Edition 12: The Color of Tears by Angela Meadon
Barton looked at the scrap of parchment he held between his fingers: 2653 Arcturus Street. The clay numerals above the polished oak door matched the number that the Painter had written out for him. Beyond the door slept a family that had been torn apart by the loss of a child. He was about to shatter their peace and tear the scab from the wound. Would his heart, his conscience be able to withstand it?
This could so easily be my door. If collections don’t pick up it will be my door, my Lilly on the other side of it.
Barton shook his head to clear the image of his unsuspecting family sleeping in their beds. He jumped when his partner laid a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s all right buddy,” Joff said. “We’ll get through this one together.”
“This one, and how many more afterwards?”
“As many as it takes.” Joff raised his leather-gloved hand and pounded on the door. “City Watch! Open Up!”
The house echoed, sending the hollow drumming back to the two men on the doorstep. When nobody answered, Joff raised his hobnailed boot and kicked at the lock until the wood splintered and the door swung open with a bang!
Barton and Joff drew the lanterns from the deep pockets of their oversized coats and struck a match to light them. They walked through the house, looking for the bedrooms first.
“Looks like they’ve scarpered,” Joff said.
“Shit on them.”
The beds were cold, stripped of their blankets and pillows. The closets were as empty as the beds. A few jars of pickles decorated the shelves in the larder, but the coal stove held nothing more than a heap of ash.
“The Painter is going to be pissed,” Joff said.
Barton could only answer with a strangled “Mmhmmm.” He pocketed his lantern and sat down heavily on a wooden stool next to the stove. “What am I going to do?” he asked as he grabbed twin handfuls of his short, dark hair and pulled until the pain in his scalp became more demanding than that in his chest.
“We could try and find them.”
“They’ve been gone for days already, the stove is stone cold. There’s no way we could find them now.”
“Then we have to go back and tell the Painter that they’ve left,” Joff said. “It’s not our fault they ran.”
“I could lose my family over this,” Barton said. “I’d rather lose my life.”
“The Painter is a generous guy, he’ll understand,” Joff tossed Barton a jar of pickles as they walked out of the dark house.
The street outside was alive with late night traffic. Shoppers hurried home carrying parcels bound in paper. Wagon wheels creaked over the cobblestones in counterpoint to the staccato beat of horses hooves. Pickpockets dipped into the purses of beggars and merchants alike. Only the Touket City Watch was safe from the nimble fingers of the city’s misspent youth.
Barton woke to the sound of a fist hammering on his door.
“City Watch! Open up!”
Barton shot upright and threw himself out of bed. His feet found the smooth spot where his bare soles greeted the pine every morning. He shook Elizabeth awake as he stood, his worst fear confirmed by the impatient hammering.
“They’re here,” he said. “Wake Lilly and wait for me at the alley door.”
Elizabeth brushed her hair behind her ear and Barton kissed her forehead.
“I love you,” he said as he pulled on his trousers, but she was already out of the room. He hurried to the front door and put his hand against the cool handle a moment before the door flew open. The brass knob tore a chunk of flesh out of his palm as the door swung away from the frame. He swore and glared at the man standing in front of him.
“Barton!” Joff said, surprised by his sudden appearance at the door. “What took you so damn long?”
“I was asleep…” Barton sucked at the blood welling up on his palm.
Joff pushed his way into the small house. He shoved the door closed and turned to face his companion.
“You have to get out of here.”
“Sending five men, they’re on their way right now, heavily armed.”
“Shit on it,” Barton said. “What are you doing here?”
“What do you think? I’m here to warn you, Ox!”
“What’s happening Papa?” a tiny voice asked from the passage.
Barton turned and saw Elizabeth standing in the shadows, holding Lilly tightly to her chest. The little girl’s golden hair mingled with her mother’s and he almost couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began.
“There’s trouble coming,” Barton said. “But don’t worry honey, I’ll protect you.”
“Oh no!” Elizabeth sobbed and slumped against the wall.
“It’s alright, we have some time,” Barton said. “How much time do we have Joff?”
“A bell at the most,” Joff said. “They were kitting up when I left, I ran here as fast as I could.”
“Don’t let them take my baby!” Elizabeth sobbed into Lilly’s hair and the little girl started crying.
A bell, that’s barely enough time to make the River Gate, Barton thought. We need more time!
It was the desperate desire for more time that had led him to the Painter’s opulent studio two years ago. He didn’t have any hope of paying for a Painting with coin like the wealthy families did. But he had other skills. He had always been the tallest, strongest boy in his family and his physical prowess was legendary. He was accorded the respect of a king when he climbed into the bare-knuckle boxing ring on feast days.
The Painter agreed to his offer; he would work off his debt by making sure that other people settled theirs. In return, his beloved wife would be able to hold their daughter to her chest once more, to sing lullaby’s and plait flowers into her gorgeous golden hair.
“I won’t let them take her,” he said. “Get your cloaks, we’re leaving.”
