“Nice art,” he mused as he sipped from his tumbler of gin. Stan lightly tapped the glass covering the drawing with a fingertip and leaned closer. The frame held a smallish painting, no more than six inches square, of a heart with the name Abigail written in green vines across it. The thing was intricate, and the more he stared, the more detail jumped out at him. He frowned. It was nice work, but there was something a bit off, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Stan shrugged and turned back to the dark haired woman artfully arranged on the plush couch. Tall and lithe, Abby resembled a lioness the way she curled her long legs under her, the skirt of her black dress flowing around her ankles. He smiled. They had been dating for a couple of weeks and this was the first time he observed her in her natural habitat. This was not exactly new to him. He had been in women’s’ apartments before, but he felt a twinge of unease, almost as if he might find himself on the menu.
Stan was a mature man, well into his forties, silver beginning to show around his temples, and had known his share of women. Abby was something new; private, cool, and mysterious. He could feel his interest building each time they went out to dinner or walked in the park together. She didn’t walk as much as flow, almost as if she were a great green-eyed cat prowling the savanna.
“I’m glad you like the painting,” she purred, “it was my late husband’s work. I suppose I should have sold it or given it away along with all his other things, but there is just something about it that holds me.” Abby put her red lips to the rim of her champagne glass and winked over the rim.
The next morning, Stan yawned as he started his car and eased out of Abby’s driveway. Brain sodden from lack of sleep and overload of sensation, he sleep walked through his day at the office, thankful that he didn’t have many clients to deal with. A perk of being the boss of the agency; he could farm out much of the work, leaving himself free for other things.
Today that interest was searching the internet for the image he saw in the painting on Abby’s wall. There had been no signature in the corner, so he had no idea who the artist was. That made the search more difficult, but not necessarily impossible. He loved the challenge.
Five o’clock arrived and his secretary Emma stuck her head in the door, “I’m out, boss. Everything is locked up.” She paused in the doorway, smoky gray eyes piercing him, “Don’t forget to eat something, Mr. Long”
She raised one eyebrow, toe tapping and Stan sighed. She knew him too well, and he knew that she would not leave until she extracted a promise. Otherwise, he might still be sitting in the same place at sunrise. Frustrated by a lack of results, he slapped the lid of his laptop closed and grabbed his coat. “Might as well go now,” he thought as he flipped off the lights in his office, “and there is still time to get in a workout. Might take my mind off that image.”
The gym was crowded, but Stan didn’t see Abby anywhere. He had met her by the leg press machines a couple of months back, and they had developed a mutual interest that showed signs of blossoming into something more. He smiled at the memory. She had admired the eagle tattooed across his back and the smaller wolf on his shoulder. Turns out she was a connoisseur of body art.
Dripping with sweat and muscles quivering, Stan finished his routine and headed for the showers. The dressing room walls were lined with photos of customers working out, posing, or competing in contests. He had never paid close attention, but as he plopped his tired body on a bench to pull on his shoes, his eyes fell on one that made his heart stop. One of the former members of the club stood flexing for the camera, the ink on his shoulder clearly visible. Stan couldn’t remember seeing the man for a year or so. He jumped up, one foot still bare, and strode across to the photo and peered closely. A red heart with green vines that spelled the name Abigail. He frowned. No. Must be a coincidence.
The gym owner, Brad, was thumbing through a bodybuilding magazine when Stan got to the front. He looked up with a smile.
“Hey Brad, do you remember that dude with the name Abigail tattooed in a heart? What ever happened to him? I don’t recall seeing him around lately.”
Brad shrugged, “Strange thing. That was John Jackson. He died a few months ago. Fell over dead at home, they said. Heart attack.” Stan started to turn away, but Brad continued, “He used to be married to your Abby, you know. She was the one who encouraged him to get the tattoo. I remember that they were both so proud of it. Great art.”
Stan brooded most of the night. It really wasn’t that strange that Abby found an artist to reproduce the tattoo for her on canvas after. It must have been a shock when he died.
Wait. What was it she always seems to notice about people? Tattoos. Always tattoos. He thought about the first time she saw him at the gym. She commented on his art, and after they started dating, she couldn’t wait to get his shirt off to see the eagle on his back.
Stan set his drink on the counter and massaged Abby’s shoulders, eliciting a purr. “Mind if I wander a bit while you cook? I haven’t seen the rest of your house. I’ve been dying to see your library.”
“Of course, dear. Wander to your heart’s content. You will love the library,” she said, her voice cool as the frost on the window panes. She kissed the corner of his mouth and waggled her fingers toward the long hallway that led off into darkness. Abby wore a predatory look in her eyes, but her lush lips smiled.
The library made him gasp. Paneled in dark, rich wood, built in shelves stretched to the ceiling all along three walls. The fourth was taken up by an enormous fireplace with two plush leather chairs in front of it, flanking a standing lamp and a pair of side tables. A perfect reading spot, he mused.
He closed the door gently and began to prowl the shelves, inhaling the aroma of the leather bindings and ancient paper of the books. Small picture frames stood in front of a few shelves, and larger portrait size paintings hung on the walls in gaps between shelves, the art shaded from direct light. Most seemed to be crosses, or dragons, or wolves. The library delighted him, it had long been his dream. For a second, he wished he could remain here forever.
As Stan caressed the front of a shelf, he heard a faint click. The section of shelf moved an eighth of an inch. Intrigued, Stan pulled gently and it swung noiselessly aside on oiled hinges. The room behind it was small, no more than six feet by eight, and gloomy. One lone light in the ceiling glowed dimly, just enough to allow him to see that the walls were lined with frames.
As Stan took a step, a lamp flickered on, its beam illuminating one of the frames. An Aztec warrior. Another lamp clicked; a skull with a cross drawn on it. An eagle in flight. Another step. A hummingbird on a flower. Dandelions with seeds blowing in the wind. Birds. Snakes. At least a hundred pieces of art hung on the paneled walls. One space, three feet square, stood empty, waiting.
Stan’s eyes widened and his heart pounded. Panicked, he seized one of the frames and smashed it against the wall. He paid no attention to the blood as he cut his fingers tearing the image loose. He held it up to the dim light. It was skin. Real skin and a real tattoo. Suddenly weak, he sank to his knees in the broken glass, head spinning with the implications. He should go. He should run, but his legs would not obey. He willed them to lift him and take him out, but they refused.
Vision growing dim, Stan turned his head toward the shadow that darkened the doorway of the small display room. He gaped helplessly in horror at the knife in Abby’s hand and the gleam in her eyes. “I’m glad you admire my little collection. Just think, your eagle will soon join them. I have a place all ready for it. Don’t worry, love. I’ll make it as painless as possible.”
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