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Dark Reign
Author: Amelia Wilde

 


Chapter One

 


Emerson


Early winter. Late in the day. A good time for the light. In winter the golden hour lasts longer. Makes for better photographs, if you care about that sort of thing. I’ve never been interested in photos. Not enough tactile interpretation between artist and subject. A click of a shutter, some adjustments in Photoshop—I can hardly find anything evocative in that.

The subjects, however. Anything can be the subject of a photograph, or a painting. Take this city block, for instance. Anyone who is paying attention will notice angles of warm light reaching the sidewalk from the upcoming alley. The soft-stroke cool of deepening shadow. Chill came early this year, but not snow. Brittle leaves cling to patches of concrete. The sun picks and chooses from the dead husks, giving the lucky ones a sheen. Wispy clouds draw the sky closer to the building, the bottoms burnished gold by the sun. Straight-backed skyscrapers interrupt the curves in the distance.

I’m not concerned with that distance. How far the street stretches until it reaches the middle of Manhattan, where those buildings hold back more of the sky. The distance that concerns me now is the number of blocks to my destination.

Six blocks.

Light lingers on a spray of shattered glass in the road. On the other side of the street, a pair of teenagers in puffy coats with the pretentious navy of school uniform slacks underneath point at the breakage. Mild traffic inches around the shards. A dull yellow cab trundles past the opening of the alley. Its color is brought to life for a breath. Then—back into shadow. If this were a painting, this would be the moment to capture. Everything in this little scene is on its way from dark to dark. Ashes to ashes, and all that. But it all spends a singular moment in a slash of sun.

A woman steps out of the alley.

The moment she enters the scene, my perspective shifts. No more teenagers. No more broken bottles. All those unnecessary details distract from the new focus. All discarded in an instant.

She is the subject now, the city street a backdrop for her.

Gold light in black hair. A fine wool coat, nipped at her waist. Her curls lie defined against the dove gray of the wool. Quick steps suggest she knows where she is going. A leather bag bounces against her hip, but she doesn’t clutch at it.

She’s not afraid.

She could be pretending, I suppose. Pretending that there’s no threat to her out here in the street, and in the world. She could be intentionally projecting that she is at ease. Which is it? The way she moves doesn’t look like pretending. The purpose of her movement is real, at least. The black-haired woman isn’t timid about her steps. She doesn’t check her phone for directions. No distractions.

The woman steps out of the light.

I wait for her to recede into the background, now that she’s out of all that warmth. All that gold. In shadow, her coat is more heather than dove, but her hair remains the same deep black. In shadow, she is like the sliver of light around a closed door. In a dark room, it’s all you can see.

I can’t take my eyes off her.

Perhaps it’s a conscious decision to follow her. Perhaps not. Either way, I want to know where she’s going. I cross the alley. She moves gracefully down the next block. I don’t speed up to catch her. A bad idea, when it comes to women on the street. Any change in pace puts them on alert. This woman’s petite size works to my advantage. My strides are much longer. No need to hurry.

She checks the traffic at the next intersection despite the white glow of the walk signal. Someone’s taught her to be careful. Look both ways. Don’t put all your trust in the signals. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t have her phone in her hand. Though—nothing else in her hands either. No keys in her knuckles. No clenched fists, from what I can see.

The woman steps out, staying in the center of the crosswalk, and reaches the opposite curb.

I have one foot off the sidewalk when a white delivery truck—fading red letters painted on the side in old-fashioned stencil, a rattling muffler—blocks my way.

I can’t see her.

The red hand of the walk signal warns me back. Stop. Stop. Stop. Well, I’ve fucking stopped. What more does it want? I brace for an empty sidewalk. No sign of the woman. Gone, as quickly as she appeared.

With a metallic groan the delivery truck lurches forward.

There—she’s still there. Moving down the sidewalk in that way of hers. Almost buoyant, as if the wide street and the towering sky don’t bother her.

The signal stops traffic so I can cross. She ducks into an alleyway.

I do not hurry. Measured steps to the alley. The woman is not there. A rusting dumpster huddles against the wall, its edges limned in the golden hour. No petite silhouette. An abandoned chair casts its shadow back at me. Back toward the door. Three-quarters of the way toward the dumpster. Impossible to tell the color in this light. Dark blue, maybe, or slate. There are no other doors on this side of the alley.

Out on the sidewalk, I survey the building. Two stories. Worn brick. Two narrow windows up top, next to a wider bay window. Picture windows below. A sign reads Motif Gallery.

I know this place. Rough around the edges. Sells pedestrian art that I don’t bother to look at. I attended a showing for a sculptor here ten years ago, before I’d settled on paintings. It’s seen better days.

Under no circumstance should I enter this gallery. I’ve left enough time to walk the requisite fifteen blocks and arrive on time to a private showing in a nearby penthouse. I prefer private showings. Demand private showings. I don’t show up at galleries like this one.

My phone vibrates in my pocket. I feel caught out by it, resentful of the fucking thing.

Of course it’s my older brother’s name on the screen. A prickling cold swerves through my gut and I shove it away. Hit reject. Sinclair can talk to me another time.

I go into the gallery like the phone call was a rude interruption to a fully formed plan. White walls in need of repainting. A creaking blond wood floor. Art that isn’t worth the canvas displayed proudly underneath unfilled holes in the drywall. A man behind the counter is absorbed in writing something in a ledger. Probably something extremely fucking artsy, judging by the beret and the black turtleneck. He looks from the screen of his phone to the ledger and back again. Squints. I could ask about her, but I don’t want to alarm him. A woman with black hair in a gray coat. I saw her for fifteen seconds and I want her.

No, I don’t. Curiosity. That’s all this is.

I circle around to the other side of the gallery, the other wall.

The painting stops me halfway down, like the shaft of light from the alley. The sidewalk outside, the remaining blocks, and the private showing recede into the background. Details blurred. Irrelevant.

It’s a study of an ocean. A subject I’ve seen thousands of times before—millions—but this one is different. This one makes my heart beat faster. In general, paintings don’t do that. A particularly evocative piece will sometimes inspire a distant ache behind my breastbone, a signal that a piece will become or already is quite valuable. This is more. This is closer.

This is all sensation. Spray on my face. Salt on my tongue. Unsteady drifts of sand beneath my feet.

And a dark energy, coiled in the painting. Reaching out for me.

I want to reach back.

I cannot push it away.

I clear my throat until the man in his ridiculous beret approaches. “One of our best pieces.”

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