. There had been a series of violent muggings lately, and she did not plan to fall victim to one of them. Her flat was less than ten minutes away. She kept glancing behind at every corner, but she could see no one, although the tingle at the back of her neck remained. Viola hurried up the less crowded Dean Street and was half running by the time she reached the almost empty Carlisle Place.
It was only when she reached the safety of her building and had closed the door behind her that Viola relaxed. She made a mental note to talk to her shrink about her growing anxiety attacks. For an actress she led a fairly vanilla life, and the chance of someone like her ever getting hurt was practically nil. She laughed at her ridiculous fear as she hummed one of Nancy’s signature songs. Standing in the hallway, she checked through the day’s mail, throwing away a few overdue bills and keeping a coupon for Anthropologie, which had recently opened on Regent Street. Her mind shifted to far more practical matters as she wondered if she could convince the wardrobe mistress to alter Nancy’s red dress in order to show a bit of extra cleavage and accentuate her two best features.
It was when she started up the stairs that she heard the muffled cry in 1C. Mrs. Clay’s flat.
Not usually one to get involved in other people’s business, especially when the other person was a septuagenarian who constantly complained that Viola made too much noise, she began to climb the stairs. Then there was the faint tinkle of breaking glass. Viola stopped, then turned back down the stairs: Something was wrong.
Standing outside the old woman’s door, she pressed her face against the cool wood, closing her eyes and listening. But the only sound she could make out from within was a faint rasping, like the sound of labored breathing.
She knocked quietly, conscious that she did not want to wake the other neighbors. When there was no response, she pressed her finger to the lighted bell. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture blared on the other side of the door. For a moment she thought it might be the bell she was hearing before she realized it was probably the classical radio station, the only station Mrs. Clay listened to—usually very early in the morning.
Still no response.
She pressed the bell again and realized that the music sounded unnaturally loud. She’d never heard any sounds from the old woman’s flat this late in the evening. Viola suddenly wondered if Mrs. Clay had suffered a heart attack. She looked the picture of health and was extremely spry for her age. “Good country air,” she had once told Viola as she chastised her for smoking, a habit she’d picked up at drama school. “When I was a girl, I lived in the country. That kind of air nourishes you for life.”
Viola rang the bell again, pressing hard, the tip of her finger white against the plastic button. Perhaps Mrs. Clay could not hear the chimes over the now obnoxiously loud music. When she got no response, Viola fished into her hobo bag and pulled out her key ring. The old woman had given her a key to the apartment “in case of an emergency” months ago.
Sorting through the bundle of keys, she finally found the right one, then shoved it into the lock and pushed open the door. The smells hit her as soon as she stepped into the flat: a sharp metallic odor, harsh and unpleasant, mingling with the stench of feces. Viola recoiled, bile rising, pressing her hand to her mouth as she reached for the light switch. She flicked it up, but nothing happened. Leaving the door open to shed light into the tiny hallway, she walked forward … and realized that the carpet beneath her feet was squelching, sodden and sticky with a liquid that was too viscous to be water. What was she standing in? She decided she didn’t want to know; whatever it was, it would wash off. She hoped.
“Mrs. Clay … Mrs. Clay?” she said, shouting to be heard over the overture. “Beatrice? It’s Viola Jillian. Is everything all right?”
There was no reply.
The old woman had probably gone and had a heart attack or something, and now Viola was going to have to go and get an ambulance and probably spend all night in the hospital. She’d look like shit in the morning.
Viola pushed open the door into the sitting room. And stopped. The stench was stronger here, acrid urine stinging her eyes. By the reflected light, she could see that the room had been destroyed. The beautiful music continued to play, a mocking counterpoint to the desecration around it. Every item of furniture lay overturned, the arms of the fireside chairs had been snapped off, the back of the rose floral sofa was broken in two, stuffing hanging in long ribbons from the slashed cushions, drawers pulled from the cabinet, the contents emptied, pictures torn from the walls, frames warped as if they had been twisted. An antique Victorian mirror lay on the floor, radiating spider cracks from a deep indentation in the middle of the glass as if it had been trodden on. Mrs. Clay’s extensive collection of glass figurines were now ground into the carpet.
Viola breathed deeply, trying to remain calm. The flat had been burgled. But where was Mrs. Clay? Picking her way through the devastation, glass crunching underfoot, she prayed that the old woman hadn’t been here when it happened; yet she knew instinctively that she had. Beatrice Clay rarely left her apartment at night. “Too dangerous,” she’d said.
Books scraped as she pushed against the bedroom door, opening it wide enough to slap at the light switch, but again, nothing happened. In the faint glow of the light from the hall, she could see that this room had also been torn apart and that the bed was piled high with dark clothes and blankets.
“Beatrice? It’s me, Viola.”
The bundle of clothes on the bed shifted and moved, and she heard shallow breathing. Viola darted across the room and saw the top of the old woman’s head. Clutching the first blanket, she yanked it back, and it came away in her hand, warm and wet and dripping. The woman in the bed convulsed. The bastards had probably tied her up. Viola was reaching for another blanket when the bedroom door creaked and swung inward, throwing light onto the bed.
Beatrice Clay’s throat had been cut, but not before her body had been terribly mutilated. But despite her appalling injuries, she was still alive, mouth and eyes wide in soundless agony, breathing a harsh rattle.
The young woman’s scream caught at the back of her throat.
A shadow fell across the bed.
Sick with terror, Viola turned to face the shape that filled the doorway. Light ran off damp naked flesh. She could see that it was a tall, muscular man, but with the light coming from behind him, his features were in shadow. He lifted his left arm, and the light reflected liquid running down the length of the spear he clutched. The man stepped into the room, and she could smell his odor now: the rich meaty muskiness of sweat and copper blood.
“Please…,” she whispered.
Black light trembled on the blade of the weapon. “Behold the Spear of the Dolorous Blow.” Then, obscenely, he began to conduct the nerve-wracking 1812 Overture with the deadly weapon, and as the overture reached its climactic conclusion, his shoulder shifted and rolled and the light darted toward her.
There was no pain.
Viola felt a sudden coldness beneath her breast, then the warmth that flowed outward to embrace her. Liquid trickled across her stomach. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t find the breath to shape the words. She was aware of light in the room now, cold blue and green flames sparking, writhing along the leaf-shaped blade of the spear.
She had been stabbed—dear Jesus, she had been stabbed.
The lines of fire coiling around the shaft of the spear rose to illuminate the flesh of the hand holding the weapon. As Viola fell to her knees, both hands pressed against the gaping wound in her chest, she noticed that the man was disturbingly handsome and tall.
Tall, dark, and handsome.
Viola tried to concentrate, wondering if her eyes were playing tricks on her or if the newborn pain was clouding her judgment.
The spear rose, serpents of cold fire splashing onto the head of her attacker, illuminating his face. When she saw his eyes, the woman realized she would not be playing Nancy in tomorrow’s performance.
Viola Jillian would never be a star.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman