As Europe’s largest crime writing event celebrates its milestone tenth festival this July, Writing Magazine and Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, Harrogate teamed up to challenge budding writers to write a Crime short story (max 1,800 words) with the theme ‘Ten’.
The shortlist was read and judged by bestselling and internationally renowned crime writer Mark Billingham, the 2012 Festival Programming Chair, who picked the overall winner. Congratulations to Paula Readman, whose short story ‘Roofscapes’ scooped the prize of a luxury weekend for two to this year’s Festival. You can now read the short story in full here…
I stand with my ice-blue toes hooked over the edge of a stone plinth. Once the recess had housed a stone-faced angel, but now it accommodates my icy, senseless body as I stare unblinking across the inattentive city.
Ten, the word flutters before me. It hangs on the billboard, torn and tattered by wind and rain. Once there were nine, but now the advertisement tells me there’s one more.
Ten days ago, my friend, Jude, and I worked as a pair of picture hangers for a fashionable art gallery. To some, I was the quiet one of the two of us with my dark hair, broody eyes, and sharp tongue, where Jude was the opposite with her bubbly personality, a body to die for, and fiery red hair.
Ten nights ago, I felt alive; my mind clear and in focus. We were dressed like a pair of hookers; our job was to welcome all the influential aesthetes in the contemporary art world to a swanky exhibition to launch the trendy new artist, James Ravencoft. By the end of the evening, while the connoisseurs raised a glass to toast his achievement, Jude and I were having our own celebrations.
Turning from the mirror, after reapplying her make-up, Jude said, “I’m glad Ravencoft’s creepy exhibition is finished, and it’s the last we’ll see of him. Let’s go somewhere else and party until dawn.”
Shattered by the stress of the evening, I declined. Left to lock up, as Jude and the rest of our colleagues headed off to another shindy, my thoughts turned to the dreadful paintings we’d just sold. Early the next morning, we’d be busy parcelling them up ready to go to their new owners. With aching feet, I hurried along the empty streets with its smells of traffic fumes and takeaways, to the bus stop.
As my bus came into view, my mind filled with the images of the paintings as the darkness closed in on me. I shuddered at the touch of invisible fingertips, which crawled across the skin on the back of my bare neck and shoulders. Next thing, I remembered I’d become part of the unknown city.
It’s weird how everything makes sense afterwards, how clear-cut it becomes, but first I must explain.
I thought Ravencoft’s work was a little odd, though Jude loved it. Not that we could describe ourselves as art critics, but we always enjoyed sharing our thoughts with each other about the work we were hanging ready for the gallery’s next exhibition.
There’s an art to showing art, an exact science. Every work of art must be seen in its best light, reach its full potential. Unknown to the viewers, they are guided around the exhibition to view each piece as a single entity.
The nine paintings, ‘Roofscapes’ a title the artist had given them, arrived in our gallery ten days ago. In my mind, they were funereal; each was a black bile of a city landscape seldom seen by the public. As we hung each of the nine pictures, I tried to get inside the artist’s mind.
“They’re wonderful,” Jude said as we lifted each of the paintings into their position.
Yes, there was a kind of beauty to them, a skill in the artist’s brushwork as he revealed a secret panorama above the streets, but I found the subject matter a little unnerving.
“Why only nine?” I said. “It makes no sense at all, and it makes the exhibition uneven.”
“You and your sense of balance.” Jude scoffed.
“That’s what life’s all about; night is to day as happiness is to sadness. Like two sides to the same coin. Like good and evil.”
“Rubbish!” The voice came from nowhere.
I jumped, almost dropping the end of the picture I was holding.
“Hey, be careful with that!” Ravencoft snarled, stepped forward and with a single sweep of his hand, the picture found its place and hung dead straight.
His dark eyes shone with eerie hilarity, “Aesthetics, my dear child, art for art’s sake.”
“I see no beauty in them,” I said.
Jude’s eyelashes fluttered at him as she sung praises for his work, but he chose to ignore her and turned his full attention on me.
“Tell me…” He growled, narrowing his eyes, “What is it you see then?”
“Me?” I felt sick as his words bored into me. I shook my head not wishing to share my thoughts with the pompous, overbearing artist.
“I see a darkly delicious city alive in the crowded street below.” Jude said, romantically.
The artist turned on her, his smile too sweet, too nauseating. “I wasn’t asking you my dear.”
“She doesn’t like your work.” Jude giggled.
I glared at her. How could she sell me out for her infatuation? Many a time, I’ve stood by her, even lied for her. Ever since, he’d walked in here with these godless pictures, she’d swooned over him, with his dark, stormy-blue eyes, tight black jeans, and hedonistic temperament. I smiled weakly.
