"How are you doing?"
Lacey blinked. "Um." She turned her head and blinked more slowly this time, rubbing her right temple gingerly as she slowly surveyed the paintings on the wall of the room - a collection of ruthlessly boring pastorals.
"Uh, yeah." She returned her focus to the elegant woman sitting in front of her, perched in a chair covered in a spotless olive green velvet.
"It's a simple question." The woman smiled patiently, and bowed her head slightly in Lacey's direction.
"Yes. It... is".
The woman raised her eyebrows, but didn't speak.
"Are you quite sure about that?" the woman asked, leaving one eyebrow aloft, betraying her feelings on Lacey's response. She gently set down the pen she was holding, to rest on top of the small notebook on her lap.
Lacey wearily kept her eyes on the pen, bit her lip, and raised her eyes to meet the woman's again.
"Isn't that what I'm supposed to say? No one actually wants to know how you're doing when they ask that question."
A small sigh could be heard from the chair across the room, as the woman slowly rose up, setting her pen and notepad on the desk behind her.
"I hope you haven't forgotten why you're here, Lacey. If you can't be honest with me - and yourself, we won't be able to make any progress. Please, try answering the question." She began to walk calmly around the edges of the room.
Lacey just barely resisted the urge to roll her eyes, electing instead to tilt her head back and investigate the corners of the ceiling. She crossed, and uncrossed her legs, then met the woman's gaze over her left shoulder.
"I can't sleep. His mother won't stop calling. The bills are piling up. I can't focus at work. In short, life's shit. Does that answer the question?"
The woman continued her slow pace around the room, this time her expression failing to betray any reaction to the answer received. Lacey’s gaze stayed on the space the woman had been occupying. As her eyes focused more closely on where her gaze landed, her brow furrowed. She blinked several times.
Sitting amongst the pastoral tableaus was a painting that appeared to be of a renaissance era battle. Clamouring groups of men in armour, atop horses, locked in a bloody, frozen embrace. Lacey felt a sense of unease the longer she stared at the image, but couldn’t determine why.
“And what is it that is keeping you up at night?” The woman’s voice, coming from behind Lacey, pulled her focus back from the painting and into the conversation at hand.
“His death.” Lacey responded immediately, catching herself off guard with how quickly the words came out.
Lacey opened her mouth to respond, then clamped it shut. She frowned again, looking up at the woman who had stopped pacing and was now standing to her right, staring down at her. From this angle Lacey could make out the smallest signs of crow’s feet beginning to entrench themselves around the woman’s eyes.
“His death.” Lacey said firmly.
“Who?” the woman responded, forcefully.
Lacey locked eyes with the woman, trying to hold a stoic expression as she desperately searched her mind for the response. She could feel her heart rate begin to climb. She swallowed, and broke eye contact with the woman. The woman continued on her route around the room.
“Who died, Lacey?”
Lacey bent over, resting her elbows on her knees. With her hands cradling her head she whispered quietly “I don’t know.”
“What did you say?” The woman’s voice, now coming from her left side.
Lacey turned to face the woman “I don’t—” she began, before stopping, her mouth agape. Her heart beat began to quicken in pace, she could nearly feel it beating in her ears.
Over the woman’s right shoulder, an imposing painted portrait hung - so large it took up nearly a third of the wall. It’s subject was a brown-haired man with dull blue eyes. He looked to be in his early forties. His expression was calm, but it nonetheless sent a chill down Lacey’s spine.
“I…” she began. The woman narrowed her eyes at Lacey.
“Him” was all Lacey was able to get out, in a strong exhale. She hadn’t noticed she had been holding her breathe.
The woman kept her gaze focused on Lacey. She smirked slightly. Without turning her head she gently lifted her right arm towards the painting and responded, “this man?”
Lacey could only nod. She felt a knot in her stomach forming, and a deep sense of unease.
The woman nodded at Lacey, and continued pacing around the room. Lacey kept her focus on the painting - as much as it disturbed her, she felt that looking away would somehow be worse.
“How did he die, Lacey?” the woman’s voice was coming from in front of her. She had returned to the velvet chair. “Lacey? Why don’t you draw it out for me.”
“What?” Lacey responded breathlessly, her gaze still fixated on the portrait.
“You have the tools required.” The woman responded, flatly. Lacey could feel the woman’s gaze boring into her temple. She suddenly became aware of her fist wrapped tightly around something in her lap. She looked down, and discovered a notebook in her lap, on which her right hand was resting. She slowly opened her left hand to reveal a pen. She began to feel a creeping sense of panic growing from deep within. She could just barely perceive moisture gathering at her brow.
Lacey raised her head to look at the woman, who was watching her, patiently.
“What is this?” Lacey said quietly.
The woman tilted her head to the side. “I’m not sure what you mean, Lacey.”
“What is going on! Where did these come from!?” Lacey suddenly screamed, as she threw the pen across the room. The woman barely flinched in response. She held Lacey’s increasingly panicked gaze. Slowly, she broke it, moving her eyes to the wall.
Lacey wiped her brow, the sweat accumulating more rapidly as each moment passed. She reluctantly followed the woman’s gaze to the wall. She heard a deep moan, not even realizing she was the one who emitted it.
On the wall, the man’s portrait remained in its place. However, around the man’s porcelain neck, a small red line had formed. Droplets of crimson liquid were slowly making their way down the painting, gathering on the inside edges of the frame.
“Lacey?” the woman said, from what seemed like a long distance away. Lacey could only moan in response, as she watched the red line slowly expand vertically across the man’s neck, releasing more torrents of blood. A metallic scent began to gather in her nostrils. She felt a warm liquid making its way down her leg. She sensed a presence standing over her left shoulder.
“Lacey”, the woman whispered, “you had the tool required.”