‘Aw, nice one,’ the lads had said, almost in one voice, when I’d slid her photograph across the table. ‘You’d never be able to pull a bird like that on your own,’ Jimmy’d muttered, after a few minutes, his jaw clenching. None of them had been able to take their eyes off her – Magdalena. Lithuanian, and looked it. The pints sat untouched on the table, the football unwatched. Magdalena lay before them, a desert island to a drowning man.
‘Yeah, well I’m the one dropping over to her house later, right?’ I’d said, grabbing up the photo again. Jimmy’d blinked, shaking his head slightly, and Gerry’d straightened up. George had cleared his throat with a sound like an excavator, but he’d said nothing. I shoved Magdalena back where she’d lived ever since the agency had sent her over – my right jeans pocket, within easy reach. I’d looked at her photo so often I knew it by heart; the particular green-gold of her widely spaced eyes, and the beautifully peculiar turn to her lip. The tumble of her hair. The exact length of her slender neck.
‘Here, mate!’ Gerry’d said, settling himself back onto his stool. ‘What’s the number of that bloody agency, again?’ Jimmy’d been the first to laugh. Gorgeous George, who’d grabbed up his pint and downed most of it in one gulp, said nothing.
‘They’re not looking for lads like you, fellas. Sorry,’ I’d said, lifting my pint. ‘Only the quality, like meself. You understand, I’m sure.’
George had rumbled, then. ‘How much you payin’ ’em?’ he’d asked, from out of his beard.
‘Paying?’ I’d said, licking the froth off my top lip. ‘What makes you ask that?’
‘Experience,’ he’d said, but that was all.
I’d been buzzing from the beer when I made my way to Magdalena’s. ‘Come around ten,’ I’d been told. ‘She’s working until then.’ I wondered as I walked through the rain-speckled evening what sort of work a woman like Magdalena did. Modelling, I thought. And the rest. I picked up my pace. I’d mapped out my route days ago; I knew where I was going. I’d memorised the address.
Nothing was going to go wrong. Not tonight.
When I got there, I searched for her buzzer. Fourth floor, the instructions had said; a button marked ‘M’. I found it, and leaned. A gentle click, and the gate moved under my hand.
I was in.
I trotted down a tiled corridor, the lights flicking on as I went. Everything gleamed. Doors either side stayed shut as I passed. I stepped into a lift at the far end, and it smelled like honeysuckle. The ride was smooth. Fast. Expensive.
All I could see when the doors opened was a giant entrance, ten foot tall if it was an inch, leading through to a dark, shaded room as big as an aircraft hangar. I could barely make out the ceiling, and the walls were soft, distant smudges.
I blinked into the gloom and finally saw a brightly-lit desk in the centre of the massive room. There was a suggestion of movement around it, but I couldn’t see clearly enough to be sure.
‘Alistair?’ came a voice. It mangled my name, but I didn’t care.
‘M-Magdalena,’ I replied.
‘Come on in,’ she said. ‘Forgive the dark. The light has faded too far for me to continue my work this evening.’
‘Sure, sure,’ I said, even though I had no idea what she was on about. I took a few steps forward, but it was weird walking into the murk. ‘What’s – well, if you don’t mind my asking – what’s your work?’
‘Oh, there’ll be time for that, later,’ she said, and a laugh warmed her words.
I came closer. The desk, I now saw, was cluttered with stuff; jars and bottles full of pigment, brushes stuck in water, pestles and mortars which looked battered and war-worn, splashed with paint. Lumps of solid colour like soft gemstones lay carelessly strewn about, and a large grater like one you’d use for cheese dripped hues from its blades. Things glistened in saucers, green and brown and blood-rusty. The air smelled funny, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
‘You’re an artist,’ I said, finally. ‘Wow. That’s interesting.’
‘After a fashion,’ she said, still bustling about in the shadows. I heard the slither of what sounded like fabric, and strained to see.
‘What do you paint?’ I reached out and touched the handle of one of the pestles with a fingertip. It felt cold, and slimy. I grabbed my hand back, wiping it quickly on my jeans.
‘Portraits, mainly,’ she called, her voice muffled. Is she undressing? I thought, and quickly squashed it back.
‘Right,’ I said. ‘So, um. Should I come back there, or..?’
‘So eager!’ her voice said, straight into my left ear. I yelled, and spun around, but there was nothing there except shadows and the vague suggestion of a giant canvas looming over my head.
‘Th-that was a good trick,’ I said, trying to laugh.
‘Patience, Alistair,’ she said. This time, I couldn’t tell where her voice was coming from.
‘So, am I going to get to see you at all?’ I said, my eyes hopping from dark surface to dark surface. ‘Only, the agency’s email said… well. It said we’d do stuff – you know?’ I shoved my hands into my pockets; they were trembling, and I didn’t want her to see. I stroked the cool surface of her photo, and tried to squint at the giant painting. It was a human figure, I thought, splayed out. A man. Muscles straining. His face in shadow. Organs shining…
I never saw the blade coming.
I dropped like a rock, clutching my midriff, and Magdalena stepped into the light. I couldn’t help but look. She sank to her knees before me, beautiful and terrible, inhumanly tall, perfectly made but for her face…
‘Jesus,’ I muttered, trying to drag myself backwards. The pain of movement ripped through my gut. I glanced down; my blood was pooling beneath my hand. Spreading like crimson. She could’ve dipped her brush in it, I thought.
‘What are you?’ I asked. My teeth clenched. ‘What’s going on?’
‘You can see, I’m sure, that eyes are all I lack,’ she said, crawling towards me. ‘As I paint my picture, I complete myself. But painting eyes which look real – well. That’s the challenge, Alistair.’ Every word she spoke, she crept a little closer. In her hand, she clutched another blade, scalpel-thin. ‘So I realised, why paint them at all?’
‘No,’ I muttered. ‘Please. Please!’ I tried to slide again, but understood – too late – that all I was doing was retreating further into her lair. The door was miles away, and she was between me and it.
She hefted the blade and smiled, too widely.
‘Count yourself lucky,’ she said, as she pounced, ‘that I only require one heart.’