01 Feb We Couldn’t Understand why All His Paintings were Blood-Red
The gala had been well attended thanks to the efforts of his long-time friend, Joseph. He considered Joseph only a bit pretentious and when he had so generously offered William the use of his art gallery on Julia Street as the venue for his much anticipated re-entry into the New Orleans art scene, William gratefully, if not graciously, accepted.
Joseph had, indeed, been a good friend, more like a brother, but William had the distinct feeling that this would be the last time his friend would bail him out, the last time Joseph would take it upon himself to promote his work unless it was well received and, of course, financially lucrative. At one time, not that long ago, a new show by William Bacchus would have been crowded with eager buyers. Joseph would have seen a hefty commission from the sale of his friend’s works and William would have experienced a substantial increase in income as well as an inflated ego. One thing that William had never lacked was a healthy ego – that was, up until the evening of his new show at the gallery on Julia Street.
It was a cool spring evening and the three-room venue was crowded with throngs of New Orleans’ “patrons of the arts”. The energy in the gallery was palpable, heavy with anticipation and expectation. Would-be buyers, wine glass in hand, stared intently at each painting and then moved on to another. The excitement began to chill. One could perceive the disappointment of the crowd although the fake smiles did not betray their dismay – their dashed hopes of finding a new Bacchus painting for the wall of their uptown dining room.
The atmosphere in the gallery became almost embarrassing and the smiling women, clutching the arms of their much older husbands, made their way to the doors and disappeared into the New Orleans night, no doubt to lament the fall of yet another promising artist. The gallery emptied. The walls echoed with sudden silence, the unsold paintings screaming the disastrous failure of the evening. Not one painting had sold. Not one.
William had overheard the chatter.
“Flat.” The older lady with thick, caked make-up and artificial breasts had lamented.
“So one-dimensional,” another had quipped.
“What a shame,” the handsome gay man sighed.
William was one of the many who had departed the show early, trying not to be noticed as he slinked out the double glass doors onto Julia Street. He headed for the nearest bar. He had forty dollars in his wallet. That should be enough for two or three drinks in the trendy warehouse district of New Orleans.
He sat, shoulders hunched, at the end of the bar, nursing a Bloody Mary garnished with a ridiculous amount of vegetables. He recognized with his usual sardonic wit that the damn vegetables took up valuable space in the tall glass – space that could have been used for a little extra vodka. The tomato juice was a weak, ugly red, and the liberal dose of Worcester sauce served only to transform the red into rust – another waste of space that would be better used for a bit of vodka.
“What the fuck,” he thought, and ordered a double shot of Stoli – passe yes, but it would likely do the trick and without the damn superfluous blood-red tomato juice and obscene green bean garnishes. He shoved the tall glass across the bar with a little too much emphasis and the remaining rusty-red liquid spilled onto the bar, splashing onto the immaculate white sleeve of his best, and only, dress shirt.
“Oh fuck me!”, he thought as he eyed the red stain on his sleeve. And then it came to him. So quickly. So easily. So obscenely. William knew exactly what he should do. He straightened his shoulders, drank the double vodka and honed his plan.
He smiled at the hooker who sat, legs crossed, on one of the high-back, leather chairs at the bar. She was obviously out of her league, uncomfortable in the pretentious bar. Her skirt was too short and her fake fingernails too long. She was thin, possibly from some type of drug use, but that was not a problem, he thought. He would wear surgical gloves if need be. He sized her up. She would do, he thought. She would do nicely. William chatted up the hooker with charm he didn’t know still possessed. Soon, they were headed toward his French Quarter apartment and he held her arm lightly as a gentleman would do.
Angel couldn’t believe her luck. She had not really thought she would find a John in the fancy bar on Julia Street but she was desperate and would have tried just about anything for money. The rent was a week past due and she hadn’t had any blow in three days. She would do anything – well just about anything.
