Red and Black

She stood in front of the mirror, leaning over the cluttered vanity in the half-light. She was putting on her face powder, taking away the faint sheen of sweat and oil. Dipping her brush once again into the powder, she brushed it briskly across her nose, cheeks, forehead and chin, brushing a little down her neck. The excess powder formed a cloud around her, lingering with the dust motes in whitish light from the window.

The room was dark and poor, part of an apartment complex forged too long ago to really be safe. She never cleaned, either. Spider webs hung in every corner, and the walls were damp and darkened by mold and humidity. There was something else, too, a sublevel of scent and foreboding. Something lurked beneath the dust and damp, something much more sinister.

She didn't turn when she heard the faint squeal of pain, but she did set down the powder brush. She reached into a lower drawer of the vanity and took out a pair of long, loose rubber gloves, the kind farmers use to help give cows in calving. The rubber clings to itself with something congealed and dark. Slowly, using just the tips of her fingers, she pulls them on, carefully covering the white sleeves of her shirt all the way up to the elbow.

Heels clicking dully against the soft, damp floor, she walks past the bed, across to the dark opening of the old closet. It is supposed to be a bathroom. She found other ways to keep herself clean.

Her hips moved like liquid beneath her slim, red skirt. The seams on her stockings ran in straight, dark lines down to the back of her shoe, which in turn led to the long, slim heel. Her shoes, too, were red. Around her neck, beneath the collar of her shirt, she wore a deep red ribbon, tied in a large, luxurious bow. Her hair hung in perfect blonde waves.

Her face, however, seemed unusually pale. Her eye makeup was done, her powder perfectly applied, but her lips remained their natural, almost-white color. She looked like something dying, but more beautiful than it had ever been alive.

Slowly, she stepped into the dark bathroom and switched on the light. A thousand cockroaches skittered quickly into the shadows. The yellow light lit up the stained tiles, darkened with mold and something else. There were no shampoos or fancy soaps in the bathroom. She kept those elsewhere. There was just a slightly cracked bar of soap resting next to the sink and a ragged gray towel crumpled into a pile on the toilet seat.

In the sink was a long, gray knife. Perfectly clean, perfectly dry, obscenely sharp, it seemed to absorb light rather than reflect it, the way old steel will. Using the tips of her fingers through the rubber gloves, she picked it up, then wrapped her palm around the handle. She needed a firm grip.

Against the back wall of the bathroom was a bathtub. The ceiling above the bathtub, though damaged by years of steam, still had one strong beam running through, and to this beam was attached a large, vicious-looking hook. Hanging from the hook was a man.

He was suspended by a pair of handcuffs, toes a few inches above the tub floor. His mouth was tied with a gag, so tight it had brought out raw patches on his cheeks. His eyes were open wide, and he was breathing heavily. The cuffs cut into his hands, cutting off the circulation and turning the flesh and ugly purple with raw, yellowish patches around the metal. His legs were stained with excrement, but it was buried under a hundred tiny rivulets of congealed blood.

She walked closer to him, fingers feeling the weight of the knife. Slowly, she examined him, leaning around to look at his back. His torso was crossed with deep cuts that had bled and become infected and inflamed. She could see tiny maggots in a few of them, but she wasn't really bothered. His back was in no better shape, the cuts extending down to his buttocks and thighs. She didn't look, but she knew that the sole of each foot had been slit to the bone, right across the ball.

He should have died by now. None of the others had lasted this long, not even his wife, and she had gone on for sometime. She had necessitated the burning of the bed sheets, down by the river at two in the morning.

Now, the woman in the red skirt stared at the man. Her eyes held no expression but a faint, girlish titillation.

"You should be dead by now," she whispered.

He moaned. She noted that. He was no longer even attempting coherence and, on closer inspection, he seemed to have drooled heavily into the gag. He might not be dead yet, but he was surely insane.

"I'm doing you a favor," she whispered, leaning close to him. Again he moaned, and she couldn't suppress a faint giggle. She bit her pale lip, dark-ringed eyes gleaming.

She lifted the knife, studied the look of the blade from a distance against the man's diseased flesh. Finally, she steadied the blade against his throat, holding his neck to keep it from moving.

He swallowed. A fine trickle of blood appeared beneath the knife, running lazily down his throat to settle in his collarbone.

