TRIGGER WARNING: Drug abuse and mentions of sexual assault.
ICYMI: In the Shadow of Death: Prologue
“Scarlett! Open the door!” David Bradford shouted through the door, this time loud enough to attract attention from the old lady waiting for the elevator. This was not how he had planned to spend this morning, but he’d been trying to reach Scarlett for several days and nothing. Not that it was unusual. Like most of his clients, Scarlett was a free spirit and would often just go off the grid for days or weeks at a time. Of course, unlike most of his clients, Scarlett was a loose cannon. Behind the door, it was just as likely that she would be lying in a pool of her own vomit having overdosed on pills as it was that she was standing in front of a canvas with her iPod blasting in her ears.
“She keeps a key under the mat, son,” the old lady finally said, the annoyance clear in her jagged voice. “Why don’t you use it instead of disturbing the whole building?”
David smirked, bending down and retrieving the key. When he pushed it into the doorknob and opened the door, there was a discouraging silence. He peered inside a little, but the chain was still latched. He had to push his shoulder against it a few times to break the chain lock and heave it open. “Goddamnit, Scarlett. Gay boys shouldn’t have to break into women’s apartments,” he called into the room. No response.
He could smell the scent of alcohol all over the ruined apartment. Empty wine bottles, newspapers, books and food dishes were strewn everywhere and the air was thick. David shook his head, stepping carefully around the debris as he made his way into the living area. Stacks of canvases, some painted, some still white, blocked the windows making it dark in the room despite the early morning sun. Her obsession was evident everywhere. She was surrendering to her own madness, it seemed. The dark angel, staring down at the world below. Even if he wasn’t the subject, he was always there. The paintings had grown in scale and twisted beauty in the last couple of months. And though they were like nothing he’d ever seen, David began to fear that the art world would be disturbed by them. And that meant that she would be written off as a kook and never sell another piece. Not while she was alive, at least. He walked around the couch and saw Scarlett lying on the floor at the foot of an unfinished canvas. “Scarlett!” he exclaimed, rushing around the clutter to kneel beside her. He touched her face, feeling that it was still warm and seeing the gentle rise and fall of her chest calmed him somewhat. “Scarlett, honey, wake up,” he sighed, hooking his arms under hers and trying to pull her to a sitting position.
“Leave me…” she slurred, her head lolling to one side as David propped her against the front of the couch. Her eyes opened and focused on him briefly and he could see that her pupils were shrunken and unresponsive. “David…” she said before closing her eyes again. He slapped her lightly on each cheek, trying to get her awake enough to stand on her own, but she only groaned. He sighed again, pulling her into his arms and lifting her body. “Bitch, if you puke on this suit…” he murmured. Sadly, this was not uncommon in his dealings with Scarlett.
Carrying her through a maze of wine bottles, he finally made it to the bathroom. Setting her down in the large porcelain tub, he turned the shower on, letting the cool water rain down on her, uncaring that she was still fully clothed. When she got like this it was the only thing that would work. With a heavy sigh he sat down beside the tub. He could only hope that the cold water from the shower would bring her around and he wouldn’t have to resort to the emergency room. Scarlett Munro was an up and coming artist—the last thing he needed right now was her unconscious face slapped on newsprint.
A cough and sputter broke David’s reverie and he sat up to see Scarlett shaking the water droplets from her hair and face. “What the fuck, David?” she growled.
“Well look who’s awake?” he replied, pulling a towel from the rack behind his head. “I thought I was going to have to call an ambulance this time.”
“You should have just let me be,” she replied, wiping the rough terrycloth across her face. “I’d have woken up eventually.”
“Jimi Hendrix said that too, I think,” David mused, putting a hand on her arm to pull her forward a bit. “Come on. Let’s get you out of these clothes and wash you off a little bit. You look like hell.” Scarlett stared at him, her eyes still bleary with the after-effects of her latest bender. He pulled his suit jacket from around his shoulders and threw it over the toilet. “Don’t look at me like that. It’s ok. I’m gay,” he said as he rolled up his sleeves. After a few moments, she allowed him to help her out of the soaked tee-shirt and jeans.
David knelt by the tub, using a washcloth to rinse warm water over her body, washing it clean of what was at least a few days’ worth of stink. Scarlett was silent, letting her friend cleanse her as the effects of the alcohol and pills slipped from her brain, leaving only a dull ache behind. “How long was I out?”
“No idea, darling. But I’ve been trying to reach you for three days.” Leaning over her, he pulled the shower nozzle down and began running warm water over her hair. “When your voicemail box was full, I decided I’d better come check on you.” He nudged her shoulder, pushing her forward and scrubbing her shoulders and neck with the loofah. “So when were you planning on stopping this?”
“Stopping what?” Scarlett asked. Her voice sounded tired and disinterested.
