The couple had space to themselves, enough to stare at the painting without the sense of sharing with others. It was a violent scene, unneutered by the ancient clothing of the two characters. A man lay unconscious on the floor, his head resting on a curled arm. A woman knelt over him, holding a long nail to the side of his head with a hammer raised above her shoulder. Her face conveyed no doubt about a horrible end for the man. Silas reckoned the artist must have had a very dark imagination, then recalled something he had read about her. As a young woman she had been raped, and the man had got away with it because he was well connected and the trial had been rigged. Then he heard Janine chuckling. He was impressed by a dark sense of humour, but felt ready for a little verbal game.
“Would you laugh if it was a man doing that a woman?”
“That would be different,” she replied.
“Because that would be an act of extreme misogyny, a brute inflicting violence on a woman. But she’s taking out the general of a hostile army, even though she’s weaker and more vulnerable.”
He took a second look at the caption beside the painting. The general, Sisera, was on the run after his army had its arse kicked; and the woman, Jael, had offered him shelter, probably something extra on the side, then taken advantage when he fell asleep. She had been sneaky and lethal.
“And what if the woman had been a general?” he asked.
“Don’t be silly. Women don’t get to be generals.”
He liked her for that; ready to give him a little verbal stick, despite knowing he was rich and had a reputation for getting his own way. Another couple appeared behind them, indulging in some arty fart talk about the cultural context of the picture. Silas and Janine moved on to another picture.
An hour later they sat at a restaurant table, the bones of a Dover sole on his plate, scraps of monkfish tails on hers, a fifty-five pound bottle of sauvignon blanc between them. A smile with a mischievous turn crept onto his face.
“The artist, Artimisia,” he said. “You said she was very successful in her day, four hundred years ago, even though she was a woman.”
“That’s right. She even came to England to work for the King.”
“Which made her one in a million. I reckon she must have been bloody hard nosed, even ruthless. Look at some of those pictures; that was a violent mind at work.”
“They were based on old stories.”
“But she relished what she was painting. She had it in for men.”
Janine paused, responded with the hint of a smile.
“She had it in for bad men.”
“Who got to say which ones were bad?”
“She knew. Had confidence in her own judgement.”
He was liking her; a little harder and quicker thinking that most of the women he took for dinner. It was going well for a first date.
“You must recognise that,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’ve made your business what it is without a ruthless streak. And you must have a strong sense of who’s good and who’s bad.”
He broadened his smile, dipped his head.
“And how do you see yourself?” she asked. “Good guy or bad guy?”
“Not like that. Very successful guy. Guy who does what needs to be done.”
“You say that to most people and they’ll see horns on your head, not a halo.”
“I never wanted a halo. They look stupid.”
“You’d prefer horns?”
“No. I wouldn’t want to make things more difficult for my barber.”
They shared a quiet but cynical laugh. He decided to show a little more of himself.
“To get on in my business you have to play rough. I’ve hurt some people, a few of them badly, and they would have done it to me given the chance. And those who wouldn’t, they wished they could do it, but didn’t have the balls.”
She held her smile. He felt confident that it was approval.
“I’ve heard a story,” she said. “About a fire at a factory. It left the owners unable to fill a massive order and the business went to you.”
“All true, and I suspect you’ve heard a version that the investigators found signs of arson. But it was never established who was responsible, and people often leave out the bit about the owners being in serious debt and that they couldn’t fulfil the order. They had to take the insurance company to court to get the money.”
“And it all worked out well for you.”
“It did. Sometimes things go like that.”
“But you have a talent of making them work for you?”
He detected a hint of excitement in her voice, and while he was generally cautious he liked the thought of turning her on. He smiled again, with a faint twist.
“I do, and that’s partly because I don’t talk about how I do it.”
A waiter appeared to take their plates, they looked at the options for dessert and drifted into talk about Janine’s working life. She was smart – had proved that in the piece of work she had done for his company – and he might have thought about offering her a job if he hadn’t had other intentions. He wouldn’t rush it, sensed that she was the type who wouldn’t be impressed by a move on the first date, but would do enough to make her want to see him again.
After the meal they stepped outside and were met by a cab she had called. He held the door open, ready for a gentlemen’s goodnight and an invitation to meet againt, and was surprised that she paused with an enticing smile.
“Are you coming with me?”
He returned the smile and stepped inside, then they spent twenty minutes whispering and stroking each other’s thighs.
He was impressed by her flat. It was more spacious than he expected, well furnished with a handful of framed prints signed by the artists. When she told her Alexa device to play some Melody Gardot he gave her credit for decent taste in music. This could turn out to be much more than a one night stand. She offered a drink; he was ready for something else but knew it was better not to rush things and asked if she had a tonic water and lime. She said he could take off his jacket then left the room for five minutes, reappearing with two glasses and an extra button undone on her blouse.
“Tonic as well for me,” she said. “But I’m the lemon, you’re the lime.”
He sipped and detected a slight floral taste.
“It’s a speciality brand,” she said. “It has some mysterious botanical ingredient.”
“Unusual, but agreeable.”
He sipped again, then placed the drink on the table beside the sofa. She sat beside him, not touching but close, drink still in her hand.
“I didn’t ask,” she said. “Did you actually enjoy the exhibition?”
He wondered if it was a test, something that was going to influence what was going to happen next, and reckoned an honest reaction would serve it well.
