Sixty-two last Wednesday, and an inclusion in the New Years Honours List. Doris Ackerman smiled. The OBE was a feather in the cap, and not just for herself. The Art Gallery – of which she had been Director these past seventeen years – faced stiff competition for community grants, and the local newspaper coverage would help the next funding application.
But tonight, she had further cause to celebrate. The Gallery was hosting a special exhibit, loaned all the way from Helsinki: Kullervo’s Curse, oil on canvas, by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The painting had been hung this afternoon, ready for the formal opening at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. Doris fancied a peek before she left. It was not every day a provincial town in the Midlands hosted famous foreign art.
Edgar and the day-staff had gone home, and Bjorn the Caretaker had not yet started his shift. Time to let it all hang out. Doris waltzed through the deserted rooms of the Art Gallery, playfully imagining that the dozens of collected paintings belonged to her alone. Why, she thought, she might be an eighteenth century Breton aristocrat, surveying her refined domain. She smiled.
If only. No chandelier, no carpet, and herself in a dour suit, rather than a velvet ball-gown. The peasants had clearly revolted. But she liked an occasional late-night tour through the Gallery. No-one was around to judge her, and it allowed a break from the bother of administration. It reminded Doris why she loved art.
Soon enough, she was alone with Gallen-Kallela’s work.
Famous though it was, this was no aristocratic piece.
Folksy – had it been painted today, it would definitely have been kitsch – with a strangely flattened background, and distinctive iconology. The rendering of Kullervo himself as a thin and shirtless youth evoked both Christian imagery of the crucifixtion and a tree-trunk within the ubiquitous Finnish forest. The painting was very much an exemplar of late nineteenth century romantic nationalism, building off the reconstructed paganism of Lönnrot’s Kalevala. Self-conscious rusticism, rather than refinement, was the order of the day.
Fair-haired Kullervo waved his fist. He had just snapped his precious knife, and was cursing Ilmarinen’s evil wife for tormenting him. It proved a potent curse. Enchanted bears tore the woman limb from limb, when she only saw her harmless dairy cattle.
Doris had read Kalevala twice, and had always seen the episode as part of Kullervo’s wider tendency for self-destruction. Now… she found herself dwelling on the visceral pain of death by bear. Cruel though Ilmarinen’s wife had been, the sorcerous youth was the true villain. Tooth and claw, and crushing animal strength, versus one helpless woman. Such a terrible way to kill someone.
Doris shivered, and turned to go. She had something to chew on for the drive home.
Bjorn stood behind her.
Mop in hand, he stared into space. How he’d managed to get there without her hearing, she couldn’t fathom. Doris looked at her watch. He was two hours early.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Bjorn did not reply. Playing stupid foreigner, though to what purpose Doris could not guess. Laughing at her, perhaps, behind that obtuse demeanour.
Doris had never liked the man. She wasn’t sure about his work visa either. Maybe her husband was right about those blasted migrants, though in fairness to Bjorn, he had never once complained about the pay.
“It broke,” he said.
The Caretaker turned, and strode away with the mop over his shoulder. The mop dripped a slick and watery trail in his wake. Doris frowned. The trail led across the Gallery’s polished floorboards, and through an archway into the next room.
Imagine if she slipped and fell. Doris needed to be here bright and early with the mayor, to open the exhibit. She couldn’t very well do her job with a sprained ankle and a bruised back.
“Bjorn, what are you doing?” Doris snapped. “Where is the bucket? Clean up that mess this instant, or I shall recommend your dismissal to management.”
He did not so much as turn to acknowledge her.
“Bjorn! Come back, or I swear you shall never work in this country again!”
The Caretaker vanished through the archway.
Manoeuvring around the droplet trail, Doris clenched her fists, and ran after him. Her heels clacked against the polished floorboards, and she half-expected to tumble over, but she cared little. Anger alone sustained her. She had not been this angry since her stint as a school teacher. Why, she would dunk Bjorn’s face in his own bucket, until he damned well apologised.
