Black clouds lay ominous in the moonless night, breathing out icy gusts then enshrouding the morning in pitch shadows. Inspector Will, oblivious of the imminent storm, glowered at the dead man's chest where the killer had left a ring on a piece of canvas.
The words etched on the wedding band said 'Jim & Nancy Forever.' The dead man was Jim and his wife's name was Nancy, according to the papers in his wallet. The diamond ring suggested that adultery had inspired the murderer. But that canvas - half the size of a piece of A4 paper, worn, shapeless and grizzled - what did it stand for?
It couldn't have been the ring's gift wrapper, as one detective suggested. It served a more important purpose, had a special message of its own.
"The clock," an officer Will didn't know said. "Look at the clock, sir."
It said 10:30 yet it was 3:15 a.m. The second hand ticked dutifully though the minute and hour hands were dead.
"Should we bag it?"
Inspector Will shook his head, irked by the distraction. It could just be a clock out of order. He returned to the oracular canvas.
The stark naked corpse bore no visible signs of homicide, no fatal wounds, no strangulation marks. He could have been a man asleep. After working on it for a whole day, the pathologist said he couldn't explain the cause of death. The only indication of murder was an anonymous call to the police. It came that night at exactly 2:30 a.m., when a scrambled voice said, "I've made my first kill; 21 Speke Avenue."
The cops found the owner of the apartment, Maggie, the only witness, cowering under the kitchen table. She looked as though she'd just crawled out of a freezer. Her eyes were wide open, unblinking, fixed on one spot, unable to see. Unable to tell Inspector Will what had happened.
Jim's wife was the prime suspect. When Inspector Will questioned her, she said she didn't know about her husband and Maggie.
Only Buck, the lab guy, had something to tell the Inspector. "This piece of canvas," he explained, "belonged to an oil painting, was part of a bigger picture. Could be a hundred years old.
"We can't tell what the picture was. All we can see are dots and slivers of paint. Some blue, some white, some light oak. If you're wondering why the paint's gone, somebody scraped it off."
* * * * *
Precisely seven days after the first murder, again at 2:30 a.m., the butcher called and said, "I've made my second kill; 107 Main Street." They couldn't trace the call. They couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman; the killer had used an electronic scrambler.
The scene was no different from the first. In the icy darkness outside, a storm threatened once more. The adulterous man's corpse lay supine on the bed. His wedding ring sat on another scrap of worn, shapeless and grizzled canvas, which lay on his chest. His concubine cowered under the kitchen table, frozen white, in a trance and unable to explain what she had seen.
Then there was the ticking clock again stuck at 10:30. Inspector Will frowned. Is that 10:30 a.m. or p.m.? What does the killer mean by that time? Why is the second hand still ticking while the two main hands are dead?
Inspector Will's attention soon reverted to the cryptic canvas.
* * * * *
Will married late in life at forty. His wife died two years later. He had never loved anyone before Leonora. He'd kept away from women since her death twenty years ago. He lived alone in his apartment. He didn't know his neighbors.
That night he got home just before daybreak, took Leonora's picture down from the wall and leaned it against a stack of books on the coffee table. She smiled at him. He smiled back.
Someone's killing men who cheat, Lo, he said to his wife. He always spoke under his breath while conversing with her. She never replied.
Her smile sparkled full of teeth. His heart beat faster, just like on the day when he first saw her at the bus stop.
Who's doing it, Lo? A vengeful woman? A man whose home was devastated by a cheating husband? The whole thing is about men, Lo. This psycho puts all the blame on men, yet spares the concubines. But you know, Lo, I'd never be one of this guy's victims. I'd never cheat on you. I swear.
He wiped the tears that rolled from his eyes, stood up and put Leonora back on the wall.
I'll talk to you later Lo, he said. I have to figure out what this piece of canvas means.
He returned to work. He fished out the first bit of canvas from a drawer and put it on the desk next to the second scrap. He took a long swig from his bottle. He studied the two fragments. They were roughly the same size. Some curves in the first piece fitted the curves in the second scrap, like two bits of a jigsaw. When he joined the two, they merged so perfectly he couldn't see the line that separated them. Almost immediately, the canvas color changed to sea green.
Inspector Will staggered to his feet. He rubbed his eyes and took another swig from his bottle. The apparition didn't go away. He touched the canvas to convince himself. The paint was wet. He wiped his fingers on the wall and left a green smudge.
Inspector Will prayed he was drunk and it was all just the effect of the whiskey. When he separated the two pieces of canvas, they lost the sea green color, and again became worn and grizzled.
* * * * *
"I still can't explain the cause of death," the pathologist said. "Though I know they were both killed at two a.m."
"I was hoping 10:30 meant the time of death," Will said.
"This is--" Buck shook his head, "unbelievable. Someone ripped an ancient oil painting to bits to make a jigsaw. But it's a--Jesus, when you put the scraps together, you get new paint on the canvas. The old droplets of paint remain underneath, so it looks like someone's painting on an old picture.
"Sorry buddy," he finished, "we can't explain this."
* * * * *
Exactly seven days after the second killing, another man died in a scene no different from the first two, complete with the threatening storm and icy darkness. The butcher left the same clues. The call came in at 2:30 a.m. The ticking clock was stuck at 10:30. The hypnotized concubine cowered under the kitchen table, unable to tell what had happened. Inspector Will found the naked corpse supine on the bed, and a wedding ring sat on a scrap of canvas on the dead man's chest. The third piece of canvas also turned sea green when merged with the first two.
Will took down Lo's picture and put it on the coffee table. He got himself a drink and slumped onto the sofa.
Isn't it amazing, Lo, he said. Men continue to cheat even after what has happened. They just don't get this psycho's message. In seven days time, I'm very certain we'll see another corpse.
Will waited edgily for the next victim. The seven days turned out to be seven hundred years. He rarely left his flat. He sat on the sofa and talked to Lo all day, drunk. Each time his clock went ding-dong, he'd say, Hurrah, Lo. That's another hour gone.
On the day before the fourth killing, the Chief of Police summoned him and said, "The whole country's waiting for you to catch this one." He spoke between his teeth, his face red. "Unfaithful husbands are killed in their lovers' flats. Big news. All the murders occur here in our city. Very big news. So why aren't you catching him?"
"I--uhm--I'm trying chief."
"You've got witnesses--"
"They can't talk."
"The killer leaves behind a hundred clues."
"It's not a normal--this one's--"
"Supernatural? Oh God, Will. Catch him or I'll take the case away from you."
Inspector Will collected the fourth piece of canvas. It took him a few minutes to figure out its place in the jigsaw. He fitted it in and the color immediately turned green. Then something else happened. A white spot appeared in the middle of the picture. Excited, Will used a magnifier to study the white smear and saw a ship, an ancient kind with white sails and a flag he couldn't place.
He danced around the coffee table. "The picture's coming, Lo," he sang. "It's coming!" For the first time in twenty years, he spoke aloud to his dead wife. He fell to his knees, hugged Leonora's picture, and cried. "Lo, I'm so happy. When the painting is complete, it'll be ours. I'll keep it because it reminds me of how faithful I am to you."
The next seven days were even longer than seven hundred years. This time, however, Will put on a big show of trying to catch the 'Passionate Killer'. He set up a timer that other cops thought was to motivate the team to stop the psycho before he struck again. When they heard him mutter, "ninety hours left," "eighty hours left," they thought he was reading the timer. Three days before the fifth killing, the chief called him and said, "Very well done, Inspector. Keep it up and we'll net this guy."
That evening, he said to his wife, "Good news, Lo. I'm keeping the job. I'll get all the pieces and I'll give you that painting as a present to prove my love. It's a pity the killer takes so much time between his hits, but if he'd picked seven hour intervals, it'd still seem an unnecessarily long period of time." He took a swig from his bottle. "Okay, let's wait. Let's be very patient."
On the night of the fifth murder, Inspector Will contacted the station several times and asked if the psycho had phoned. Each time he called, a sergeant replied, "Not yet, Inspector. His time is 2:30 a.m. Still hours to go."
