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The Final Stroke

‘When?’ they had asked him. ‘When shall we do the deed? Upon his arrival or as he leaves?’

Pulling the dusty curtain to one side, William looked down into the dark alley below.  They were down there now, in the shadows of the doorway. Out of sight, they were efficient. At least that is what he had been told by Percy. He had said that they did this thing often. They never questioned the motive. Three questions; Who? Where? and When? The who and where was easy enough. The when needed more thought.  He heard the clip clip of a ladies heels on the cobblestones and watched as the love of his life stepped into the alley. With her husband, the General.  His benefactor.

He let the curtain drop back into place and glanced around his studio. The cheap tallow candles smelled like stale beef and the smoke stung his eyes. The room was sparse and squalid but what it lacked in luxurious furniture it more than made for with the wonderful art that hung from the walls. A finer collection than any palace in France, or any museum in Italy. All of it painted by him. The centre of the room was dominated by his latest masterpiece. It was draped in an old, paint spattered drop cloth. That irked him somewhat but it was of little consequence, soon he would be able to afford the finest of silks. He was tempted to take another look at the painting but stopped himself. There was no need. He simply closed his eyes and could picture every detail of the beauty beneath.

He would admit that the commission for the General had not been his idea. In fact when Percy had brought the offer to him he had had turned it down at first. He was an artist and did not want to sell out like those painters who cow-towed to any patron willing to part with a few coins, a few more to make them look handsome. Percy had insisted the commission was a worthy endeavour and William had agreed. His rent was two months overdue and he was yet to sell a single piece of his art, the money would come in useful. So he agreed. And then he saw her.

He recalled the long sessions in the lavish sitting room, she would look up at him with eyes as blue as the Aegean, and he told her how to sit, how to arrange her hair, her gown; when to move, when to breathe. She was beautiful and followed his every command without question. Before the painting was completed they were both in love. There had been a temptation to tarry with the completion but he was eager to show off.

An impatient knock at the door reminded him of the job at hand. He flung open his door and bowed deeply. The General burst into the room like a tornado, his entrance upsetting the papers on the desk and the dust on the shelves.

‘Well? I’m here, man. Let me see what my money has bought me and then let us away to civilized company.’

William had prepared a speech for the great unveiling but the General grabbed the drop cloth and pulled it away revealing the painting of his wife underneath.

The General stood before it silently. William sneaked a look at the beautiful woman who would soon be his. She smiled at him and his resolve hardened. He opened his mouth to address the General but was interrupted.

‘What the hell is this?’ The older man boomed.

William was confused. This painting was the best thing that he had ever produced, looking upon the beautiful face he could see the love shining in her eyes, her stance, her expression. Then he realised that was his mistake. The General must have saw something in that expression that he had never saw in his wife.

‘Slattern.’ The General backhanded his wife; a spray of blood fanned across the painting.

William let out a shriek and grabbed for the older man but the General had soldiered through the ranks in Egypt and Afghanistan. In a blur of steel and candlelight the blade was in his hand. Then in Williams chest.

William collapsed to the floor and watched the General push past his wife and charge down the steps. Sounds of a scuffle drifted up from the alley.

‘When?’ they had asked.

‘As he leaves,’ he had told them. ‘It would be unfair for him to die without seeing such a beautiful work as I have created for him.’

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