Slowly, she pressed the knife further into his neck, feeling the faint drag as she pulled it ever so slightly sideways. She felt cartilage, bone. Shifting the blade, she dug the tip into the man's throat. Blood was gushing, almost spurting now. Carefully, she removed the knife from the man's flesh and stepped away from him. Keeping the gloves on, she rinsed the blade and dried it carefully, replacing it in the sink when she was done. Using the cracked, stained bathroom mirror, she checked herself for stains. Nothing. She smiled, then stripped the gloves off and carried them gingerly back to the vanity. She put them back in the drawer, then straightened up.

She examined her reflection for a moment, then reached over to a battered chair with a hole in the caning and picked up the red jacket that accompanied the skirt. She buttoned it, then reached for her hat and handbag, both of which rested on the chair.

She carefully positioned the hat, angling it in just the right way before lowering the frothy veil over her eyes. The veil just tickled the tip of her nose, which made her smile. Carefully, she placed the handbag in an empty spot on the vanity, and dug through it for her favorite lipstick.

For the first time, she noticed a faint, threatening beat from someone else's radio. She grinned and, leaning in towards the mirror, applied a thick, sticky coat of lipstick. It was her own blend. She had a few spare tubes on the vanity top and she could afford to put it on heavily. She popped her lips when she was done, admiring the liquid shine.

She replaced the lipstick in its case, then withdrew her gloves from the bag. Holding them in one hand, she shut the bag and walked slowly towards the door.

In his tiny apartment, the madman leaned backwards over the edge of the table. Blood was running from his mouth where he'd cut it. The scissors, still warm and wet, hung in one of his hands, dripping a little on the already-stained carpet.

He stared in an upside-down stupor at the old sofa, the body of the dead dog next to it. He would have to get rid of that, since he hadn't bought enough formaldehyde to preserve it. The poor thing had flies behind the glass eyes he'd made for it. He could see them crawling in the insufficient sawdust, feasting on the remains of the poorly removed innards of the dog.

He wondered, tasting blood, where they had gone. His neighbors. Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs. They had made him their personal friend, had given him food when he forgot to get it for himself. More than once, he had shown up on their doorstep, bleeding from some new cut, only for Mr. Upstairs to welcome him in with a worried look while Mrs. Upstairs hurried to help him.

But it had been a long time since he had seen them. He had a hard time keeping track of the days and didn't know exactly how long it had been, but it had definitely been a long time. Long enough for the dog to die and for him to try his hand at taxidermy.

He had failed. But it had kept the dog around a little longer.

With the back of his scissor-wielding hand, he wiped some of the blood away from his mouth, transferring it to his undershirt. He sat up and surveyed the room.

Nothing was where it should be. The kitchen was relatively intact, but full of rotting food. His trashcans were overflowing with scrap paper and bandages bloodied beyond all hope of bleaching. The walls were papered with drawings, all done in ink on paper ranging from very expensive and stolen Bristol board to the backs of bar napkins where the ink had run and bled. He had taped cardboard into his windows, but painful beams of light still shone through. He hadn't done a good job. In some places, he had drawn or written on the cardboard, in others, he had skipped all the niceties and attacked the walls directly, puncturing the particleboard and covering it with thoughts and nightmares.

He didn't sleep. He'd never slept much.

Slowly, he climbed down from the table, his mouth still full of blood. The mouth was virgin territory. His hands already looked as if he'd shoved them through every window he could find. Once, Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs had taken him to the hospital when he went too deep in the wrong place. He dropped the scissors on the table, where they cracked a sticky coffee cup. He climbed down from the table, wiping his hands reflectively on his undershirt and dark trousers. His hair, cut at uneven angles as if without a mirror, stuck up from his head in dark, greasy spikes. He looked down at his reflection in the old mirror propped against the wall, then went to look for his shirt.

He found one eventually, the sleeves badly stained with blood and chemicals. He had worn this shirt while he was trying to preserve the dog. He put it on anyway. He didn't know where his other one was. He buttoned it, making sure each button went in the right place, his brow furrowed with concentration. Then he tucked it in and, by a stroke of luck, found his tie, draped over the arm of his sofa. He tied it on but forgot to fold his collar back down afterwards. It flopped limply against his neck above the dark blue and gold stripe of the tie.

