It was an old building, of course, but it was in the heart of the city and both proper central heating and air conditioning had been installed. The windows were double-glazed now, the sockets had been upgraded recently so they even came with USB sockets, but the fixtures otherwise were lovingly restored replicas of the original look.
In short, the place was absolutely perfect, and from the moment Rose had laid eyes on it, she’d known she was going to have to rent it. It felt like one of those wonderful inevitabilities you have to pounce on when they fall into your life.
Of course, it was a little more expensive than she’d planned for, but she was three months from her next work performance review, and she should get a pay bump then; in the meantime she might be eating a little more cheaply than normal, but she’d survive. And in any case, the place was part-furnished, and some of this stuff was absolutely darling.
She’d asked her friends for help getting her stuff up the stairs to the third floor - she didn’t just have an apartment, she had an entire floor - but hadn’t even begun unboxing until they were gone, laughing and cheerful, to the next part of their weekend, leaving behind the lingering aroma of the pizzas they’d brought, a couple of cardboard boxes, and a strange greasy spot where Mike had been sitting. Now, Rose stood in the centre of her new domain and surveyed her surroundings, deep in thought, planning out how best to get started.
The bedroom, of course. She could run down to the Chinese place on the corner if she was hungry, but she couldn’t sleep until she had her bed set up. She picked up the giant trash bag she’d stuffed her bedding into and marched into the bedroom, dumping it out for now harum-scarum over what was, she was satisfied to notice, a new mattress, obviously a replacement for the old one, atop an ornate black-enamelled wrought-iron frame.
Before she actually started making the bed, though, she caught sight of a wardrobe old enough to hold an original doorway to Narnia and realised she should just check there weren’t any little surprises in there - no hidden rot, no random suits left over from a previous occupant.
There were neither, but in the little shelf up at the top, there was a large cardboard box someone had written TREASURES along the side of, in beautiful cursive script but with a black Sharpie. She took it down and flipped the cardboard lid ajar.
Whoever had labelled this box had considered photographs to be treasures. At first glance Rose took the faded, yellowing old prints for someone’s photos of their friends on a night out, wearing low-cut tops with skirts that barely reached the thighs, high heels, and euphoric expressions. Then she registered the hairstyles, which were very 1950s.
Not a time period Rose had been around for, but she was pretty sure that showing off the belly button hadn’t been common. She took the box back to the bed and sat down next to it, going through them with more curiosity now. Some of these were pretty explicit…
…some of them were in colour, the ones nearer the bottom of the pile more recent and less faded…
Rose saw the edge of a photo poking out from what was otherwise quite a neat stack. She tugged it out and was startled to find her own face smiling back at her, a broad, open, completely unconcerned grin beneath vacant, happy eyes. She was caked in makeup in a much more aggressively sexual style than Rose preferred, and while the photo stopped above the waist, all she could see herself wearing was her favourite bra, the red one with shimmering fabric scales.
She didn’t remember posing for it, couldn’t imagine posing for it, and she looked like such a slut.
And in the background…
Her head spinning, Rose stood back up and padded through into the living room again. She didn’t believe it, and it made no sense whatsoever. But she was still sure it was true.
The restored fireplace in her living room seemed to leer back at her from the photograph.
From the moment he opened the door and saw her, Matthews knew he would be performing the ritual that night. She looked uncertain, even stood on the threshold, and he wasn’t sure he could persuade her to come in. Only the price being so low seemed to bring people in these days… but there was still a worthy harvest.
When she went up the stairs and into the empty apartment, she was visibly even less interested. Matthews brushed his knuckles against the very tip of a nail poking out of the maintenance closet door jamb, cutting just deep enough to draw a few precious drops of blood.
Rose took a few steps into the apartment and looked around disinterestedly. “You get a great view from the window in the bedroom there,” Matthews said, gesturing with his uninjured hand.
As she made her way over to the doorway, he stooped and lifted the welcome mat, running his bloody knuckles over the sigils there. Empowering them.
He stayed at the entrance to the apartment, knowing she’d interpret that as wanting to give her space. She had no reason to imagine that crossing the threshold now was the last thing he wanted to do. Not until the sigils were done with their work.
Rose carried the box into the kitchen and sat down on the hand-carved old chair. She took a handful of the newer photos found at the bottom of the box out and started flicking through them thoughtfully.
