Cecil stared at the row of Georgian townhouses. The freshly painted white edging contrasted brightly against dark gray stonework of the upper levels. It was all quite ship-shape and orderly, and not what he'd been expecting from one of Rupert's old crowd. Worried he'd been misled, he glanced down at the name, Diedre Page, and matched the address. The name could be wrong, of course. There was only one way to find out.
Diedre Page looked like she'd never had a rebellious bone in her body. Her haircut was so conservative that it made Mother's look almost modern. She was wearing one of those sweater sets the old biddies seemed so fond of and an ubiquitous string of pearls. Granted Rupert had returned to the straight and narrow, or at least had appeared to, but his woman looked as if the naughtiest thing she'd ever done was to hold back a tip for bad service at a local pub. Half-way convinced he'd been given a bad name, Cecil dropped his cover story. "Hello, I'm looking for, well, I'm wondering if you were ever acquainted with a Rupert Giles."
She stepped back and slammed the door shut in his face. That settled it. She'd known Rupert. He rang the bell again, pressing on it rather heavily, but saw nothing more of Diedre Page. Perhaps he could stake-out her home, wait for her to emerge, and approach her in a public place, a shop perhaps, someplace where she wouldn't want to make a scene. He turned back toward his car – a much more comfortable place to wait – and saw a woman standing by the hood. She was something of a looker, dressed rather casually in jeans and a t-shirt. Her clothes, specked with paint in a variety of colors, suggested she worked as an artist. Cecil rather liked lady artists. They so loved getting the creative juices flowing. "You upset Diedre," she called out. "I didn't think that was possible."
"I certainly didn't mean to." He found himself regretting the full three piece suit he'd donned for the interview. While he did cut a striking figure, he didn't want the lady to think he wasn't up for a bit of fun. Her grin, however, suggested she wasn't put off at all. "You brought up her mysterious past, didn't you?"
"Oh, there's all sorts of wild stories."
"You wouldn't mind sharing them, would you? Miss …"
"Isla." She held her hand out, palm up. He brought it to his lips before giving his own name.
"And I'm Cecil."
He had no idea what the inside of Diedre's home looked like, but Cecil was fairly certain that guests weren't immediately greeted by an eight foot image of the owner. The fact that she, Isla, was naked in the painting should have been tantalizing to say the least, but she was swinging a severed head and the expression on her face, well, he'd seen images of Kali that were less intimidating.
She closed the door behind them, eliminating any easy access to the street. "It's an emulsion."
"I beg your pardon?"
She nodded toward the image. "The technique, a light-sensitive emulsion on a silk screen, it creates a photographic-like image."
A photographic-like image, meaning she'd been photographed wearing that expression. Well, he certainly didn't want to upset her. "It's quite nice."
She raised one eyebrow. "Nice?"
"The technique. The image is, ah, quite realistic."
She seemed to accept that. "Salome carrying the head of John the Baptist."
It took him a moment to identify her incongruous statement as the subject of the painting. A ferocious Salome. Cecil decided to keep his mouth shut. Telling her he preferred Moreau's Salome probably wouldn't go over well.
Apparently uninterested in his opinion, she led him further into what should have been her living room. He could see the floor was wooden under the tarp that covered most of the area. A large canvas, bare he was relieved to see, covered most of one wall. From the ceiling hung a chandelier shaped rather like a set of large yellowish flowers. Happily there were no chairs which meant they were unlikely to settle in this room. "Take off your clothes."
"I, er, what?" Granted, the woman was an artist but he didn't expect her to be quite so aggressive. Not that he disliked aggressive women, mind, but it was a tad disconcerting after that Salome image.
"I need a model. Your clothes. Off. Now."
"A model?" Well, damn, perhaps she wasn't as aggressive as he'd thought.
"Tit for tat. Do you want to know what I know about Diedre?"
"I don't suppose you have a room I could change in?" She did expect him to change, right? She didn't want him completely unclothed?
"Sure, come on. I'll lay out something for you to change into."
The room she led him to was full of, well detritus wouldn't be a bad term. Isla ignored the rack of costumes and started rummaging through a closet as Cecil sat on a faded green love-seat. An old dresser's dummy, lacking a face, didn't quite stare back at him although he did have the distinct impression it was sizing him up. "Ah, here we go." Isla tossed a few items on the bed and vanished through the door.
Based on what she'd left behind, she'd fled before he could complain. The two items of, well he couldn't call them clothing now could he, wouldn't cover much. The one item, a skirt of leather strips much like ancient Romans wore in those old movies, hung down to just above his knees. The other, also leather, seemed to be a collar worn around the neck. "Are you sure about this?"
"Yes, hurry up."
He felt a complete idiot, emerging from the room, but she barely glanced him up and down before dragging him to what seemed to be her studio. The area was reassuringly well lit by a number of spot lights, most of them aimed at a blank wall. Cecil was staring at the camera, set up on a tripod, when she shackled his wrist into a chain. "What the hell?"
She grabbed his arm. "Careful, you'll break it."
"I damn well want to break it."
"Look, it's nothing." She held out the other chain. It wasn't metal. "I want shots of you bound but defiant before you break the chains. It's Sampson, you see, in the temple."
Cecil looked over at the camera. It was aimed straight at him, rather like a gun. "You're going to shoot me wearing this? Mother would kill me."
Isla waved away his words. "I'll be painting over the image. I can change the face. Nobody'll recognize you."
The words weren't as reassuring as she presumably meant them to be. Once she had the photos, who's to say what she might do with them. On the other hand, if Mother did go off, he could always defend himself. She had sent him on this assignment after all. Somehow he was quite sure that argument wouldn't hold water.
"Now keep still." Isla had various paints set out on a pallet and was holding a brush to his torso.
"Obviously Sampson has been whipped."
As she proceeded to paint whip marks on him, Cecil wondered how being bound by a beautiful woman could be quite so dull.
"I heard it was black magic."
"Don't wriggle. Diedre, her mysterious past. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, but with a dollop of dark arts."
"Black magic? Voodoo or some other hokum along those lines?" Voudoun was an ancient religion associated with powerful magics but Isla didn't need to know these things were real.
"I didn't say I believed it. I figured it was all part of that Satanic panic nonsense until I learned that someone had died."
"Died?" No one, not even mother, had mentioned a death.
"Some young man, part of her crowd. Randy, Rudolph, Roger, an R-name anyway."
"Do you know how he died?"
"Accident I think. Mrs. Fleming told me the lad was sacrificed as part of a dark ritual, but Diedre's bundt cake wins out over Fleming's every year at the church bake-off so you really can't trust what Fleming says, now can you? Diane Seed claimed it was a drug overdose, but Liz Riddington said the young man had gone off on some sort of drug-induced killing spree and had to be taken down before he killed again. I don't think anyone really knows, but they do all agree there was a death." She stepped back to look at the wound she'd been painting, darkened the paint on her brush, and set to work again. "But that doesn't mean any of them are right."
"And how many people have shared these stories with you?"
"Oh, a good two to three dozen. It's all I heard about for the first couple of weeks after I started attending local services."
Cecil found himself hoping she'd paint more slowly. The sooner Isla finished, the sooner he'd have to start interviewing dozens of old church biddies.
"Hey, your interest's flagging."
She put down the pallet. "Outside, in the street, you looked about ready to take me then and there. I need that look. The unbridled passion that tore down the temple." She dropped to her knees and slipped one hand inside the leather skirt. "No underwear. You bad, bad boy."
"How quickly can you get those photos done?"
Her grin promised many things, but it wasn't nice. "I have to finish painting you first. That alone will take quite a long time."
Oh God, how did he always find the ones who were into torture.
"Delayed gratification," she said as she rose to her feet. "It's good for the soul."