“I’m not big on art, but I enjoyed it more than I expected. I liked the way she let her anger show, even in the portraits of women with ‘What you looking at?’ faces. I could see she was kicking back at how women were expected to be submissive back then.”
“So you have an eye for art.”
“I wouldn’t say that. I have an eye for women with strong characters.”
She smiled but slid back into the far corner of the sofa, raised her legs to rest on his and sipped at her drink. He guessed this was a little ritual, sipped again at his own drink, was surprised again by the taste, then placed a hand on her leg. She didn’t object, but asked: “Do you like women strong characters in your business?”
“Are you pitching for a job?”
“No, just trying to get the know the man who’s sitting on my sofa.”
He was enjoying her game, as long as it didn’t go on for too long. He sipped at the drink again.
“I’m just what you see, a multimillionaire with expensive tastes.”
“And a ruthless streak.”
“That’s how you get to be a multimillionaire.”
He tried to shift towards her but found it hard. His head was clear but his body felt heavy. He tried again, managed a few inches but his limbs seemed weak. Janine moved towards him and placed her hand on his.
“So that ruthless streak. I’ve heard a couple of stories.”
“There are more than a couple.”
“Killer clauses in contracts that no-one understood at the time. People who didn’t want to sell to you suddenly changing their minds for no obvious reason. Same for people who tried to stop of your plans.”
“Stuff like that happens in business.”
“Competitors running into problems with their supply chains, or a spate of machinery problems in their factories. And that warehouse fire.”
“I couldn’t comment on that.”
Now she moved, gently squeezed his hand and smiled.
“It’s impressive, a clever man who gets what he wants.”
Then her hand moved onto his thigh. He felt a tingle beneath the waist, along with a looseness around his hips and joints. She moved her face towards his, a subtle pout on her lips.
“Just tell me a little more,” she said. “How you could make that happen?”
“Make it happen?”
He smiled, enough to confirm what she was thinking, then shook his head.
“Some things stay secret. Part ob beee…” He struggled to form the words. Now his lips and tongue felt loose.
“Part of being so clever,” she said. “I’m not surprised, but you’ve said enough for me.”
He tried to rise from the seat, but his body seemed to be losing its shape. He swayed then fell back into the corner of the sofa. Then he tried to speak but his lips curled and words mushed.
“I timed that just right,” she said. “Long enough for that extra ingredient in your drink to take effect.”
She stood. He tried again to get up but immediately sank backwards. His body had become a badly formed jelly. She left the room. Over the next five minutes his mind raced through possibilities of what she was going to do next, none of them good. Then she reappeared, dressed in a hooded white polypropylene suit and blue covers over her shoes, carrying a large roll of plastic coated canvass and a small holdall. He made another effort to rise, pushed his rear off the seat and collapsed on the carpet. She unrolled the canvass on the floor beside him, watched for a moment as he tried and failed to roll away, then kneeled beside him.
“I already knew enough about that warehouse fire, and the look on your face told me the rest,” she said. “And you’re probably realising that I have an interest in it. I can believe that you thought that whoever actually started that fire for you was meant to ensure that anyone around could get out of the way, but I’m sure you know there was a security man who didn’t escape unharmed. He was pulled out alive, but with second degree burns and his lungs messed up from all the smoke and. It made him a very sick man, and he lasted just under two years after the fire. And I’m sure you knew that already. You probably knew that his name was John Smethurst. That used to be my surname, until I started thinking about this, then I changed it to my mum’s.”
She paused, kept her eyes on his, allowing the revelation to sink in. He tried to wriggle away, to call out, but every muscle in his body had become useless.
“I understand that your mind will still be active, so you’ll be wondering how I can get away with this. Well I have a large bath, with a large sheet of thick polypropylene to cover it, which should protect the enamel from the interesting chemicals that I have in the cupboard. It took some research and a lot of planning to obtain it all without being identified, but I’m pretty sure that nobody knows I have them. And that’s just a precaution, because those chemicals can dissolve a human body into an unrecognisable sludge.”
Then she moved behind and rolled him onto the canvass.
“And if you’ve thought about the cab driver, he’s actually an associate of mine, someone who would never consider helping the police with their enquiries.”
He stared across the floor towards the door, unable to move his head but still fully conscious. She placed the holdall in his line of sight, unzipped the top then knelt to make eye contact. A look of contentment had settled on her face.
“You’ve probably worked out why I’m doing this, but asking yourself why this way? I mean this is going to be messy and it will take me hours to clean up, but you see I do like good art. I’d actually been to that exhibition half a dozen times before today, and stared at that particular painting, Jael and Sisera, for a long time. There was something inspiring about it, an angry woman inflicting retribution upon a bad man. The visits coincided with our meetings at work, and the sense that you were getting ideas about what you could do with me. The idea fell into place, and I was surprised that, although it needed an effort, it was possible.”
A grin spread across her face.
“And now we’re here, ready for the moment.”
Her hand slid into the holdall and removed a thick nail, six inches long, then a large hammer. He tried to wriggle, tried to scream, but now his body was an immobile lump. She moved out of his sight and opened her legs so his head rested between them. For a moment she held the hammer within his sight, briefly silent before emitting a satisfied sigh. Then the hammer was raised and he felt a sharp point against the side of his head.
Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, public domain