Now, here she was, clicking her way down Chartres Street in her high-heeled shoes, this almost-handsome stranger steering her lightly into the walkway between two big houses. She had hit the jackpot, she thought, as the stranger with the soft touch guided her into the cobblestone courtyard flanked on either side by old slave quarters. Well, maybe he wasn’t big-house rich but he still had to have money as did anyone who could afford to live in the French Quarter. She felt a tremendous sense of relief as they climbed the wrought iron stairs to the second floor. She would be able to pay the rent after all and perhaps have enough cash left over for a little partying. It would be a productive night, she thought, relieved and ready for whatever may come. At least, she thought she was ready.
William opened the french doors to his apartment and art studio. He had lived in the upstairs slave quarter for more than ten years and his rich patroness who lived in the front house had not the heart, or perhaps could not be bothered, to raise his rent. His living quarters would be considered lavish by most, and certainly expansive, consuming most of the upstairs building flanking the left side of the huge, opulent courtyard. The buildings on the right were used only for storage. He had the privacy he needed for his plan.
He gestured his hooker friend toward the sofa and found the last bottle of wine hiding in the cupboard. He poured the red liquid into two crystal wine glasses purchased from Adler’s on Canal Street when the city was affluent, as he had been. His guest was impressed. Well, let’s let her enjoy herself a bit, while she can, he thought and smiled.
He refilled her glass, having barely touched his drink. She should know better, being in her line of work, William mused. She should know never to let her guard down, especially when working. She sighed and rested her head against the green velvet throw pillow. Her eyes closed.
Angel awoke to find her hands bound to the headboard. Her blouse had been removed but she was otherwise fully dressed. There was a dull burning sensation on her forearm where William had sliced into her flesh, draining what he could collect of her blood. It was a start, he thought but he would need more.
Angel began to sob.
“Let me go!”, she tried to scream but her throat was so parched and she managed only a croak.
The classic scene in every slasher film, William thought with a sick, sardonic smile.
“What did you do to me?” Angel managed to ask.
She knew she was in trouble. Was her John one of those ridiculous pseudo-vampires who roamed the city, thinking themselves ageless if they sipped a few drops of blood mixed in with their expensive Chardonnay? She instinctively knew this was different from a one-night vampire blood let. This felt heavy and morose and for the first time in her somewhat successful career as a hooker, Angel was frightened. She was terrified.
“Shut up,” the John demanded as he plastered a piece of duct tape over April’s dry, cracked lips. It was dark in the large, lush room which had served as William’s guest room when he had been popular enough to warrant overnight visitors. The room had sat empty for months now and although somewhat musty, it would be his guest’s new home, at least for as long as he could bleed her. William had not really thought past that.
The first letting had been comparatively easy. It had gone well. He simply cut the hooker’s arm deeply enough to elicit a nice flow of blood and captured it as well as he could in another clean, crystal wine class. He gleaned almost an inch of thick, burgundy blood and carried it devoutly into his studio. He would paint tomorrow. He would create paintings that would come alive in depth and color and, of course, in content.
He wasted half an inch of the burgundy blood, trying to paint it directly onto his canvas. It was beautiful for the first five or ten minutes and then turned an ugly, rusty brown upon extended exposure to oxygen. He spent most of that day mixing the remainder of the blood in the wine glass with the acrylic colors he had always used and began to panic when his efforts depleted the red liquid in the glass. He didn’t really want to spend his time today bleeding the girl in his guest room. William was more than a little irked that his morning had been spent in the trivial tasks of having to feed the girl and then going to Walgreens to purchase adult diapers and protein drinks. He sighed as he mixed the last of the precious liquid with a “lipstick red” from one of his hundreds of acrylic tubes, adding only the tiniest smidgen of “blue bird purple”. As soon as the pigments began to mingle, William knew he had succeeded. The new concoction was beautiful and it glided onto the canvas like melted butter He named his new color “Blood Red”.
His first painting was a reclining nude, her arms stretched back, over her head. Of course, he didn’t paint the chains that held her arms at length. Neither did he didn’t paint the face of his captive. He painted her bare chest and turned head, her thin arms extended, her body twisted in what might be misinterpreted as ecstasy. It reminded William of Bernini’s *Ecstasy of St. Teresa*, a face of pleasure and pain, or perhaps Joan of Arc at the post as she cast her eyes toward the heavens and embraced the flames.