Doris burst through the archway, into the next room.
And there it stood, among the watercolours. Huge and brown. Hairy and clawed. Licking its mighty jaws, its eyes gleaming.
Doris had just enough time to scream before her head was torn from her torso.
“Quite the mess,” said Alan. He sipped his coffee, and wondered if he shouldn’t break out something stronger. He’d been an assistant detective on the force for two years, and this was the most spectacular murder he’d encountered yet.
The Assistant Curator of the Art Gallery nodded. She sat across the table from him, a blonde thing in her late twenties. “A mess is putting it mildly. By the time you lot are done, there will be no point in putting the Gallen-Kallela on display. We’ve only got it for a short time, and Helsinki’s having kittens about security. You don’t want to know what this has done to the annual budget.”
Alan grinned. “I like your priorities, ma’am.”
The Assistant Curator smiled back. “Call me Alice. And, yes, I’m sorry if sound heartless, but I knew Doris Ackerman, and let’s just say that no-one misses her. The woman was a tyrant. Have you talked to Bjorn?”
“We will if we can locate him. He’s proving suspiciously hard to find.”
Alice sighed. “Don’t treat him harshly if you do find him. He’s not very bright. But he is innocent.”
“You said everyone hated Doctor Ackerman. Why would the Caretaker be an exception?”
“Bjorn wouldn’t hurt a fly, and even if he wanted to do some damage, he’s only human. Whatever killed Doris … it was something else. Maybe some wild animal escaped from the zoo.”
“Maybe.” Alan sipped the coffee again. “Tell me. This painting. Does it have special significance?”
“For the Finns, yes. Kullervo’s Curse is one of their most famous artworks. That we’ve got it on loan is nothing short of a miracle.”
“Kullervo … should I know anything about him?”
“He’s a key character in the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. Poor guy came to a bad end though.”
“He seduced his sister unknowingly. Then he found out, and they both committed suicide afterwards.”
“Kullervo isn’t a happy story.” Alice looked at her watch. “Hey, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to dash home to feed the cat. I’d be happy to meet up later, if you have any other questions. Or if you just fancy a vodka shot or two.”
Alan blinked. “Pardon?”
“I’m sorry if you find that unprofessional, but never mind. You’re cute, and I’m not doing much else tonight.”
Alan wanted to decline. Attractive though the Assistant Curator was, it prejudiced the investigation. But, when he opened his mouth to reject her, he heard his voice accepting her invitation. He suddenly knew that this was a case he would never forget.
“Stop feeling guilty,” said Alice. She reclined on the bar’s black leather couch. “I swear, you’re acting like someone’s pulled you into a car to fondle you on the back seat.”
Alan nursed his glass of lager. In truth, he did feel nervous. Socialising like this was … wrong. He knew that. Yet, Alice was somehow irresistable. Whether it be her golden ringlets, or her sky-blue stockings, or the way in which she confronted the world.
“I am investigating a murder case,” said Alan. “Imagine if one of my work colleagues sees me here.”
“So what if they do?” said Alice. “It’s Friday night. You’re outside work hours, and I’m not a suspect, am I?”
“No. We’ve cleared you.”
The police were still hunting Bjorn though. Alan wondered whether Alice held any information on the missing Caretaker.
“Good,” said Alice. “Then let’s forget business for one night. Tell me about yourself.”
Alan drew a deep breath. “I’m an assistant police detective,” he began. “I’ve always liked solving mysteries, even outside work.”
Alice smiled. “Indeed. Any examples?”
“Last year, I discovered I had been adopted. I only found my biological parents a month ago. Took a lot of researching.” Alan shrugged. “Turned out they’re both dead.”
Alice’s smile broke into a chuckle. “That’s something we have in common.”
“Really? You’re adopted too?”
Alice shook her head. “Dead parents. Mine were murdered by drug dealers when I was seven. Spent the rest of my childhood with an uncle and aunt.”
“Oh god,” said Alan. “I’m so sorry.”