“Doing this to yourself. I mean, I get the whole ‘I must suffer for my art,’ bullshit, but honey this is a bit extreme. Even for you. One of these days you aren’t going to wake up from this.”
“That’s the idea,” she replied, picking up the shampoo and squirting a pile into the palm of her hand. “Maybe I’m just wanting to see how far I can go.”
“Don’t talk like that,” David said, picking up her hand and holding it in his. He tried to smile, but he caught sight of something strange. Thin streaks of red snaked over the top of her thigh. Some of the scars were fresher than others and some were quite deep. When Scarlett noticed him looking, she pulled away, trying to hide. “What happened?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about…” she started, but he dropped her arm and gripped her knee, holding it in place as he examined the thin cuts.
“The hell you don’t,” he said angrily. “You’ve been cutting yourself too, huh? Is this something new in your repertoire of self-destruction or is this just the first time I’ve seen it?”
“Look, David… you’re my agent. I don’t see why you even care,” she sighed, pulling away and standing up. “It’s my body. I’ll do whatever I damn well want.” As she stepped over the side of the tub, she stumbled, nearly falling to the tile floor before David caught her.
“I’m also your friend, Scarlett. I hate seeing you like this.”
“I hate being like this.” She looked up at him, her eyes glistening with tears. “You think I like feeling this way?” Suddenly her façade of stoic indifference melted and the tears tumbled over her cheeks. David embraced her tightly, letting her cry against his shoulder. She had cried many times. It seemed to be a symptom of her addiction, but never had she felt so cold.
“Alright, sweetie,” he said, pulling a towel down off of the rack and wrapping it around her. David walked her clumsily into the next room, sitting down beside her on the bed and holding her tightly against him as her sobs came in shaking heaves. He rocked her back and forth, letting her tears wet the light cotton of his shirt.
“Scarlett, maybe it’s time that you go and see that doctor I found…”
“No,” she barked, sitting up quickly and backing away, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. “They can’t help me. Nothing will help me.” He stared down at her silently, his heart feeling heavy and sore. Scarlett obviously believed that she was just a damaged person and that nothing would ever make her right again. Her art, which had always seemed to work as some kind of salve for her mind, had become dark, reflecting the storm of unstable emotions going on in her head. He just didn’t know what to say to her anymore.
David had been Scarlett’s friend when she was still scribbling graffiti on the sides of buildings. It was rare that she ever opened up about her childhood traumas. A few details here and there about a drunken mother and a handsy stepfather were as far as she ever went. He’d always been able to talk her down from the ledge but these days it was getting harder and harder. Worse yet, lately her behavior had become erratic. At first he’d just assumed that she was high, and being an art agent, he was used to dealing with cokeheads, meth-addicts and junkies, but this was very different. Her actions were self-destructive and near-suicidal. As if she were just waiting for someone to show up and save her.
After a few moments, she spoke again. “Did I ever tell you about the angel in my paintings?”
“I saw him when I was twenty-one. I overdosed on morphine and heroin at a party…”
“What the hell kinds of parties did you go to?” David asked, the corner of his mouth quirking in a sarcastic grin.
Scarlett chuckled. “The kind where twenty-one year old girls are hopped up on drugs and date raped in the corner.”
“Anyway. I guess I was looking for an escape. Maybe I wanted to die. Whatever it was, I had been drinking wine laced with morphine or something and then some guy gave me a syringe full of heroin.” Scarlett pulled the towel tight around her body as she lay down across the bed. “It was first and last time I ever shot up. Have you ever done it, David?”
She smiled. “At first it feels so good. Like you’ll never be sad or hurt again. God, I remember that feeling. I was floating, a spirit looking down on my physical body. I didn’t want to go back, I just wanted to stay there. Floating high above and watching. The world was just this beautiful thing, all colors and wonder and light. And then I saw him. This form appeared, shadow and smoke in front of me. At first I thought it was just a hallucination or a dream. There was a man kind of just… floating in the air above me. At least, I thought he was a man. He had these wings… God I know it sounds crazy, but he had these wings that just furled out behind him, kind of ghost-like. He was all dressed in black, even his blonde hair seemed completely devoid of color, but his eyes. His eyes had this silvery light. I thought he probably just knew everything about me in that split second that our eyes met. And I felt so sad that he was seeing me this way, this broken little girl, and I wanted to cry and beg his forgiveness. But he looked at me and sort of smiled and I knew then he was an angel.”
Her eyes looked past him, her voice trailing off, over David’s head, and away to something unseen. “So what happened?” he asked.
