After the Picture

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: March 30, 2017

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Submitted: March 30, 2017

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Of all the ways to wake yourself up in the morning, Dorian thought, there was nothing quite like a bullet to the head.

They started early this time of year; often, it wasn’t until the first crack of the pistol that he was wide awake.

The hours were long, and hard, but at least they paid well. Alright, they didn’t – a prostitute in an abbey would make more than them – but it was better than nothing; coming from someone for whom dying of starvation literally wasn’t possible, this meant something.

Frankie reloaded the revolver and aimed it at Dorian. ‘Aim for the back this time,’ hissed Dorian, under his breath. ‘My ears keep ringing otherwise.’

There could only be half a dozen people or so present at the moment, and none of them watching him. At least he’d managed Jensen, the ringleader, to shooting him in the chest. It didn’t hurt him at all, but it mean he had to buy an ungodly amount of suits.

The legendary Dorian Gray couldn’t be clad in anything less, naturally. He was clean-shaven, hair curled and slicked precisely, and his suit was immaculate. Amongst the tattered apparel of his fellow spectacles, he looked rather out of place. From rags to riches, he mused silently.

Frankie fired the gun at a glass bottle behind him. It exploded into fragments of glass. This was a part of the routine, proving to the audience – when there actually was an audience there, mind – that the gun was in fact real. Spectators could even pay a sixpence to have a try themselves – from governesses to small children, all of them fired the gun at Dorian just the same. It was human nature, he realised; brutal ruthlessness mixed with abject curiosity. Like burning an ant with a spyglass, only bigger.

‘Come see him!’ cried Jensen, his throat roaring. ‘The infamous! The immortal! The adamantine aristocrat! The pictured poet! Dorian Gray!’

It really was remarkable, Dorian mused, how Jensen could bawl at the top of his voice for twelve, thirteen, sometimes even fourteen hours at a time, with nary a trace of strain, no matter how much rum he poured down it, or tobacco ran through. Somewhere, there must a painting of that man’s throat that looks like it’s been through hell, Dorian decided.

If the syphilis hadn’t done it already, Dorian would have killed that bloody writer by now. ‘Don’t worry,’ the git had slurred through a dozen pints of ale, ‘I won’t tell a word!’ Six months later, The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in Lippincott’s. It was the talk of the town – everyone wanted to hear about the inspiration for this wonderful new story. When Dorian first read it, he had two thoughts: that his years of quiet indulgence would be drawing to a close, and that, somehow, the idiot had misspelt Dorian Grey.

After that, there was a practical circus about it. It was only a day or two until he was tracked down, and his story revealed to be true. Oh, yes, it was alright at first – he’d been offered a book deal for Eternal Youth in Three Easy Steps! – but then people started to lose interest. They recognised his name, and his cherubim face, but couldn’t give a rat’s arse about him. The upper classes suddenly saw him as common, and the lower classes thought him to be a toff.

One of the other shows had a projectionist in their ranks, and had even asked about the making of a short film about it – The Motion Picture of Dorian Gray, they’d offered as a potential title. Dorian had refused politely, then impolitely, then by taking the projector and pushing it down a hill, with the snarling promise of its owner soon to have much the same fate.

To be fair to him, Jensen had been rather good to him as employers go. He always made sure he was comfortable, and he always gave Dorian an extra dollop of gruel at weekends. The wage was a pittance, however; the food and shelter came with being part of the show, so what would they need any extra for? was how Jensen justified it. And so, they’d get a shilling a week, enough for a pint or two of ale, or even a book if you saved it up. Not that any of the people there could read, of course. Some bought a copy of The Strand and stared at it blankly for a few minutes at a time, pretending to catch up on the latest escapades of Sherlock Holmes, or puzzling over one of the Perplexities they had to offer. However, Dorian knew they were just pretending. Nobody could read a Conan Doyle story for that long without breaking into laughter at least once.

He often wished he’d put a bit of money aside back in his youth – well, relative youth. When you’re twenty-one forever, youth starts to become a misnomer. The various identical copies of books he would be so prone to purchasing, that could buy him a few nights in a hostel now. A clean wash and a warm bed, against the sty he was living in here. Then again, life insurance was much cheaper now. Even with the fact that he got shot in the head at point blank range for a living, it was still cheaper than the cab fare to the offices.

Frankie placed the gun into his belt. ‘Right,’ he murmured, checking around. ‘You ready?’ Dorian sighed, and stripped down to as little as possible without straying into another sort of show altogether.