Now, for his jacket. It was draped in the windowsill, the collar hanging out into the open air. He pulled it back in, ignoring the stains, and put it on. Once again, it took him a great deal of effort to concentrate enough to do the buttons properly.

He examined his foreshortened reflection in the mirror. He still needed his hat. His shoes were already on, though how long they could stay there was another matter – he'd have to glue the toe in place again, if he remembered.

He finally found his hat, hanging from the exposed light bulb in an old lamp. He tugged it on, admiring the ribbon he'd put on it. The ribbon was gold colored, with red stitches running through the middle where he'd sewn it on with thick thread. He was proud of himself.

He reached down and picked up the dog. It flopped in his arm, the stuffing not nearly tight enough, but he didn't notice. He picked up his key from the table between the scissors and a stack of bent paper, then left his apartment.

The hall itself was quiet, but filled with the sounds of other people's apartments. He could hear groans, screams, shouts, cries, laughter. The noise assaulted him, but he had come to expect it every time he left his apartment. Slowly, he climbed the stairs. He would have to go up and see if Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs were back yet. He had checked every day since they disappeared, but had found nothing.

Today was no different. Once again, he pushed open the door – it had hung ajar since that day, and he was not sure why – and once again, found the place deserted. He knew it had been ransacked, but he wasn't sure exactly when he'd noticed. Everything was turned over, broken. Their clothes were scattered across the room, the furniture upended and splintered. The china had all been broken. Maybe someone had tried to steal their things. It made sense to him that burglars would cause the apartment to be abandoned. He picked through the wreckage, still clutching the horribly flopping dog carcass.

He heard the door open and spun around, almost falling over but steadying himself on the leg of a sideboard.

"Hey fella." The speaker was a rough-looking thug, his shoulders only an inch spare of the doorway. "Hey fella, what you think you're doing here?"

The madman gave the thug a look of suspicion. "Looking for Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs," he said, warily. He shifted the dog to the front of his torso as if it was a shield.

The thug gave a stupid laugh. "Fella, they been dead a long time. Old Nick got 'em now." He laughed his stupid laugh again.

The madman gasped and clutched the dog. A fly crawled out of its eye and buzzed towards the broken window. "How can you say that?"

Another stupid laugh. "I took 'em to her place. She done asked me for 'em and I took 'em over there."

The madman took a step closer, his shoulders hunched, feral and curious as a cat.

"I seen you sneaking around here," said the thug, reaching for his pocket. "Now I don't want no trouble, but you come 'round here any more, I'm gonna do much worse than this. You hear me?"

Another trebling step from the madman. "Whose place did you take them to?"

The thug stopped in mid-gesture, gun half-out of his pocket. "What? Hey fella, your mouth's full of blood."

The madman spat, phlegm and blood splattering the baseboard. "Whose place?"

The thug hesitated. "She's… I don't know. She didn't give me her name, just a couple hundred for the man and wife. Red suit. She wore a red suit." The thug grinned in stupid pride.

"A red suit?" The madman was close enough that he had to leer up into the thug's face.

"Yeah but fella, you sure do stink. You wash them clothes?" He grinned suddenly, as if remembering something. "But it don't matter, huh?" He pulled his gun the rest of the way out. And that was when the madman leapt.

He was not going to stand for Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs dying. He just couldn't do it.

Tossing the dog aside, he leapt for the thug, wrapping himself around the man's head and shoulders. The thug stumbled backwards into the doorframe, but the madman hung on, biting through the thug's ear and spitting cartilage and blood onto the wall. He scraped his fingernails across the thug's neck as the man flailed wildly, falling backwards over the bottom of the sofa.

The madman found his chance then. Jumping just as the thug was falling, he landed square on the big man's neck. He heard a crunch and a wet, harsh gasp, and suddenly the thug was nothing more than a mound of meat, just so much flesh for the flies. He stepped back, nearly falling over himself. Quickly, he sought out the remains of the dog – its stomach had split open when he threw it, and sawdust and maggots were spilling out – and ran from the apartment, pausing only to steal one of Mrs. Upstairs' handkerchiefs. He slipped it in his breast pocket as he went downstairs, fleeing to street level.

The woman in the red suit had killed Mr. and Mrs. Upstairs. The woman in the red suit. He repeated the words to himself as he fled, tasting blood and feeling rotten fur against his fingers.

The woman in the red suit.