Victor went and sat in one of the armchairs. He stretched out his legs and loosened his tie. He took his phone from his hip pocket: if he couldn’t open the front door from the inside, then maybe someone could come and open it from the outside. Trying the number for his motel, he heard a hoarse voice whisper, “Hold the line.” Victor held the line for eighteen minutes, enduring a worn recording of “Little Brown Jug” on loop. He hung up and tried calling his brother, but instead of Neil’s happy baritone the hoarse voice answered again, and again it instructed Victor to hold the line. This time he ended the call after just two minutes of “Little Brown Jug”. The contact list in Victor’s phone was comprised of one hundred and twenty-three phone numbers, and he dialled every one. One hundred and twenty-three times he was told to hold the line; one hundred and twenty-three times he heard the crackly swing music. In frustration he rang a mobile mechanic service, the number for which an advertising jingle had long ago seared into his memory. The response was the same as every previous call. The police emergency number failed, emails refused to send, and when he attempted to post an SOS on social media, he was redirected to the Wikipedia page for Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. Victor slid the phone back into his pocket. He leaned forward and rubbed his temples.
After a few minutes contemplating his isolation, Victor sighed and stood up. From amid the dark, timber and stone expanses, the white marble of the fireplace grabbed his eye. It was a bright pocket in a rather sombre room, and he went over for a closer look. He slid his fingers across the cold, stone mantelpiece and admired the sweeping reflection of the looking glass. When he studied the reflection closer a chill shot up his spine. He spun around and scrambled in retreat until his back was hard up against the wall by the fireplace. Victor stared at the painting of the officer. He was certain that when he entered the room the painting had shown the officer standing in profile, but now he stood front-on, staring ahead with a wicked grin. Victor remained perfectly still—but for the pronounced rise and fall of his chest—for minutes, watching the painting. Eventually his breathing calmed, and the officer’s grin seemed to him more benign. Victor stepped out from the wall; he took note of the light glistening on certain contours of the paint and he exhaled with relief. He returned to the fireplace, checked the reflection of the painting and laughed to himself.
The fireplace was immaculate, untouched it seemed; even the logs were fresh, ready for a fire. Victor stepped back across the bearskin rug and marvelled at the gleam of the fur. He was not so taken with the dead bear’s head, which, credit to the taxidermist, retained the unsettling appearance of life. Victor suddenly felt cramped, as though the air was tightening around him. He looked up and saw in the mirror a black figure approaching behind; he turned instantly. The approaching figure was that of a man, but the swirl of shadows on its skin distorted its visage. It advanced slowly, with almost a glide, so that each step it took covered the distance of three or four steps. As it neared, the darkness enveloping it receded, and Victor recognised it as the officer from the painting. The officer fixed his cold, piercing eyes on Victor and sneered. From beneath the grey shrubbery of his moustache two fangs extended down over his bottom lip. As he drew close to Victor his eyes widened and became entirely white. He opened his mouth, baring his fangs and letting escape the first tremors of a hideous shriek. Victor stumbled backwards over the bear’s head; he fell onto the rug and scurried back like a crab. He crawled right into the fireplace and huddled as much of himself inside it as he could. The officer stopped, his face returned to a more human-like state, and he looked around as if disoriented. Victor trembled in the fireplace. The officer turned and glided toward the back wall, where, Victor noticed, the painting was now just a blank canvas. Victor eased himself out enough to witness the officer return to the canvas and step inside it. The painting swirled with darkness, which gradually became lighter and separated into distinct colours, before finally settling to recreate the original portrait, with the officer standing in profile.
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