AFTER A week of being chauffeured around town in Nick’s spacious Jaguar with supple leather seats and the perfect new car smell, Riley was surprised at how happy he was to reclaim his secondhand 1994 Corolla that smelled of curry and shoes. Freedom, it seemed, was the ultimate luxury. But with only forty-five minutes before he had to pose for his next class, there wasn’t enough time to celebrate his freedom with a drive home and back for lunch. And if pressed, he’d have chosen to suck up all of Siesta Key’s sand through a straw before resorting to a meal in the school’s dining hall. The food was tolerable as long as you got it on Monday. Any other day, you’d be eating Monday’s leftovers.
It was Wednesday, and the last thing Riley wanted was food poisoning in the middle of a three-hour pose. He headed across the street to the Nanday Café, where the worst he could expect was a curly hair in his sandwich. It was small and dim, with weathered plastic seats and no sense of interior design, but it was the best choice for anyone looking for something edible within walking distance of the campus.
The café’s logo was a hideous cartoon depiction of a nanday conure, a species of small parrot that could sometimes be found in feral colonies in Sarasota. Riley had seen them a few times; the birds were much cuter in real life than the illustration suggested. As he stood in line staring idly at the neon-rimmed logo on the wall behind the counter, he wondered at the fact that someone had actually been paid to draw a parrot with biceps that rivaled Popeye’s while he was stuck posing naked every day to make ends meet.
He was at last spared the agony of brooding over his pitiful career when he reached the front of the line and gave his order. Soon after, he headed to a secluded corner of the café with a bowl of vegetable soup and a turkey sandwich, settled in, and pulled out his cell phone to check his messages.
He was hoping Nick had sent him a text. It was a sweet ritual the two of them had begun about a year ago: leaving a silly text or voice message around lunchtime relaying a set of fictitious events that had happened at work that morning. He navigated through his finicky phone, which told him he had a new message but refused to bring it up for him to read.
Absorbed in the pixelated screen before him, he didn’t notice a man taking a seat at the other side of the table until the man cleared his throat. Riley raised his head and jumped back in shock.
The guy looked to be in his midthirties, richly tanned, with chestnut hair done up in spikes. His chiseled face was intense, his eyes so dark they could have been pure black. Even in a T-shirt, he looked somehow impressive, perhaps due to the defined musculature Riley couldn’t help but gawk at.
His gut reaction was to scan the room to make sure Nick wasn’t around to see them together. While Riley thought it was silly for Nick to feel threatened over someone like Porter, this guy was a different story.
He turned back to the man. “How long have you been sitting there?” he asked, embarrassed at the squeak in his voice.
“You’re the figure model, right?” the man asked, ignoring Riley’s question. “Riley Burke. The one who Coliaro wants to paint.”
“That’s me. It’s like I’ve become famous overnight. People are even starting to recognize me with my clothes on.”
The man chuckled, and the rumbling vibration of his laugh made Riley’s heart flutter. It was the kind of laugh he would have loved to feel against the back of his neck….
He forced the thought out of his mind, cursing at his overeager imagination and plastering on a neutral smile.
“So, tomorrow’s the big day?” the man asked.
“And I hear you’re doing a private session with him in the evening.”
Why did this random hot guy know so much about his plans with Coliaro? Riley shot him a questioning glance. “I’m sorry—who are you?”
“Ah, I didn’t introduce myself.” The man held out a large brown hand. “Westwood. I teach illustration.”
Riley shook the man’s hand, and something about that warm, powerful grip made his breath catch with anticipation. Once he realized he was gawking again, he shook his head and tried to collect himself. “You teach at Prestwick?”
Riley picked up his spoon, nervously rubbing his thumb along its dipped interior. He took a closer look at Westwood’s face, examining his unique features. Angular eyes, heavy brow ridge, full lips. Riley couldn’t have even guessed at his ethnicity, but he was stunning. “I studied illustration at Prestwick. It’s been a few years, but I think I would have remembered you.”
“I’m new,” Westwood said. He looked around before leaning in and lowering his voice. “So I’m guessing you’ve heard the rumors about Coliaro?”
“Yeah, I know. Serial murders linked to his paintings and so forth.”
Westwood leaned in, a teasing glint in his eyes. “I’m not talking about that rumor.”