Not all of them were her, but she wasn’t in just the one. She found that same strange version of her face, covered in that same over-sexualised, unsubtle style (not at all her kind of thing) in extreme close-up, staring at the camera with hungry, needy eyes, her mouth open and distorted around someone’s cock. The golden filigree decoration atop the black wrought-iron bedpost was just visible over her shoulder.
She stared at herself for a long time. Something in the eyes was still recognisably her; if it hadn’t been, she would have assumed this had to be a trick of some sort.
(She was carefully not asking herself what kind of trick that would have to be. If she did, other questions were going to follow. Who, how, and why were all questions she instinctively felt she didn’t want to get an answer to.)
She went through the picturebox carefully, and found no other images of her. By the end, though, she’d seen six or seven other women appear multiple times, their photos aged to greater or lesser degrees. There was a sequence, and she wasn’t the only one photographed committing lewd acts.
Rose wondered if she could get out of her contract without forfeiting her deposit. At that point, forfeiting first and last month’s rent wasn’t a possibility, so with a certain very real regret she acknowledged she’d have to stick it out.
She did almost no more unpacking that day. Running down to the Chinese, she came back with a variety of cardboard packs full of different delicious flavours. Eating helped distract her, which - right then - was the most valuable thing in the world.
With the leftovers eventually stored in the fridge, Rose made her way to bed. She curled up under the covers with a glass of wine on the bedside table and Netflix on her tablet.
Sitcom reruns until so tired she’d sleep dreamlessly had worked when her college courses had given her irregular panic attacks, she reminded herself. They’d work now, too.
They had to.
Rose slept, and after her twelfth hour in the apartment, the second sigil activated from her presence. The second of the enchantments on the apartment began to empower.
She did not sleep dreamlessly. Instead, she found herself again in the living room, seated on the old sofa, which didn’t feel old and soft beneath her any longer. It was instead firm and new; when her hand brushed against it, the fabric was still velvety-plush.
Rose realised she was seated right on the edge of the sofa. Two other women sat beside her, women she recognised from the photographs - the eldest two, she thought, as her head turned to look at them.
In the strange illogic of dreams, it never occurred to her to speak with them. She realised after a few moments regarding them that they were both seated in the exact same position, arms demurely by their sides, hands resting palm-down on their thighs, heads straight ahead. There was something strange about them which Rose saw now for the first time, something those old black-and-white photos could never have shown even before they went sepia.
Both women had eyes with the same unnatural shade of soft amber.
Rose turned her head to see what they might be looking at, and in so doing found herself falling naturally into the same pose. Now all three women were seated in the same posture, each looking at the same empty high-backed chair.
Rose would not be able to tell you, later, how long she continued to stare at that chair. If she was pushed, though, she would say that she had felt an anticipation and a calmness at once; an excitement tempered by the certainty that what she was waiting for would happen.
All the same, she would have had no answer if you’d asked her what they were waiting for, nor why it filled her with such joyous contentment.
After a long shower the following morning, Rose wandered into the kitchen, yawning, before she took in a sight that stopped her dead in her tracks.
The photographs weren’t in their nice, neat, organised stacks outside the box marked Treasures. They - and the box - weren’t even on the kitchen table. She went straight to the front door and checked the locks, then checked the window opening onto the rickety old fire escape - both of them locked - before she wondered what else could be happening.
There was that urban legend, that strange nightmare, about the idea of someone getting into an apartment through its bathroom mirrors. She remembered reading somewhere this was based on an actual event; a building which had been so shoddily constructed that someone could move between the apartments through empty wall spaces, emerging where they were fragile. Rose checked that, too, before any other options came to mind.
Eventually, she walked cautiously back into the bedroom, tiptoed to the wardrobe, and opened it. The box was back in its place, heavy with photographs again.
Someone might have broken in and stolen the box. She could picture that happening, as crazy as it would have to be. But accepting that somebody had broken in, repacked the box, tiptoed into her room with it and replaced it in the wardrobe? That made no sense to her.
But something had to have happened. Photographs didn’t move around on their own.
…They weren’t taken on their own either, though. And there were two photographs of Rose in that box which she was 100% certain she had not posed for.
Rose took the box down again. This had to be something, had to mean something, and the box was the only way she had of connecting to it.
She went back into the kitchen with the box, never having noticed the new, skimpy, shimmering red almost-dress waiting for her in her wardrobe.
Rose delved heavily into the box, looking for one of the more modern, coloured images, which were all down near the bottom of the stack.
