Short Story Image Prompt
The greeter led Alex through the velvet curtain and into the great hall. Dancers and harlequins writhed and contorted about the other guests. Flesh pressed upon flesh as rhythmic drums pounded in the background, driving the dancers into a frenzy. Wine, meats and sweat saturated the air. Shadows flickered upon wooden walls. Oil paintings of torrid scenes lined them. Shelves full of half-melted candles were scattered on the walls as well. Pools of dried wax stained the lacquered wooden floor. At the end of the ballroom was a raised stage where more bodies merged into a single, pulsating mass of bodies, their limbs pounding on the drum skins with synchronised precision.
Scanning the sea of sin, Alex saw no sign of Barnaby Grace. Rumoured to be the owner and proprietor of this underground den perversion. Soft hands rounded his shoulders, and he felt his jacket slip away. More hands caressed his body as a petite harlequin with eyes as blue as a crystal lake unbuttoned his dress shirt.
“I need a bloody drink first,” Alex blurted as he pushed past. No, I'm here to do my duty.
Navigating his way past tables adorned with men and women used as serving platters for exotic fruits and smoked meats, Alex found the well-used bar. In the fifteen years of undercover detective work, never had he encountered a case so bizarre. At least a dozen or so missing persons, from daughters of the highest nobles to the sons of the lowest beggars, all the leads ended here. No obvious connection existed between the missing. Nothing except they were all young and attractive, full of life.
Over primal sounds, Alex questioned the bartender about his boss. A shrug and another drink thrust into his hand was his reply. Amber liquid spilled over his fingers and was added to the concoction beading over the bar top. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, Alex looked through the maze of humanity. Where is he?
The same petite harlequin returned, pirouetting around him, taking his attention with her as she danced to the end of the bar. She pushed herself onto the bar and slithered over to Alex. Their eyes locked. Cold electricity ran down his spine, his feet melded with the floor. Her index finger curled to draw his face in. Her lips parted and her sweet breath washed over his ear.
“You've come a long way, Detective,” she whispered. “I know what you seek.”
Her tongue lashed his ear. A weight lodged in his stomach. Within a heartbeat she slid from the bar, hands landing on the floor. As one, the dancefloor parted then the harlequin cartwheeled away. The gap was sealed before he could follow. An array of hands reached out, clasping his shirt. Buttons flew from the tension as Alex was pulled in.
The air was suffocating. Bodies burled. The ground shook. Beats pounded. Only glimpses can be seen. A face smeared with makeup lunged at him before retreating into the frenzy. Alex recognised it was one of the missing girls. He tried to move but was pushed back. He looked in every direction he could, and more faces blurred.
On the stage, a flash of the man Alex was looking for. Grace was dressed in a silk black and red harlequin outfit, his face and hairless head caked in white, a red slash of lipstick over the left eye. Grace raised outstretched hands and closed his eyes. All revelry stopped. Alex could see the stage clearly now; he clenched his fist and the corner of his lip exposed gritted teeth.
“Tonight,” Grace declared. “We live, forever!”
An ecstatic cry erupted from the masses. Drums beat as limbs contorted in hedonism. Alex felt the pressure of the crowd envelope him again. Sweat started to sting his eyes as he pushed his way to the front. As Alex moved towards the stage, the level of resistance grew stronger. Through flailing limbs and faces contorted in painful ecstasy, Alex saw Grace move from the stage and disappear through a doorway.
Alex yelled and pushed his way out of the chaos, stumbling over to the wall. With one hand on the wall and the other on his knee, he drew in a deep breath. The sickly air was a fresh reprieve from the condensation of lust. Alex raised his head to see the harlequin pressed against the wall near the doorway that Grace fled through. With a sly smile, she beckoned him over before slipping into the doorway. Alex pressed down on his knee to force himself up. At fifty, that motion would have caused him great pain. A lifetime of injuries received in the line of duty, not to mention general wear and tear of old age. Despite that, he felt the opposite, invigorated. His body was drawn by an irresistible force as he followed the temptress.
The rapturous sounds faded as Alex crept down the darkened hallway. The harlequin was gone. Oil paintings and oval mirrors hung from the walls. Candelabras were spaced evenly down the long hallway, though few candles were lit. Alex glanced at his reflection in a mirror as he passed. The reflection looked straight ahead. His legs began to waver, but he had come too far to give up now.
One of the paintings caught his eye. It was of a child, no more than five or six, begging on a street. Dirty and hungry, with arms stretched out. People passing by, ignoring the child, one even spitting on him. Alex's eyes widened. He leaned in to examine the painting closely. The face of the child was smudged. His throat tightened before he moved to the next painting.
A teenager working in a factory, his face was also smudged. Alex shook his head and pressed on down the hallway. Each painting depicted a different time and place, from child to man. Alex quickened his pace. A young man, face smudged stood in front of a police station. Alex’s breath was short and shallow, ahead he could see a turn in the hallway.
He turned a corner and saw Grace leaning against the wall, a mirror next to him. The mirror was not reflecting Grace as the opposite but as the same.
“Welcome, Detective,” Grace said, his voice smooth and seductive. A smile too wide for Grace’s face exposed yellow teeth.
“What had you done with them?” Alex said through gritted teeth.
Grace shrugged and tilted his head towards the mirror. Alex’s eyes followed. He saw a scene from his childhood. He was sitting on the street, begging for money. His clothes were dirty and ragged, and his face was thin and gaunt.
“Where’s my son?” Alex demanded, his voice hoarse with rage. His eyes swung back to Grace.
Grace smiled enigmatically. “Where he wants to be,” he said.
Alex felt bile burn the back of his throat. Light from the candelabras dimmed. The mirror shimmered.
“Is this where you want to be?” Grace said.
Alex looked in the mirror again. He was dressed the same as Grace, in a silk black and red harlequin outfit. His face was caked in white paint, and he had a red slash of lipstick over his left eye. His heart filled with lust.
Alex whispered, “Yes.”
The drums from the ballroom started to beat louder, as the darkness consumed him.