“The uncle was an abusive old bastard. Had me scrubbing the floors at all hours. But I always swore I’d get out of there first chance I got. Sure enough, I did. Waited tables, delivered pizzas, and funded myself through university. Came out with First Class Honours in Art History and Classics.”
Alan raised his eyebrows. “Really? That’s incredible!”
“Yes, really. Turns out though that essays on French Expressionism and Sophocles don’t get you very far in the modern job market. Which is why I was damned lucky to land a job with Doris Ackerman’s Art Gallery down the road. And that’s enough about me.”
Such a fascinating woman. Alan felt suddenly inadequate.
The conversation turned back to Kullvero. Alan was surprised to learn that his story had been a major inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien.
“I’ve only read The Hobbit,” he said. “I never got around to The Lord of the Rings.”
“It’s The Silmarillion you want,” said Alice. “Túrin, in particular. But I see the bar’s closing… maybe we should go somewhere else?”
Alan shrugged. “How about my flat?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” said Alice.
The rest of the night passed in a mad blur. Alan remembered cracking open a bottle of wine left over from New Years, and then tumbling into bed. He hadn’t made love since his old girlfriend left him for another man last Easter, and it felt damned good to be back in the saddle.
When at last he slept, forests and figures in sleighs haunted his dreams. And someone, somewhere was singing.
Alan’s eyes flickered open. The alarm clock read 12:39 p.m. Quite the Saturday sleep-in. His head hurt a bit, but he’d had worse, so far as hangovers went.
He rolled over, ready to cuddle Alice once more.
But the duvet had been pulled back, leaving the sheets bare. The bed was empty.
“I can’t have been that bad,” he muttered.
At least he knew where to find her. Maybe they could have another chat, take things more slowly next time.
Yawning, Alan flung on his sky-blue dressing-gown. A hot shower later, he felt human again. He skipped shaving though – no work today, and his blond scruff of a beard was never much anyway.
Alan was pouring muesli into a bowl when he spotted a note on the kitchen bench. So Alice had left something behind. He picked up the note and read it.
I don’t know how to say this to you, but as I was going to the toilet, I saw you had left some of your adoption research materials out on the table. I knew I shouldn’t be nosy, but I took a peek.
Your biological parents? The dead ones? They’re my parents. We’re brother and sister, Alan. And after what we did last night, we can never see each other again. Don’t try looking – you’ll never find me. I actually thought about suicide … but no. This is not the fucking Kalevala. I am better than that, and so are you. Forget about me. And forget about that fucking painting. I swear, there’s something about it. I didn’t like Doris Ackerman, but that painting can go back to fucking Helsinki, and stay there.
I’m so sorry it had to end like this,
Alan spent the rest of the day sitting at the table, his head in his hands. When darkness came, he did not turn on the light.
“One oil on canvas, securely wrapped and packaged,” said George.
He ticked it off the inventory list on his clipboard, as his two colleagues bundled the painting into the waiting courier van.
He’d heard about the murder, of course. It was the talk of the town, and the police still hadn’t found that damned Caretaker. The newspapers were talking about the Art Gallery closing too. A real shame that … but since the Kullervo’s Curse exhibit had been cancelled, there wasn’t the money to keep it open.
“Who would have thought it?” George muttered. “A single painting brought down an entire Art Gallery.”
He’d seen the painting, of course. Before they took it down and wrapped it up. And for weeks afterwards, George would tell his mates down at the Old Man’s Beard the same story.
“It was a skinny shirtless bloke on a log, waving his fist,” he said, pausing to sip from his pint glass. “Clearly angry about something. But funny thing … as they took him down off the wall, I swore he grinned at me.”
[Daniel Stride has a lifelong love of literature in general and speculative fiction in particular. He writes both short stories and poetry; his first novel, a dark steampunk-flavoured fantasy titled Wise Phuul, was published in November 2016. Daniel can be found blogging about writing, reading, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other geeky stuff, at A Phuulish Fellow (https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/). He lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.]