When 2:30 came, Inspector Will's cell phone rang. He snatched it up at once. The caller identity displayed on the monitor read, 'Passionate Killer.' He hadn't saved any number with that name.
In panic, he threw the phone and it fell on the sofa where he always sat while talking to Lo. It rang two more times. He still couldn't muster the courage to answer it. His mouth dried up. His heart beat erratically.
"Hello?" a woman's voice said. "Are you there, Inspector Will?"
Impossible, Inspector Will said under his breath.
"What's impossible, Inspector?" the woman said. "That your phone answers and puts itself on hands free mode?"
Inspector Will swallowed hard. His knees trembled. Sweat popped out of his forehead. He stared unbelievingly at the phone.
"I'm the Passionate Killer," the woman said. "I called to say that I'm so glad that you've become my partner. You are collecting my scraps of canvas, to rebuild my picture. That makes us partners, doesn't it? You don't want me to stop, do you?"
Will's legs crumbled. He collapsed to the floor, closed his eyes tight and pressed his palms hard against his ears. He couldn't block out that girlish voice.
"After tonight, there'll be two more pieces. If you get both, the painting will be yours."
Will didn't want it any more.
* * * * *
The next day, his workmates noticed he'd aged overnight. He looked eighty. His hair had turned completely white. Wrinkles swathed his face. He'd forgotten where he'd parked his car. He couldn't remember what he'd talked about half a minute ago.
Two days later, the Chief summoned him and said, "I'm taking you off the case, Will. Joey's now in charge."
"Thank you, Chief," he replied. "You should've done that sooner."
He walked back to his desk before the Chief could say anything else. The phone rang. He had kept his cell phone off with the battery dead so that he couldn't receive any more calls from the Passionate Killer. When he picked up the phone on his desk, he realized he couldn't escape her.
"Oh, there you are Inspector," she said. "At last I--" Inspector Will slammed the phone down.
He fled home to tear the painting to pieces and dump it on Joey's desk. However, before he could touch it, his cell phone rang. It lay on the coffee table, next to Lo's picture.
Impossible, he said under his breath. It's off. The battery's dead.
The phone persisted. He refused to pick it up. The woman's voice blew up in his flat like shrill thunder.
"Don't ever hang up on me again!" she screamed. "You hear? And don't think of tearing up my picture or I'll tear you up too!"
Inspector Will shrank to the floor and cried, "Oh Lo, what did I get myself into?"
"Will," the Passionate Killer said in a softer voice, "I once had an uncle who could see a hundred years into the future. He chose you in 1904 when he was looking for a suitable cop for this project. In a whole century, you're the only detective who wouldn't love more than one woman in his lifetime. You've performed better than we expected. You fell in love with my picture. That made me much stronger than I ever imagined I'd be. You must keep the case or else I'll kill you. You hear? I'll kill you if you don't keep this case."
An hour later, Inspector Will breezed into the Chief's office and said, "I'm close to catching her, Chief. Give me another chance."
"It's a woman."
The Chief gawked at Will for nearly thirty seconds. "Inspector--"
"She's intends to kill two more men. I'm close to catching her."
* * * * *
On the night of the last murder, Will slumped on the sofa with a drink, seeking comfort in Lo's eternal smile.
"I'm done, Lo," he said. "I messed up and now I'm done. It's the end."
"The ship's name."
The glass slipped and crashed onto the rug, splashing his feet with drink. He sat bolt upright and stared at Lo.
"What? Lo, did you speak?"
His wife's picture only smiled at him.
The ship had grown bigger as though it was sailing towards him from the horizon. He used the magnifying glass and immediately saw its name under a bronze woman's head on the bow. Venus Athenus. He searched the Internet for the name and Google immediately displayed a result, a link to an ancient shipping magazine's website, The Sea Moon. He clicked on the link and the issue from May 1904 popped up.
According to the lead story, a Sir John Bayley built the vessel as a wedding present for his teenage wife, Venus. He named it after her and the city in which they met, Athens. He hired Marcus, a very famous artist, to paint Venus on the ship's deck. They were cruising from London to Greece for their honeymoon when a storm sunk the boat. Everybody on board, including Marcus, drowned. Three days later, Marcus's brush was found floating in the sea. It was the only thing ever recovered from the Venus Athenus.