There was a large tank of water beside them, about the size of a Hackney cab. A pane of glass had been fitted to one side, allowing the people to look into it. Rather like a zoo, thought Dorian. He clambered on top of the tank and balanced over it, before tilting to the side and dropping in with a splash. ‘Careful!’ urged Franke. ‘We’ve got not water to waste.’

It was freezing. Despite himself, Dorian shivered, and tried to resist the temptation of coming up for air. Whilst he knew it couldn’t do him any more harm than it would a fish, the claustrophobia still hung heavy in his mind. It was worse than chains; rather than just his arms or legs being bound down, every part of his body was fastened into place. His eyes were clamped shut, partly to keep out the water, but mostly to stop himself from remembering what was happening.

He would stay this way normally for twenty minutes, but it would only end he heard the tapping of Frankie’s fist against the wall. That way, nobody would be watching as he surfaced, and nobody would have their illusion broken, and demand for their three shillings back from Jensen.

He often thought of finding the painting. After his story was revealed, he’d been forced to sell it onto a private collector, with the promise that it wouldn’t be sold to anyone else, and its presence would be an utmost secret.

Naturally, it had changed hands not a day later. It always kept a collector or two ahead of Dorian, and, by the time he got close, the money had slipped away from him. His chase had come to an end. And the looming figure of Jensen had beckoned towards him.

Knock-knock-knock. Dorian kicked at the base of the tank with his feet, and forced himself upwards. Not a second later, his head broke the surface of the water, and he gasped in as much air as he could manage. He flopped onto the ground like a fish onto the deck of a ship, shivering, water flinging from his hair. Frankie covered him with a blanket, scrubbing away most of the water.

‘He’s faking it.’ Dorian looked up. There was a little child, no more than six, with his mother and father at either shoulder. One of the little buggers, he thought, that had just reached that age when intelligence and petulance dovetailed.

‘No he ain’t,’ replied Frankie. ‘Look, I’ll prove it!’ He produced a dagger and drove it straight into Dorian’s heart; a moment later, he pulled it out again, the blade immaculate and Dorian in one piece.

‘It’s not a real knife.’

‘Yes it is!’ Frankie ran the edge along his hand, and presented the dripping line of crimson to the brat. ‘See?’

The boy shrugged. ‘Hang ‘im, then.’

‘I think that’s quite enough of that!’ his father insisted.

‘Now, dear,’ the mother murmured, ‘if he is real, I don’t see why not.’ The father sighed, and nodded in agreement.

A, thought Dorian, as the noose tightened around his neck. The platform dropped away, and he felt his legs swing. No, there wasn’t an A in the word. E?

‘There, you see?’ The boy’s father pointed to Dorian. ‘He isn’t dead, so he must be faking.’

‘’E’s only been hanging a second!’ shouted the boy. Frankie tutted, and scratched the back of his head. It was alright being an immortal and someone hanging you for five minutes, but you didn’t half feel awkward if you were the one carrying out the aforementioned hanging.

‘There, that’s been five minutes,’ his mother chimed at last. ‘Let the nice man put him down, now, dear.’ She shot a pleasant smile at Frankie, and he swung the dagger, cutting the rope. Dorian dropped down, landing face first in the mud. The boy pointed a finger, laughed mockingly, and scampered off to his next victim.

‘What a lovely child,’ muttered Dorian, brushing himself off. ‘Next he’ll be asking the bearded woman to let him see under her skirts.’

‘There’s always one, isn’t there?’ agreed Frankie. ‘Come on. You might be allowed something to eat now.’

He wasn’t. Jensen had folded him arms and shook his head haughtily. ‘You’re not here to scoff my pies!’ he said. ‘You’re here to die and come back again!’

And so, Dorian went to work slicing off his hand, and showing the audience how the stump regrew in a matter of seconds. At least he got to keep his hair dry this time.

 

He was sitting eating an apple when Frankie approached. ‘Oi!’ he shouted, running over. ‘You heard?’

‘Heard?’ Dorian asked. ‘Heard what?’

‘She’s died!’

‘Who’s died?’

‘The Queen! The Queen’s died!’

‘Oh, has she?’ Dorian sounded rather bored by it; he went back to his apple.

‘What’ll this mean for the empire, do you reckon?’

‘Short term? Bugger all. Long term? Bugger all. She’s only the regent, Frankie. There must be dozens more where she came from.’

Frankie turned a shade of purple. ‘How dare you talk about the Queen in that manner! And so soon after her departure from his mortal toil!’

‘Mortal coil, Frankie. And I didn’t much care for her when she alive, so what difference does it make?’

‘Have some respect, man!’