She was looking for an image of the woman most recent to her, and plucked one out fairly easily. The blonde’s hair was scraped back and tied into an up high knot, and from that and her makeup, Rose guessed the photo would have been taken sometime in the past five years.
She pulled out her phone and snapped a pic of the photo, then dropped it into an image search engine. While she was waiting, she idly delved back into the stack, wondering if there would be anything she could find from her own two images.
Except now there were three of them.
Rose looked down at herself standing tall in a long red ballgown, the side of the gown slit up the leg - and, because in the photo she was stood with one high-heeled foot on the cushion of the armchair, the thigh turned aside from her other leg at the hip, that slit revealed far more than just the leg; it showed her vibrant red stockings, her garter belt, and the complete lack of any panties.
But even more than the others, for all that the woman wore Rose’s own face, it couldn’t be her; her hair was different, and she knew for a fact she’d never had that pseudo-elegant undercut style.
What even was this?
After a long moment staring at the impossible photograph, she turned back to her phone and found the results of the search.
Amelia Tallman’s Facebook account had the same face as the picture. The same broad smile. The makeup and hair were different, but Rose found she wasn’t surprised by that. Tallman had never set her account to private, but she hadn’t posted herself for four years. One or two of her friends had left messages worrying about her on her wall for another year or two afterwards, but there was no response to these.
Rose found where Tallman’s profile said she’d worked and called in. The response was startled, but warm and hopeful; did Rose know where she’d gone? Was she alright? Eventually she teased out of the woman who answered the phone that Amelia had just not come into work one day. Her phone had rang and rang without answer. Emails had gone awry. She’d never even come in to pick up her last paycheck, they’d never been approached for references. A frustration at an absent employee had turned first to anger, then frustration, then concern, and time had mellowed the concern into an idle curiosity, a name almost forgotten until Rose spoke it aloud once again.
So why had Tallman vanished? Where had she gone? What was she doing with herself?
She sat there with her own photo and Amelia’s in her two hands for a long time, turning ideas over in her mind. No matter how she tried, she couldn’t make any of this make sense.
The building caretaker, Matthews, looked up from the photo she’d handed him with the expression of a man who was hiding something. She studied his expression closely, trying to read any more than that, but couldn’t get anything deeper, just that he was cautious.
“Yes,” he said eventually. “I recognise her.”
“What can you tell me about her?”
He sucked in his breath and didn’t answer for a while. “I’m not sure what I could tell you,” he said at last. “Privacy laws being what they are.”
That hadn’t been what Rose had expected, but she wasn’t slow on the uptake. “You wouldn’t have a problem if you knew her outside your job,” she said, more accusingly than she’d really meant to. “So she lived here.”
Matthews wouldn’t meet her eyes. “If you want to say that,” he said, “I can’t really comment, can I?”
God, the man was frustrating. “Why did she leave?”
Matthews just shrugged. “People don’t tend to tell me that sort of thing.”
Which was… plausible. She just didn’t believe him. She stared at him for a long moment, weighing up whether getting aggressive would be a good idea or a bad one. She decided in the end that trying to intimidate him into answers wouldn’t work, purely because someone like him would dig his heels in if a girl tried acting scary.
She left him holding the photo as she stormed off. If he really didn’t understand, she wasn’t in the mood to explain.
As she walked away, Rose scratched idly at the side of her head. The hair felt too heavy on that side of her head. Maybe it was time for a haircut?
Rose yawned as she made her way into work. Just a couple of days into her new apartment’s lease, and despite the bed being very comfortable, she seemed to be sleeping less than ever.
“Morning, Rose,” Jana called, watching her arrival from the little drinks nook. “Coffee?”
“I’d kill for one,” Rose replied, putting a cheerful smile on her face. She made her way across, eager to get a drink and a dose of normality. Anything to take her mind off the strange itch of too much hair.
“That’s a new look for you,” Jana commented as she passed the fresh-poured mug across.
Rose blinked. “Huh?”
Jana gestured vaguely toward her own face. “You’ve put a bit more effort in with the makeup?” she guessed. Rose blinked again, surprised. She’d just done what she normally did between shower and work, hadn’t she?
But a glance at the shining side of the office water boiler confirmed that wasn’t entirely true. Much heavier, openly sensual in the design, they leaned a smouldering smokiness to her eyes. She didn’t even own that beautiful peacock-green eyeshadow.