Barton dressed, his shaking fingers thwarting his attempts to tie his tunic so he left the top hanging half open. He hurried into the kitchen, grabbed a knife from the hook beside the larder and wedged it between two of the floorboards. The left board surrendered to the lever and popped up, revealing a dark space below. He reached in and withdrew a coin purse which he tied to the string inside his tunic. The weight of his meagre savings was barely noticeable against his skin.
Barton held Elizabeth’s hand as they hurried toward the dock. Two years of working as a debt collector for the Painter had taught him that their best hope of escape would be if they could buy passage on a ship. The surrounding countryside was awash with the eyes and ears of spotters who worked for the Painter, but the ocean offered them anonymity.
Lilly sobbed quietly into her mother’s shoulder, shivering against the cool evening air and the sudden disruption of her small world. She had spent the last two years in their small house, only venturing out with Elizabeth when they went to the market. They had insulated her against the dangers of the world, protected her from accidents and disease, done everything they could to keep her safe from harm.
“We’re almost there,” Joff said when the smell of seawater spiced the air.
“Thank you for doing this,” Barton said to his companion.
“No need to thank me,” Joff said. “I know what they do to the recovered Paintings; I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“She’s my daughter!” Elizabeth said. Barton could hear the fear and hysteria that tinged her voice. “Stop talking about her like that.”
Joff shot Barton a pleading look and the big man caressed his wife’s shoulder.
“Of course, darling, Joff didn’t mean anything by it.” Barton had to fight to keep anger out of his voice. Joff was putting his own life in danger to help them save their daughter.
The sound of waves slapping the broad sides of ships greeted them when they entered the harbour district. The ale houses and whore houses had closed their doors at curfew and the revellers within cast only muted sounds of debauchery into the humid night. The warehouses loomed dark and foreboding at the far end of the avenue, and ships of all sizes creaked and strained against their moorings.
“The harbourmaster is still awake,” Joff said, pointing at a small structure on the edge of the pier.
They made their way to the office, avoiding the searching glare of a pair of city guardsmen. Joff knocked on the door and a man’s tired voice called from within.
The door squealed open on rust-eaten hinges and a cloud of bitter pipe smoke billowed out. A single lantern stood on the warped wooden desk, its feeble light battling the tobacco haze. Elizabeth and Joff waited just outside the door.
“What in the nine hells do you want at this time of night?” The small man seated behind his battered desk was as intimidating as any man Barton had ever known. He had a thick white beard, neatly trimmed and decorated with beads and glass amulets. A bent pair of wire-framed spectacles clung to his alcohol-swollen nose.
“We need immediate passage out of Touket,” Barton said as he pushed his way through the haze to stand before the desk. “For three people. Within the bell.”
“Can’t help you there,” the old man said. “The first ship sails at sunrise, and you might have a hard time convincing Captain Varik to take you on board. Women and girls don’t fare well at sea.”
“I can protect my family,” Barton said. “Where is the ship sailing to?”
“Suit yourself,” the old man said. “They’re headed for Eagerton; it’s a three-day trip.”
Three days is not so bad, Barton thought, I can take care of Elizabeth and Lilly for three days.
“It will cost you four gold marks,” the harbourmaster said without blinking.
That much money would be enough to feed them for a month, and was almost half of his savings. Barton forced himself not to turn and walk out of the office. Instead, he drew his coin purse from beneath his tunic and paid the small fortune it would take to carry his family to safety. “Give me a receipt, I’m going straight to the ship.”
“Normally I send word with a runner…”
“Give. Me. A. Receipt.”
The old man hastily scribbled a note and handed it across the table. Barton snatched it from his hands and turned to leave the office.
As he stepped through the door, a sharp blade pressed up against his throat. Five of the Painter’s thugs stood on the pier outside the office. Joff lay in a crumpled heap, while two men restrained Elizabeth and Lilly.
“Thought you could run from us, did you?” a familiar voice rasped from behind him. Barton smelled the sharp tang of crushed nettle. He recognized the soporific drug, and a moment later his vision swarmed with stars.
Barton had spent an entire morning describing his baby daughter to the Painter. The time he had spent marvelling at her perfect toes and tiny fingers, running his hands over her downy hair, memorising every detail of her had paid off in a way he had never expected.
The Painter worked on a toddler-sized manikin while Barton talked, turning his words and the loving devotion with which he spoke them into a living, breathing replica of his daughter. There was no blemish, not even the slightest difference between the little girl he carried home and the one he had buried a week before.
Elizabeth was overjoyed when they arrived home. She knew that he had just sold his life to the greedy magician. Her concern paled when she held Lilly, the Painted Lilly, into their home. That joy had not faded in the two years since. When you have a second chance to love a child, nothing will stand in your way.
The first thing Barton felt as he regained consciousness was a burning pain in his shoulders. He tried to move his arms but they would not respond to his commands. He opened his eyes and gasped as he took in the scene around him.