“He kissed me. And then he was gone. Next thing I remember I was waking up in a hospital bed. My mom was standing over me crying. I didn’t even care, I just kept looking for the angel. Praying he hadn’t been a dream. Of course, he wasn’t, but I kept waiting. Peeking around corners, staring at the ceiling at night. I thought that maybe after seeing what I’d done, he’d just decided not to bother. So I tried to make up for it. I thought that maybe if I was a better person that the angel would come back. He’d save me this time. I quit using, I actually went to school, I tried to play the part of the perfect daughter. Hell, my pervert of a stepdad even left us. And for a while everything was better and I just knew my prayers had been answered. But my mother went back to the bottle. My stepfather came back and was the worst he’d ever been. So then I thought, maybe if I was bad, really bad and put myself in situations like before, that he’d come back. I mean, that’s how he came before, right?” She paused and pulled the blanket over her shoulder, snuggling against the pillow sleepily. “But he never did.”
“Scarlett… I think you need some help.”
“No doctors, David. Please…”
“We’ll find somebody that can help you, I promise. You can’t just keep this up…”
“A doctor will just give me pills. Make me numb. Maybe I’d lose him.”
“Maybe you need to,” David sighed, standing up with an exasperated sigh. “If you’ve got a guardian angel that’s standing by and watching you kill yourself with drugs, booze and cutting, then he’s not a very good one.” Scarlett rolled over, turning her back on David and the conversation.
Spying her cell phone sitting on the nightstand, he grabbed it and programmed an alarm. “Look, I’m setting your alarm to wake you up in a few hours. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for the last three days to tell you that I’ve found a rather unusual patron. Assuming my continued procrastination at setting up a meeting hasn’t scared him away.”
Scarlett sat up and stared at David, her stringy wet hair going in all directions. “A patron?”
“Yes. You remember what that is. Someone who pays you to create a specific work of art.”
“I know what it is, dumbass. Who is it?”
“Raze Constantine.” He raised his eyebrow, waiting for her reaction.
“You’re kidding,” she said, her mouth hanging agape. “The billionaire, Raze Constantine?”
“Well I haven’t seen his bank statement, but I’m going to assume yes. No one else would have a name like that…”
Scarlett leaped out of bed, nearly losing her towel in a comic fashion. “Raze Constantine is probably the richest guy in Europe, nay the entire world! What in hell does he want with me?”
“I would think he wants you to do some kind of painting for him. All I know is that he tracked me down and called me personally to find you. His exact words were, ‘Miss Munro or no one’.” David went into his breast pocket and pulled out a plane ticket. “He also sent this for you.” Scarlett jerked it out of his hand and examined it carefully. David braced himself for the exclamation that was surely coming.
“David! This ticket is for this afternoon!”
“I said I’d been trying to reach you for days…”
“I can’t possibly go to…” She paused, looking for the destination on the ticket. “Does this say London? As in London, England? Like… in Europe?”
“That’s the one.” David wandered over to the closet and began pulling things out. He pulled out a dark sweater and threw it aside, wrinkling his nose. “Everything in your closet is so dark. You need some color.”
“Thanks, Mom,” she replied with just enough sarcasm to elicit an exaggerated sigh. “I can’t go to Europe this afternoon.”
“Why not? It’s not as if you have some pressing engagement. You’re an artist for God’s sake.” He pulled a suitcase out of her closet and began tossing things into it carelessly.
“Well… I’m…” She stammered. “I just don’t think I’m up for this, David.” He turned to see her reach for a small pill bottle on her nightstand. “And I’m in the middle of a project right now. You know I don’t like to stop in the middle of a painting.”
With a lunge, he knocked the bottle from her hand, scattering tiny white pills over the hardwood floor beneath her bed. “You don’t like to stop when you’re in the middle of a bender,” David snapped. “I’m your friend, Scarlett, but I’m also your agent. And if you keep going on like this you won’t sell anymore paintings…”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that if you don’t get your ass on that plane this afternoon and leave all this…” He indicated the mess in which they currently stood. “I just can’t represent you anymore, Scarlett. It’s too much of a risk.”
Scarlett sighed. “Look, David… if this is some kind of tough love thing…”
“I can assure you that I’m quite serious, love.” He picked up the wastebasket in the corner of the room and swept the amateur pharmacy off of her nightstand into it. She followed him around the apartment, watching him pitch pill boxes, wine and liquor bottles into the trash.
“You win, David. You always win.” Scarlett sighed, leaning heavily against the wall.
“I know. By my watch you have about four hours to get packed and to the airport. Do something with your hair. You look like hell. Oh…” He reached into his pocket again and found a slip of paper with the address of a hotel in London. “I’ve already made your reservation and paid in advance. Just go in and tell them your name.”
“You aren’t going with me?” Her eyes widened and for a moment Scarlett looked utterly terrified.
“I’m afraid I can’t go on such short notice. I do have other clients.” He bent down and continued picking up trash, holding it carefully between two fingertips as if it were a disgusting bug. “I don’t have time to go running off to London playing nursemaid to you.”
“You’re such a pain in my ass.”
David looked at her with a comic twist of his lip. “It’s my lot in life. I’ll be back in a few hours to take you to the airport,” he said, making his way to the door with his load of garbage.