“What’s your name?” he asked the hooker chained to the bed. He had lowered the chains so she would bleed better. He had been using her arms as a matter of convenience.
“Fuck you,” Angel managed to whisper.
“Time for dinner,” he said, ignoring her remark. “Soup, okay?” he asked as he sat a tray on the end table next to the bed. He unlocked the chain holding her right wrist and allowed her to eat and drink to her content. He tried to feed her high protein meals and at first, she had eaten what he proffered. Today, she lay silent and still on the vinyl covered bed. It had taken her a while but she had finally figured out his game. He was worse than a pervert. He was going to bleed her dry and then what? Kill her?
William had begun to wonder the same thing. Lately, she had been difficult to bleed from the arms and hands. He had carefully avoided any veins, not wanting a complete bleed-out in one cut. Should he start on the legs now? And then, what?
“Please. Just let me go. I won’t tell anyone about you. Please,” she begged.
“Oh, God! How many times have we heard that in a bad movie?” William said and stifled a laugh.
“This is real life, man. I’m scared. I’m telling you the truth. I will never say a word. Just let me go.” Angel pleaded.
“I’ll let you go when we’re done,” William promised. “Now, eat your soup. Maybe tomorrow if you’re good.”
Angel ate the soup. It’s energy coursed through her weakened body and she thought maybe, just maybe, there was a way out of this nightmare. She knew she was being bled but she had no idea why and she wasn’t sure how much longer she would be of use to this madman.
His painting was done. It was near perfect. He would do another. And another. He worked with an energy he had not had since he was a young, successful artist – “one destined for greatness”, one critic had written in *Care Forgot City Magazine*. That had been almost ten years ago. He had somehow slipped out of grace during those years of drinking and partying and having every woman he wanted. He had forgotten how to paint. His offerings say unsold and he was all but ostracized from the big art events around town.
Yeah, well, all that’s gonna change, he thought. They’ve never seen like this. He would call his new show “Ecstasy.”
William bled Angel for his next painting. He carefully mixed blood and paints and began his next piece. He had all but begged Joshua for one more chance and had taken his first piece, entitled “Angel” to the gallery in an effort to persuade his friend for space. Joshua had studied the painting for less than a minute and had acquiesced. William would have his show in two months and open on White Linen Night.
Angel had stopped eating. She has stopped peeing into the diaper that he had provided her. She had apparently stopped all bodily functions with the exceptions of sleeping and breathing. It was obvious to William that he would soon need another source.
He dug a make-shift grave in the flower bed that sprouted gardenias and jasmine in the back corner of the courtyard and unceremoniously dumped Angel and her meager belongings into the hole. He wasn’t sure if she had completely stopped breathing. He didn’t want to know. He was manic, his mind laser focused on her replacement. That shouldn’t be too difficult, he thought. There were plenty of two-bit hookers in New Orleans – girls just trying to get by – girls who were lost to the underbelly of the city, stray cats prowling the night.
Angel felt the soft earth hitting her face, her torso, her legs. She lay still, her breath shallow. Her purse lay over her face, providing an inch or so of breathing space and the dirt of the flower bed was soft and porous. William was in a hurry and covered the body with about a foot of loose soil. He dampened it with his foot and left her there either dead or surely dying.
When Angel heard his footsteps fade, she willed a single finger to burrow upward into the loose soil. She poked through the dirt and saw a dim remnant of daylight filtering through the crumbling soil. Fresh, sweet air trickled into her tomb. She breathed. She lay still. She waited. She watched the last of the winter sun fade through the tiny hole. Darkness enveloped her and when she finally saw the dim light from the man’s apartment go dark, she began to claw. The dirt gave way fairly easily and she climbed out of the shallow grave.
Laying motionless under the cold, damp earth for six hours had given Angel plenty of time to think. She had decided not to run to the police. They would likely sigh and take a report but simply chalk the incident up to the hazards of being a hooker. Instead, Angel had hatched a plan and that plan was what gave her the strength she needed to rise from her grave.