Elizabeth was bound and tied to a sturdy chair on his left. Her cheeks sodden with tears. She met his eyes and he could feel his heart tearing itself apart inside his chest.
I’ve failed her.
His arms were bound and pulled up over his head where the rope was secured to a heavy iron hook. The wall pressed against his naked back, cool and slick against his fear-warmed skin.
“You’re awake at last,” a calculating voice chased the last of the stupor from Barton’s head.
In the middle of the room a round table held a single small bottle of off-white liquid. Lilly sat in a chair beside the table, clutching a stuffed toy to her chest. Her eyes were red-rimmed and brimming with tears.
“It always amazes me how lifelike they are,” the Painter said. He bent his willowy frame and peered into Lilly’s eyes, nose-to-nose with his creation. “Isn’t she magnificent? A true masterpiece.”
He straightened and moved over to Barton, his steps were light and quick.
“Isn’t she magnificent?” the Painter asked, spittle flew out between his too-white teeth and landed on Barton’s chin.
“Yes,” he replied, his throat closing around the words as he spoke them. “She’s perfect.”
“Perfect.” The painter turned and walked back toward the table. He picked up the bottle and gave it a nonchalant swirl, the viscous fluid climbing the walls and diamond points of light dancing within.
Barton scrabbled against the floor as he tried to loosen his arms and give his shoulders some relief, but his feet were points of agony trying to support his entire weight on the ends of his toes.
“What are you going to do?” he asked. He knew what the Painter’s answer would be. Fear twisted and burned in his belly.
The Painter’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his head as he spoke: “I’m taking what you owe me.”
“No!” Elizabeth screamed. “Don’t harm my baby! Please, I’m begging you, I can’t lose her again.”
“Perhaps your husband should have thought of that before he let the Barnes’ escape, hmm?”
“I did everything I could!” Barton said, tears started to flow from his eyes and the pain in his heart overwhelmed all his other discomforts. “They were long gone. Please, you have to believe me. Please.”
Sobs wracked Barton’s body as he watched the Painter uncork the bottle and dip a paintbrush carefully into it.
“Where shall I start? Which part of your daughter do you love the least?”
“Barton! Do something! Don’t let him do this!” Elizabeth’s sobs tore the last shreds of control from Barton and he broke down, blubbering and begging and threatening. He promised to find the Barnes family, to search the seven kingdoms for them and drag them back here at any cost.
The Painter smiled at them and turned to Lilly. She sobbed quietly in her chair, gripping the cloth doll in her tiny hands, her lip clamped tightly between her teeth.
“Daddy?” her tiny voice cut through the anguish in the dank room.
The Painter leaned in close and touched the tip of the brush to her right ear. For a moment the room was suspended in silence, like a dandelion head floating on a summer breeze. No one breathed.
Barton watched in terror as Lilly’s ear started to blur, the colour ran and dripped onto her shoulder where it soaked into her pink shirt.
“No!” Elizabeth’s heartbreak was palpable, the agony wrenched from her body as it turned into a wordless wail.
Barton added his voice to hers. He grabbed the rope that held his hands, braced his hips against the wall and pulled on the rope.
The Painter looked at them and smirked, smug confidence mocking their struggling. “This will teach you to pay your debts.” He dipped the brush into the solvent again.
Barton pulled with all his might, he poured all the anger and hatred he held in his soul into the effort. All the pain he had caused other families over the years. All the heartache he had felt as he’d watched his tiny baby daughter go from learning to walk to succumbing to the scarlet rash. Everything.
He felt a light rain of plaster on the wet skin of his back as the Painter leaned in toward Lilly again.
Movement on his left caught Barton’s attention. Elizabeth wrenched her hands from the ropes that held her to the chair. She flew across the room and flung herself at the Painter. He threw up his arm in defence, but he was no match for a mother’s fury. She kicked him, bit at his face and ears, scratched at his eyes with raw hands and clawed fingers.
With a giant roar Barton pulled the iron hook from the wall. His muscles screamed with the release. He took two steps to the centre of the room and wrapped his arms around Lilly. He pressed her head to his chest and carried her as far away from the fierce battle as he could.
Her small, warm body melded to his. He looked into her large, green eyes and smiled at her. A meaty crunch drew his attention back to Elizabeth. She was crouched on the floor beside the overturned table. The Painter lay beside her, his head turned too far around on his shoulders.
“It’s all over now sweetheart,” Barton whispered into Lilly’s ear. “You’re safe.”
“I love you Papa,” Lilly said in her soft little voice and Barton cried into her hair as her golden curls dissolved and dripped into her clothes.
Angela lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with her two sons, three cats and a husband who rick-rolled her at the altar on their wedding day. She has been writing scary stories since she was old enough to hold a pencil and has recently branched into dark fantasy.
Find out more about her on her website, www.meadon.co.za, or catch up with her on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/AngelaMeadon)