Beaks poked out everywhere. Talons threatened to scratch, and dark feathers of ravens, crows, and vultures promised to smother.
“Come in, Miss Victoria. Don’t be shy. They won’t peck you.”
Victoria managed a weak smile as the stepped into the parlour of the once-famous, long-reclusive violinist Cesaro Russo. She tried not to look at the paintings of anguished angels in hell that adorned the walls, nor the stuffed birds perched on nearly every available surface in the room.
She straightened her shoulders and made eye contact with the wizened man, who squinted at her in mild complacence. “Let me thank you very much for your time today, Mr Russo. I’m sure I speak for myself and my colleagues when I say how excited I am to have this talk with you today.”
“Pah! You flatter an old man. Will you have wine?”
“Er, no, thank you,” Victoria said, conscious she was still standing, yet every seat contained a bird, perched as if they were the observers and she, the exhibit.
Russo swiped a goldfinch off the chair across from him, then patted the seat with his gnarled hands. With a yellow crusty nail navigating, he pointed to the violin that had been laid out haughtily in a pool of red silk on the sofa to his left, nearly the only thing in the room that was bird-free. “Did you know, my dear, that this beauty of mine was not always black?”
Victoria sat on the edge of the chair, her body yearning toward the door. “No. Did you paint it?”
Russo chuckled, which turned into a hacking cough. She winced as spittle splattered from his mouth, and landed less than an inch from her shoe. She edged away, and her chair scraped the polished wood floor.
He wiped his mouth with a tatted handkerchief and tutted. “Ah, Miss Victoria. Your emotions are splayed across your face like a wanton woman on a satin-covered bed. You are a journalist? Find your mask, and wear it at all times. Don’t let on so easily what you feel. It could be your doom.”
She cringed. Was that a threat? “Um, thank you for the advice. Can you tell me a little about how you first became interested in the violin, Mr Russo?”
He held up his twisted hand. “Patience. Please. I must confess, I agreed to this interview for one reason only. You have a list of prepared questions to ask me, no doubt, and you would record my answers on your little machine. But I care not for that. I will not demand, for I am a gentleman, but I will request you listen to me, Miss Victoria. No prepared questions, no easily digestible answers for the printed page. Will you listen?”
Victoria sank back against the chair. She forced a smile. “Of course, sir.” She supposed an eccentric man’s ravings could be more interesting than questions about his childhood, or his favourite ice cream flavour (suggested to her by an intern).
She wouldn’t ask him about the birds.
Russo smiled, revealing wine-stained teeth. “I thank you.” He cleared his throat.
Victoria steadied her face against the squelching sound.
He smirked at her knowingly. “My love has been lost to me for years. Decades. And the fault is all mine. For she was a proud little bird, and I, so weak, that I clipped her wings. And on the day she spilled her own blood, my violin, which I had played for her so many times in hopes of soothing her frenzied soul, turned black.”
Victoria frowned. “Are you saying it turned black on its own?”
He chuckled. “Not on its own. Of course not. Her agony, her pain, her fury caused it. She had an iron will, my little bird. She was an enchantress. Magic wove through her very being, and with that magic she has kept herself away from me.”
He fiddled with the signet ring on his pinkie finger. “I see her island in the distance. But I can get no closer, no matter how fast or hard I swim or row. I will never reach her.” He took a long drink of wine, and set the glass next to a stuffed owl. “Unless, that is, I do as she wishes. And I have made peace with this. I know what I deserve. Justice will come to me.”
Icy spiders crawled across Victoria’s skin. “W-what do you mean?” she stammered. Her tablet began to slide out of her hands, and she thrust it back into her lap, her heart sliding as well.
He grinned and shook his head. “Miss Victoria, your simplicity touches my soul, truly. You need not even ponder it. Only witness.”
He eased himself from the chair, and took hold of the violin. She watched as he gripped it by the neck, then slashed the strings with a knife. A gut-piercing screech ripped the air, and he threw back his head and laughed, before collapsing. Blood spattered from his mouth as his head hit the floor. “I am coming to her at last,” he whispered, and his eyes rolled back, showing only whiteness.
“Mr Russo?” Victoria broke from her stupor and hurried over to him. She put her head to his chest, praying to hear his heartbeat.
She let out a shuddering sigh, and sank back onto her knees. She dug out her phone from her pocket, and dialled 999.
As she stammered out what had happened, she heard a slow rumble, which turned into a frantic, massive fluttering as all the birds began to flap their wings.
Victoria scrambled up from the floor, and choked in horror as ravens began to peck at Russo’s face. She fled from the room before she could watch the birds enact their grim justice.