‘Frankie, I’m hardly likely to go to whoever the hell is next up for the job and tell them, “Well, thank heavens the old crone is finally gone, what? The smell of pork pies wafting over from the palace was starting to get a little unbearable, ha-ha!”, now am I?’

Frankie’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he toppled backwards onto the ground.

 

He saw it in a pamphlet. Some of the Queen’s private collection, that she deemed too rich to not be in the public realm. Carvings from the Orient, tapestries from Europe, and, most intriguingly, the original Picture of Dorian Gray, as painted by Basil Hallward himself. So the old crone had had it along! She’d taken some sordid entertainment from watching it rot and fester and decay, like it was a grotesque theatre performance!

Immediately, he knew what to do. Strangely, it never seemed to be a question for him – life and death, survival and demise. He simply knew which life he could choose, and made a decision. He was going to destroy the painting.

He memorised the date of the auction from the pamphlet, and waited until then. Every morning, he’d double check it against the current date – five days to go, six days to go, five, four, three…

Nobody needed to know about it, did they? He could just take the pistol before first light – Frankie certainly wouldn’t be watching it – and slip away. If he was quick, and he was, then he could make it to Sotheby’s before the auction started. Plenty of time to get ready.

He’d attended several auctions there when he had money to spare. The items were kept under severe scrutiny and guard, with not even a spider allowed to get close. In fact, the only time it would be presented would be when the actual thing was being sold. It would have to be before a crowd, but it was his only option.

Back when his secret was revealed, he soon found that he couldn’t stay in the same place for very long. People might not recognise him at first, but as soon as they stumbled upon his invulnerability, that was it. And it would only take one person to find out, and the word would spread through the place like a wildfire.

And returning to places months, even years, later wasn’t an option. No matter how thickly he disguised himself, they would always manage to recognise him, like bloodhounds remembering the scent of their prey.

As a result of this, he didn’t have any friends. Sir Henry and Basil had passed on, thankfully before that wretched fool had written the story, so they managed to avoid the attention. Ever since he arrived at the carnival, he could at least maintain an acquaintance with those around him. Frankie’s was the closest, because they spent the most time together. Granted, the vast majority of that was composed of him killing Dorian in some suitably gruesome manner, but at this point, you take what you’re given.

Tomorrow was the day of the auction. Dorian wasn’t planning on sleeping – he didn’t need to anyway – as oversleeping would mean him missing his one chance at succour. No, as soon as the others drifted into sleep, he would take the pistol, some rounds, and disappear into the night.

‘Can I ask you a question?’ slurred Frankie. They’d bought a round of drinks between them, using their wages from that week. Dorian had offered to buy them all some and put in on a tab – after all, it’s not as if he was going to be around to pay it off at any time soon. The barkeep groused at Dorian over this, but the promise of shillings sweetened the deal enough.

‘Go ahead.’ Why not? If he was going to do one last thing on this Earth, it might as well be satisfying someone else’s curiosity.

‘Why did you do it?’

‘The painting?’ Frankie nodded unevenly. ‘Because I wanted to.’ As Frankie went to complain, Dorian continued: ‘That’s all there was to it, really. I was young, and handsome, and rich, and wanted to stay like that forever. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?’

‘I ain’t never been handsome.’

‘Or rich.’

‘Or young, I don’t think.’

‘Alright, but we’ve all been afraid of growing old, and weak, and frail. Losing that which we all hold dear.’ Dorian sighed. ‘Have you heard of Faust? No? I didn’t think you would have. It’s a German story, about a man who sold his soul for eternal knowledge, and pleasure. In the end, the Devil takes him away to Hell. And I thought that wouldn’t be me. I thought I’d be smarter, or quicker, or just better than him. And believe me, whatever Hell awaits me, it’s nothing more or less than I truly deserve.’

Frankie shook his head. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘you’re a good bloke. I know you are.’

‘No. I had wealth, youth, power, and what did I do with it? I squandered it. Whilst people only a street away starved, I wasted my money on… trivialities, and frivolities. That, Frankie, that’s when I lost my right to a soul, painting or no.’

 

A little after one in the morning, Dorian set out from the tent. First, he went to the water-tank, and washed off as much grime and muck as possible. He wasn’t going to be let even on the same street as Sotheby’s dressed like all the others, but, thankfully, it was a little easier for him to prune and clean himself. A shave would have to be missed, unfortunately.

Next, he lit a lantern, letting the crackling orange glow flicker over the site. Jensen get the pistol in his cabin, simply hanging on a hook. Dorian approached the cabin, placing the lantern on the ground. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be enough to stir Jensen from his slumber (the rum had certainly helped in that regard), and he wouldn’t wake up, until:

Smash! Dorian drove his fist through the window, quickly fumbling with the lock to the door. It clicked, and he slipped his arm quickly back out of the window. Jensen groaned as Dorian entered the cabin, grabbing the pistol.