Angel stood, her stiff legs threatening to buckle. She drank greedily from the faucet over the sink in the laundry room and felt her legs steady a bit. Watching the windows of the man’s apartment, she washed herself, careful not to make a sound, managing to remove most of the residual soil from her body. She carefully navigated her way through the maze of greenery and onto the cobblestone courtyard. She quickened her barefoot pace through the walkway and saw the wrought iron gate that led to Chartres Street. She half-walked and half-ran the blocks to her By-water studio, uncovered the key from its hiding place, and fell onto her bed. She had been held and bled for exactly two weeks.
The middle-aged landlady, Alma, took one look at Angel and almost screamed. Alma had climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor apartment with every intention of chastising her young tenant about the late rent payment, but after seeing the girl and hearing the horrific account of Angel’s two week absence, Alma gently chided the girl for not going to the hospital. She cleaned and dressed Angel’s wounds as well as she could. For the next few weeks she fed her young tenant healthy stews and juices and sat at her bedside. Alma gave insisted Angel stay in bed and not worry about the rent.
“It’s my gift to you,” Alma insisted.
Angel cried from relief and from joy. It was the first gift she had ever received.
William rented a room and gave the front desk clerk a hundred dollar bill for the room and another hundred for his “discretion.” It was an older hotel in the back section of the Quarter and one of the few that was not blanketed with the eyes of security cameras. The older man dressed in black who opened the front door, doubled as a bellman and security guard. It was not unusual for rooms to be rented by the hour (or two). The desk clerk handed the bellman one of the crisp bills, keeping the other for himself, and then went back to surfing the internet on the hotel computer.
Room key in hand, William headed to the hotel bar. He ordered a vodka on the rocks and waited. He didn’t have to wait very long.
“So, what’s your name?” William asked the petite blonde who had been eyeing him for at least ten minutes.
“Bluebird”, the blonde answered sincerely.
“Cut the crap,” William said as he handed her the gin gimlet for which she had asked.
“Dianne,” the hooker answered. “Not that it’s any of your business, but my name is Dianne.”
“Well, if it’s okay with you, I’d like to get to know you a little better. I sort of like knowing who I take into my bed, if you know what I mean,” William sipped his vodka and managed to smile just enough to seem genuine. He wanted to be a bit certain she was a loner, as were most of the working girls.
“I don’t have any diseases, if that’s what you mean,” answered.
“Neither do I,” William answered. He had no idea if he had any diseases or not. It was, after all, New Orleans.
“Are you from here?” William asked, once again attempting innocent conversation.
“No. Mobile. I’ve been here six months. You wanna know my shoe size, too?”
Dianne’s irritation raised a red flag for William and he realized he should back off. He began telling her about his job and how he needed another three accounts before he could return to Memphis. He realized he was a fluent liar.
“You’re a good-looking guy,” Diannenoted. “Why would you need to pay for sex?” she asked.
“Now, you’re the one getting personal,” William quipped. “Let’s just say I am into some things that the girls I know in Memphis can’t appreciate. So, you wanna come with me, or not?” he asked, pretending to be a tiny bit annoyed.
“Sure.” Dianne said. “Let’s go. It’s two-hundred an hour – a hundred more for kinky stuff.”
William was pretty certain she had never gotten over a hundred in her life but said, “Two hundred, it is.” He didn’t want to scare her off.
Dianne proved to be more savvy than Angel. She refused the wine William offered but acquiesced to the handcuffs after counting the three hundred dollars and stuffing the crisp bills into her cheap bag. She had seen pretty much everything in the six months she had hooked in New Orleans and being handcuffed to a bed was comparatively vanilla.
William pulled out the large syringe he had obtained from the medical supply place on Tulane.
“Whoa. Wait a minute! What’s that?” Dianne demanded.
“Shut up and be still. I’m just going to draw some blood. We can do it the hard way or the easy way.”
Dianne was not in a position to argue and let her left arm be loosened from the cuff. The man obviously had no prior experience in drawing blood and after four failed attempts, he finally hit a good vein. The large syringe filled quickly. He undid the remaining locks and , without saying a word, put her shirt back on and left, clutching her bag to her chest. It was 2 a.m. on a week-night and the streets of the Quarter were hollow and empty, save for the homeless man on the corner. called for an Uber but no one responded so she walked hurriedly to her apartment on St. Claude, trying to forget this night and silently promising herself to get a real job.