Ravencoft tossed his black mane of hair as his eyes narrowed with disdain. “So tell me, what it is you don’t like about my work?”
I sighed heavily. I owed him no explanation; I was there to do a job, not pander to the likes of him. Turning towards the painting he’d just hung I studied it for a moment. A lone figure stood among the saintly statues and gargoyles on the side of a church or some other Victorian monstrosity in a vast, bleak landscape. A chill ran down my back. There was something deeply wrong with the picture. Painted in shades of greys, dull greens, blues, and inky blacks a woman stood semi-naked on a stone plinth.
I leaned in and took a closer look. Around her neck, what I thought was a necklace, was a halter-strap of a restraining bodysuit. It emphasized the shape of her breasts and gave the painting an air of eroticism. I bit my tongue; it puzzled me that he’d painted such a garment on her. I found the whole thing amateurish; surely, an artist of his reputation wouldn’t have made such a blatant mistake as to illustrate the restraint that had held his model in situ. I reasoned with myself that the painting was undoubtedly from his imagination. Nevertheless, subconsciously I wondered if he’d done it deliberately. He’d worked from what… still life? I pondered.
He stepped a little closer to me and I became aware of his breath on my neck. I shuddered as uneasiness ran through me. Not allowing myself to be intimidated by him, I continued to study the picture as I tried to make sense of what the painting was telling me.
The only bright colour in the gloomy landscape came from the small ribbons of blood that trickled down the woman’s forehead and over her cheeks caused by four small metal bird-claw shaped clips, which held her eyelids open. Her arms forced uncomfortably behind her causing her to lean slightly forward like some figurehead on a ship. The only clue to the woman’s past was the blood on her face as the elements had plastered the woman’s hair to her head as though it was a skullcap.
Glancing over my shoulder, I studied the artist’s features. His dark sunken eyes and pale complexion told me he’d spent many hours labouring late into the night. He smiled sardonically at me as though he read my mind. I moved to the next picture. Like the first, it depicted an isolated figure of a woman posed in the same position, high up on a building, but she stared out across an alternative roofscape. I leant closer and studied the painting before moving on to the next. By the time, I’d finished examining the other seven paintings; I felt an icy hand closing around my heart. All the pictures depicted different women in a similar sort of setting. I held my breath and let it out slowly. What was it about the women that puzzled me so? There was something so familiar, but strange and compelling about them, an illusion to the paintings as though these stone-carved women were still living, breathing, and were out there somewhere waiting.
As I straightened, his voice seemed to fill my mind, “What do you see, Tina?”
Breaking the tension, Jude giggled, “She’s changed her mind about your paintings.” “Go on, Tina tell him.”
“Are they painted from real life?” I asked holding my breath; somehow, I knew he knew what I was thinking.
He smiled too sweetly again.
“The roofscapes? Yes.” His eyes sparkled as his lips curled at the corners.
I looked back at the picture he’d just helped us hang; the last of the nine. I nodded in its direction, “So that’s painted from your roof top?”
He laughed, “I paint what I see.”
Jude threw him a puzzled look, aware that something was awry. Chewing on her bottom lip, she studied the picture. After a moment, she glanced across at me. I nodded slightly and I knew she understood. Grasping my meaning, Jude flashed Ravencoft a bright smile, “Well, we must get on otherwise there won’t be a show tomorrow night.”
Turning dismissively, the artist left us to it.
Visibly shaken Jude clung to me, “Tina, are they the ones reported missing in the newspapers?” She glanced towards the canvas panels, which stared back at us with unseeing eyes.
For a moment, we stared silently at the bloodstained, weeping angels. Slowly, I shook my head in an effort to free my mind then I picked up our clipboard and studied the details for our next exhibition.
Nervously, Jude hugged herself, “We’re just being silly, aren’t we?”
I nodded, “You’re right, let’s forget about them. They’re nothing more than an artist’s imagination, after tomorrow, we’ll only have beautiful, rural landscapes to concern ourselves with.”
It happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to scream. As the bus came into view, Ravencoft stepped out of the darkness into the pool of light before me. The next moment a pain ripped through my neck and I felt a cold numbness descend on me, which was unlike the chill of the night.
I’m his number ten; the silent, ever watchful face of the city, seeing all, but seeing nothing.
In another art gallery, the connoisseurs gathered like laughing hyenas around the growing collection of stony-faced angels. With morbid fascination, they philosophised about the artist’s inspirational theme, his fine brushstrokes, and the significance of the desolation of the roofscapes, but no one questions the dark beauty of his paintings, but me.
Dotted across the inattentive city, hidden among the saintly statues and gargoyles, high above the streets, ten death-kissed, cold-faced angels stare unblinking waiting for their salvation.