Artist Rick Stanton needs a commission. He faces eviction from his apartment and his latest project is on hiatus. Worse, his muse refuses to cooperate. A recent letter may contain the inspiration he needs. Inside is the photograph of a mysterious woman, her face hidden by an umbrella. But there’s no identification, no way for him to contact her. A month later, another envelope arrives, this time with a phone number. Realizing this may be his last chance, Rick calls her. The woman introduces herself as Elizabeth and tells him she wants him to paint her portrait.
Rick agrees, only to learn there are conditions. Elizabeth is a recluse who lives with her two servants in a Victorian manor. She never allows her face to be seen. Not only must he stay at Elizabeth’s residence while painting her, he can’t leave, nor can he ever tell anyone about the portrait.
Sensing something isn’t right, Rick is even more disturbed by the sinister undercurrent beneath the household’s genteel façade. It’s somehow connected to the family portraits hanging in Elizabeth’s living room. Could they be haunted? And why doesn’t Elizabeth’s housekeeper want Rick to finish the painting?
The housekeeper waited for me in the corridor. “The mistress requests your presence.” She pressed her hand against a panel and a heretofore-unseen door swung outward to reveal a narrow, dark stairwell. I’d no idea if this hidden room was a common feature of Victorian houses, but given Elizabeth’s mysterious photograph, a secret room seemed to fit.
“Through here, sir, and up those steps. The mistress is in the room at the top.”
Hand pressed against the door, I looked up the narrow stairwell. Once the door closed, I’d be in total darkness. I swallowed, apprehension tracing the back of my neck with icy fingers. Not that I was claustrophobic, but the thought of being surrounded by such gloom unnerved me. I turned to the housekeeper. “Don’t suppose you have a light?”
“You’ll be fine.”
What then? I wanted to ask, but the door had already started to swing shut. I made a grab for it. Too late.
I fumbled for an opening, some notch for my fingers to grasp—a knob, latch, anything. Nothing. Not even a light switch.
Inside the passage, the musty odor of old wood and stale air assailed my nostrils. Tattered cobwebs brushed against the top of my head. Had this stairwell ever been aired out? Probably not. I guided my hand along the wall as I edged my toe forward until I touched a riser. I stepped up and repeated the process, counting twenty steps until my hands pressed against what felt like wood. I pushed and whatever was in front of me scraped open.
I recognized Elizabeth’s voice, but her head and face were concealed by a hooded cape.
She stepped past me to close the door. I looked back and bile rose in my throat. Grotesque demons, carved in the wood, glared and leered at me in various stages of agony and bestial ecstasy. What the hell had I gotten myself into?