‘D – Dorian?’ yawned Jensen. ‘What you doing?’

‘Going away.’ Dorian clicked back the hammer of the revolver. ‘I’ll be back soon.’

‘Hey! Now don’t you go mugging no people with that thing! Bad for business!’

‘Don’t worry. I won’t.’ Dorian smirked, and shut the door behind him.

 

The streets were almost serenely quiet. With the vague chatter of drinking clubs in the distance, it was almost as if Dorian were falling asleep.

He wasn’t, of course. The thrill of the night before him was raging in his system, heart pumping like a drum. It was finally going to be over. He would be free, for whatever fate the creator had set aside for him.

He heard a cry. It was sudden, like the sharp smashing of glass. He checked over his shoulder – nobody was there. The fog hanged heavy over the streets, but he could still make out the cobbles of the road, the lines of the buildings. The cry sounded again.

Just beside him, there was an alleyway. If it was light, you’d be able to see the street at the other end; as it was, shadows had consumed the place.

Dorian stepped into the alley. Now the light wasn’t blocking his eyes, he could see the form of two people, locked together; one was wearing a dark coat and top hat, the other wearing a dress. The one in the dress saw Dorian, and she cried out towards him.

He froze. He wanted to see what would happen. Would she be able to overpower him, and flee? Or would his superior form prove too powerful? He watched them struggle, the woman sending a fist flying at the man’s face. He blocked it, and took the chance to grab her arm, holding it down.

‘That’s enough.’ Dorian glanced at his arm; it was stretched out, the gun in hand.

The man, fascinated, released the woman. ‘What did you say?’

‘That’s enough. Leave her be.’

Two piggy little eyes glanced at Dorian, then the gun, then back to Dorian. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t.’

The gun fired. The man’s body took the shot, rippled, and fell onto the floor. Blood oozed from the wound like water from a sponge. The woman let out a shriek, and vanished down the alleyway.

Calmly, Dorian put the gun back into his pocket and headed back towards his destination. He deserved it, he thought. Every second of pain that gunshot brought, that little rat deserved it.

 

The auction house was starting to get busy when Dorian arrived. Nobody seemed to recognise him, which was fortunate, and he settled on a seat.

One by one, the Queen’s belongings were paraded in front of them. Dorian rapped his fingers against the front of the chair, annoying the person sat next to him to no end. Finally, as the third Grecian urn was carted away, it was revealed.

‘And now,’ the auctioneer announced, ‘Lot 47. The famed Picture of Dorian Gray.’

As the fabric fell from the canvas, the people around the hall gasped in shock. Dorian could barely even stand to look at it himself. It had become far, far more horrible than when he had seen it last. The skin was mottled, rotten to the colour of slate; blackened teeth grinned crookedly at him; wispy shocks of hair flew from the scalp; sores and boils and blisters were pocked all over the face. It took Dorian a few moments to regain himself, and wrap his hand around the weapon.

‘Might I start the bidding at twenty-five thousand pounds?’ A hand shot up across the room. Before the auctioneer could indicate it, Dorian leapt from his seat, pistol flying above him like a sabre.

The crowd did all they could to flee this crazed lunatic; one knocked into Dorian, a hammer tolling a bell. His finger slipped, and the weapon let off a terrific bang.

The court had been unforgiving. None a one of the people in that auction hall had spoken in his defence; all of them agreed that he fired the weapon.

The auctioneer had died almost instantly. The round hit him in the chest, slicing open his heart. By the time a physician could see him, it was far, far too late.

Dorian couldn’t have run away even if he wanted to. As soon as the gun had fired, he dropped to the ground, lifelessly. The gun clattered out of his grip and onto the floor, and the people swarming around him formed a prison.

He said he was aiming for the painting. Why wouldn’t he – anyone would say that. But he was glad. He wouldn’t have killed the man, it wouldn’t achieve anything, but he deserved it. The way he flaunted Dorian’s pain and torture, like it was some prized possession to be won – he deserved it.

It was a callous crime, without the slightest hint of reasonable motive or decency about it. Therefore, the severest punishment must be dealt in turn; life of hard labour.

As for the painting, it was bought by a private collector in the end, who graciously donated it to the National Gallery. There, it would stand until the end of the Earth, with not even so much as a scratch put upon it for as long as it existed. Every day, people would come and gaze, if for nothing else but to see how much more horrible it had become since they saw it last.


© Copyright 2017 Ben Ramsey. All rights reserved.

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