William had enough supply now to finish his final works for the gallery. His last piece, he thought, was his masterpiece. The blonde woman, body supine, one arm sheltering her forehead, the other extended toward something outside the canvas, at first glance, lay upon what looked to be a blood-red, velvet covered bed. Upon a more careful inspection of the painting, however, one began to question whether she lay enveloped in red velvet or in her own blood. It was the perfect “visual illusion” and of this William was extraordinarily proud. It was his piece de resistance. Joseph agreed. The show would no doubt be divine. Absolutely breath-taking.
Angel had stayed alive in her grave by thinking about the revenge she would exact upon her kidnapper. She would haunt him, she thought. She would drug the vodka he kept in the freezer. She would enter his bedroom at night, stand over him and then disappear into the night – a shadow – a ghost. She would drive him insane, haunting him until he cut his wrists or blew his head off with a gun. She knew he had one He had threatened her often enough with it. He had almost robbed her of her life but she was alive and for that, she was grateful, but she could never forget those horrific two weeks he had kept her prisoner, chained and cut at will, his personal blood bank.
In the weeks that followed her escape from the madman’s grasp, she had changed her plans. She had not wanted to chance that the asshole would check her “last resting place.” She thought he was too much of a coward but she had to be certain.
She had been out one evening – one of the first that Alma had allowed her out alone – and she had seen him. She stood stock still, staring across the park until he had seen her. Once she was certain, once they had locked eyes, she found her way down Frenchmen Street and disappeared into one of the side streets. He had tried to follow her, to prove to himself that it was a simple case of mistaken identity but she escaped him easily this time. He must have been mistaken, he told himself. He had to have been mistaken.
Within a month or so, Angel was well enough to attend White Linen Night, a huge event in the always eventful city. It was a night of snow-white fashion and gallery crawls, particularly on St. Claude and in the Warehouse District. Julia Street was particularly awash in white.
The gallery was packed. William charmed his guests, all of whom were gushing with compliments and accolades. His broad smile was as white as his collarless linen shirt. He was a striking figure, posing in front of one of his blood-red paintings, a vision in white shirt and trousers – absolutely stunning. He shook hands, smiled, quipped, and accepted the exorbitant praise from his patrons.
Across the snow-white sea of bodies, William saw the girl who had evaded him that day on Frenchmen Street. Again, she stood motionless, not fawning over his paintings as were so many, but staring across the room directly at him. He moved gracefully through his admirers and weaved his way across the crowded room, adamant that he not lose sight of this woman again. He had to know that she was simply a look-alike and not a ghost.
No one noticed when the slight, dark-haired woman in white stood directly in front of William, smiling wanly. No one noticed when she drew the knife from her white glove and shoved it with all her might into William’s gut. No one saw her twist it left and right and then withdraw it and slip it back into the glove she held so demurely. She easily made her way through the white cloud of the crowd and out the door. She was already in another gallery on the next block by the time William collapsed onto the floor, holding his hands over the blood-red stain that crawled over his white shirt and trousers.
An ambulance was called. William was rushed to the Grace of God hospital on Canal Street where surgeons and the ER staff worked for over twelve hours on the man who had lost so much blood. It was touch-and-go.
The gallery sold every one of his paintings within two hours. Should William die, his paintings would double in price within the day. Should he survive, William would be a very rich man. This was good news for as he did, indeed, survive – thanks to the skilled surgeons who pieced his stomach back together. It was, in fact, excellent news, for William would need lots of money to pay for his medical care, the cost of which would quickly cancel out any proceeds from the sale of his paintings.
William had became painfully thin. His clothing sagged in a most unbecoming manner. He had survived the vicious and unprovoked attack, but his stomach had been severely and irreparably damaged. He had a difficult, if not impossible, time ingesting enough nutrients to sustain him and, consequently, he was severely anemic. The artist would require extensive and continued treatment for the remainder of his life.
He was lucky to be alive, his doctors had told him. Joseph agreed and accompanied his friend to the Charity hospital on Tulane Avenue where William would receive a series of painful blood transfusions – every… two…. weeks.