Inspector Will walked back to his wife. "A painting by Marcus and a honeymoon on a ship that sunk," he said. "It doesn't make sense, Lo. How can I relate it to this serial killer? Tell me, Lo."
His wife only smiled at him.
Three hours later, Will had the seventh and last piece of the jigsaw. The painting was complete.
Suddenly, a brush with the name Marcus etched on the handle appeared in Will's right hand, and Will became a puppet. He started to paint, drew white clouds, a sea, and a big ship to replace the tiny one in the middle of the canvas. Last, he painted a bride, Venus, on the deck. He put a big smile on her face. The painting was complete. The brush vanished and Will regained control of his body.
"This," a male voice said, "was the last painting Marcus did, just before the ship sunk." Inspector Will turned sharply around, but didn't see anybody. When he turned back to the painting, Venus blinked.
Will thought his senses were playing tricks on him. He heard the breeze whistle amid the giggles of the sea. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes but when he looked at the picture again, Venus was anxiously moving about on the deck.
"Lo," Will said. "It's an evil movie. Why didn't you warn me?"
Venus glanced up at him. She was no longer a happy bride. Her eyes were sad, her face agitated.
"What's happening?" the voice, the unseen commentator, spoke again. "Waiting for someone?"
In reply, Venus dug a pocket watch from her purse. When she saw the time, horror spread on her face. She shrieked, sprawled on the deck and cried bitterly.
"What now?" the commentator continued. "It's 10:30 a.m. and this date of yours hasn't shown up. Now there's no hope of seeing him, is there? Are you waiting for your new husband, Sir John? Oh look! Isn't that Sir John with another woman?"
The bride looked up at Will, shocked. She rose and walked purposefully towards the camera. The expression on her face led Will to believe she intended to do something evil. Suddenly, a storm struck the sea. Venus looked up at the sky, unable to believe how white clouds in a blue sky could produce a storm. The waves tossed the boat. Venus clung to the railing. Will thought he heard her screams. A whirlwind wrenched her off the boat, hurled her out of the painting. She fell to the floor in Will's flat with a sickening thud. She lay sprawled at his feet, groaning. She was drenched.
The canvas cracked into seven pieces, once again became old and worn with no paint on it. Outside, the storm that had threatened for seven weeks pounded the city.
Will wanted to flee. Fear glued him to the floor.
"Hello Inspector," Venus said. Her voice was hoarse with pain, but he recognized it. She was the woman on the phone. She touched her ribs, and then stood up, a grimace on her face. "At last we meet," she said. A pool of seawater formed around her feet. "I'm Marcus--" she touched her face, "--in a new body," she added, the male commentator's voice coming from between her lips.
"My mother," she said, reverting to the girlish voice, "killed herself at two a.m. when she found my dad with the maid. My uncle, a great sorcerer, showed me how, through the painting, to live forever in the body of a virgin bride whose adulterous husband hadn't yet touched her, a bride willing to murder the cheating bastard, to avenge mama's death." Venus again smiled at Will. "I've lived as a spirit since my death in 1904, but my powers and abilities were limited: I could only kill at two a.m. I need this body to realize my full potential.
"I can only be free once more if the person who so kindly rebuilt my picture--that's you--dies. There can be no one alive who knows my secret. We had to schedule the last murder to coincide with your death. Tonight, you'll have your first--and last--heart attack.
"I needed seven murders because Sir John had seven concubines when he married Venus. He had them all in that boat. Oh, how we have suffered--but no more. Now the suffering will belong to them instead.
"Very many thanks, Inspector."
Thirteen minutes later, she left the flat and walked into the storm dressed in Will's jeans and t-shirt.
The Inspector lay on the bed, wrapped in the wedding gown, dead. The seven pieces of canvas he'd collected from the seven crime scenes lay scattered on his corpse. The only witness was Leonora, who smiled at him from the wall.