Victor remained still for several minutes, though his mind was racing. The closest door was along the wall to his left, just a few metres away. He could make it out in a flash, provided it was unlocked. As he pried himself delicately from the fireplace he knocked a log loose and it rolled and clunked onto the floor. His eyes darted to the painting, but it remained as free from paranormal activity as a good painting should. Victor readied to make his getaway when he noticed letters scratched into the underside of the mantel. Etched roughly into the stone were the words: STAY OUT OF THE MIRROR. He checked the painting again, took a deep breath and then crawled out alongside the wall. The door opened without trouble and in a second he was on the other side.
Victor sat with his back against the door for a moment, barely breathing, listening for approaching footsteps from the room behind him. None came.
He was now in a long, spacious hall, the kind he expected to see if he ever stayed in a five-star hotel. Charming, shaded lights illuminated the passage, which extended a short way to his left and far to his right. To his left, opposite, was a single open door; Victor stood and approached it with caution. The room was inside was dim, but he could see enough. It was a vast ballroom, which would have been fit for royalty in its day, but its day had passed. Unlike the pristine room he had just escaped, and even the hall in which he stood, the ballroom wore the effects of long abandonment. The floor lay beneath a shallow sea of dust, while cobwebs had conquered the ceiling high above, even annexing the disused chandelier. To the left, disintegrating curtains cascaded either side of the six majestic windows along the wall. Each window was as tall and a third as wide as a movie screen, and revealed nothing but darkness. The room held the musk of decay, a remnant of elegance, and, thanks to the windows, hope of freedom.
Victor entered and conducted a quick scan. At the far end of the room stood a long table upon which three bright candles shone. The candlesticks were tall and looked hefty—fine instruments for smashing a pane of glass. Victor marched toward them but then abruptly halted. Above the table hung an oversized painting of a woman in a white dress, standing in a garden. In the candles’ glow Victor saw her face: slender, with lily white skin and thin, red lips; her eyes, though distant and sad, stared right at him. Without removing his eyes from the portrait, he backed steadily out of the room and closed the door. He stood there with a shaking grip on the door knob, his heart beating as though trying to punch its way out of his chest. “Screw that,” he said, his voice trembling. “I’ve had enough of paintings for one day.”
He looked up the hall and saw doorways either side, maybe a dozen in all. Some of the doors were open. Victor trod lightly over the floorboards as he made his way to the nearest open door. Inside was a hobby room. From the doorway he saw a train set on the floor, a small table with a completed jigsaw puzzle—at least a thousand pieces, board games, a chess set, and some sketch pads and pencils. Victor paid these little attention as he was more concerned with the possible presence of any more paintings. Once satisfied there were none, he went inside. The room, like the ballroom, was dusty and decrepit, but unlike the ballroom it showed signs of use. Beside the sketch pads there was a rusted, empty can with a faded label. Victor flicked through the pads and saw still life drawings (mostly of a bowl of Brussels sprouts), cartoons, a deteriorating series of portraits of a bearded man, and some discarded attempts at pornography. As art portfolios go, it was one of the less impressive. The train set didn’t work, and Victor recognised none of the board games. He sat at the table with the jigsaw puzzle and marvelled at its image: a snowy landscape, almost entirely white. “Good grief,” he said, “that would drive you crazy. It must have taken months.” His foot knocked something under the table. He looked and saw it was a shoe: an old Reebok Pump.
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