Shaken to the core, she waited to be at her desk before she did anything else. She pulled her makeup compact from her bag, flipped it open. The peacock green shone back up at her, the makeup inside her old, battered compact all new to her.
She checked her reflection in the mirror, closer to the woman in the photos than ever before.
Rose was horrified, but in spite of herself…
…she did have to admit she liked her new look better than her old one.
But that couldn’t be right… could it?
It was much harder to find information on the earlier women. Rose spent a couple of days not even trying, just focusing on her work, trying to push the strangeness of her apartment to the back of her mind. As beautiful as the place was, she felt uncomfortable and unsettled there. She stayed on at work much later than needed, ate out (the cheapest food - she couldn’t afford this, really), and spent as little time in the apartment as possible other than to sleep, shower, and dress for the new day.
She was almost to the end of the working week when it occurred to her that there was another resource which might give her a little more information about these women.
After all, if Tallman had disappeared, the others might have too.
She had to wait for Saturday to get to the library, where she enlisted the help of one of the staff to find her way down into the local newspaper archives.
Her hair was still itching, still too long. It was a constant distraction now; it would be so easy to just go get an undercut and be done with it. The more Rose thought about it, the more she felt like she actually liked the look. Which… she’d never even considered it before. As ideas went it was basically alien to her, and yet she still found herself caught up in the idea.
Rose felt tangled and confused; it was like her head was part of the problem, betraying her, an agent of…
…of whatever what happening…
…working from the inside. Was that how this happened, then?
Because she had already given up imagining that someone was messing with her. Things were happening around her, and she was failing to notice them and feeling the effects; or she had spotted them early enough to determinedly resist. Even that felt like a losing game.
Rose could not have told you why, caught up in her own changes, she was spending so much energy chasing the victims of this strange effect in the past. She would probably have said something about hoping that one of them had understood, had found a solution or even just a way out, something she could copy.
Saturday was busy. She was very grateful that the library had digitised so many of its old newspapers, had made searching easier, but it still took her most of the day.
She had no names, she had no specific dates or even any confidence about the years, and her head was fuzzy. So many thoughts just seemed to be lost in the itch or in one of the other distracting thoughts and images which had crept into her mind over the course of the week; it was like a fog in her head, and thoughts that went in came out very differently.
She thought these ideas were meant to present themselves as daydreams, as idle erotic fancies. And she had to admit that if she hadn’t found the pictures, hadn’t begun to form a picture of what was happening around her, she could imagine herself being taken over by fantasy after fantasy, each building on the last successful new desire.
It wouldn’t be too far removed from those heady days as a teenager when she’d gone from discovering her sexuality to revelling in it; a time when her emotions and her hormones outweighed her conscious thoughts.
Whatever was changing her, whatever had happened to her, could have taken her over so easily if she hadn’t found that box of treasures.
Rose understood, all too clearly, that if she was going to find a solution, it would be because she’d achieved it before these slow twists and changes stopped her wanting to. As eager as she was to fight it off, she could feel her resolve flagging.
Some traitor part of her mind was even wrapped up in a fantasy about fantasies, imagining with pleasure the idea she could have been twisted into some helpless, eager whore without her noticing. That part of her was willing to enjoy the idea - something Rose was sure would have appalled her only a couple of weeks ago - enough to even wish it had happened.
It was hard to concentrate on her search, and as the library closed that day, she allowed herself to be ushered out clutching a piece of paper tightly, one with an address on it - the address of Madeleine Warbeck, who had still been alive ten years ago, and who had featured in news stories four or five times after her 1995 disappearance from Rose’s apartment.
Rose had every intention to go straight to that address, but she met the eyes of a youngish, well-built librarian just as he locked the front doors behind her, and her intentions disappeared into the brainfog and came out as a completely different thought.
Somehow, Rose was absolutely certain this man was the owner of the cock she was sucking in one of the photos.
Following close on the heels of that shock was another idea, one she wasn’t prepared to contest, and which managed to feel just like her own thoughts.
She reached out and put her hand on this.
“You’re about to get off, right?” she asked, her eyes a mixture of hopeful and hungry.
The young man’s eyes darted across her face, drinking in that exotic, sensual makeup, and he smiled. “I think we both are,” he grinned.
“My place isn’t too far away, and it’s peaceful,” Rose offered, and it was done, before what remained of her old self could catch it.