Riley resisted the urge to lean in as well. He set his spoon down and began twisting his napkin into an absorbent little spear—anything to keep his hands busy. Fidgeting was a nervous habit of his that always drove Nick crazy. “What other rumor is there?”
Westwood didn’t reply right away. A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth, as if he enjoyed making Riley squirm. After he’d milked the silence for as long as he could, he finally answered, “People say that he’s undead.”
“I’m sorry….” Riley opened his mouth, then closed it again. He shook his head in almost irritated disbelief. “People say he’s what?”
“Undead,” Westwood enunciated, as if the only problem was Riley’s lack of hearing.
Why did the devastatingly sexy ones always turn out to be complete nutcases? Riley wanted to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he was joking, but he looked dead serious. Glancing around, Riley wondered if any other café patrons were close enough to listen in. “You said you teach at Prestwick?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Hmm.” Riley tossed his twisted napkin onto his tray and began running his fingernail over the serrated edge of his plastic knife. Click-click-click-click. Click-click-click-click. At last he asked, “What does that mean? ‘Undead’?”
“He was mortal once, but then he died. And then he revived. And now he’s immortal.”
“You mean like a vampire?”
Westwood balked. “Vampires aren’t real.”
Riley sucked in a slow, patient breath.
Westwood continued as if he hadn’t noticed Riley’s skepticism. “Simply put, the undead are beings who have risen after death. They have unique superhuman strengths born from the way they lived or the way they died. And once they rise, they’re nearly impossible to kill for good—unless you know their secret weakness.”
“Superhuman strengths and secret weaknesses. So… they’re like superheroes?”
The glint in Westwood’s eyes turned sly, almost mischievous. “More like supervillains.”
“Maybe you should order some food,” Riley said humorlessly, determined to resist Westwood’s compelling energy. “It’ll help you think more clearly.”
Westwood ignored Riley’s dig. “They say Coliaro’s so talented because he’s literally had lifetimes of practice to refine his technique.” He lowered his voice. “See, Coliaro’s Oscuro Bello series was just a standard collection of male nudes. No blood, no gore. Then about a month after each painting was completed, it was mysteriously altered. The model in the image was shown with his hands severed and his heart removed. But these paintings were under lock and key. No one could access them except the gallery owner, not even Coliaro himself. And the gallery owner had no reason to vandalize his own paintings. After all, he wanted them to sell, and no one was going to buy a painting of a mutilated corpse.” He raised an eyebrow, that tiny smirk still on his lips. “You know, people say Coliaro’s paintings have a life of their own.”
Riley leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. “Are you telling me those paintings changed themselves?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you.”
Riley could think of no response. Westwood’s face was neutral, unaffected, as if he were relaying the weekend’s weather forecast. Riley had run into his fair share of crazies in Sarasota, but never any who appeared as sane on the surface as this one. He wasn’t sure why he was even giving the man a chance to explain his deranged theory; apparently he’d been so enamored of Westwood’s pretty package that he hadn’t thought to question what horrors might lie inside. He glanced around, checking if there was an easy way to make a beeline for the exit, but he had a sinking feeling that the man would follow him out—or maybe even grab him—if he tried to leave.
The knife snapped in his hand, and he set it down in frustration. “So if the paintings changed themselves, did the murders commit themselves too?” he asked snidely.
“Don’t be silly.” Westwood chuckled. “Honestly, Mr. Burke, I don’t believe Coliaro had anything to do with the murders. He didn’t even know the victims. I think the murders were committed by his followers.”
“Oh yes. The undead have human followers who perform rituals in their name in order to support them, and in turn, to attain some of their power.” He leaned forward, elbows on the table, his sculpted forearms commanding Riley’s attention. “The Oscuro Bello murders were ritualistic killings. Only the hands and heart of each victim were found, positioned with the hands cradling the heart. And on each there was a number painted on the back of the left hand: one through five, then seven through twelve. One for each painting in the Oscuro Bello collection, except for number six. The sixth painting was never altered, and no one was murdered for it.”
“So other than the hands and the hearts, the rest of the bodies are still missing?”
So, Porter’s description of the murders matched Westwood’s, minus the insanity about undead people and magically changing paintings. Riley’s lip curled as he examined the swirls of flesh in the pressed turkey slices between his two pieces of wheat bread. The turkey was slick with a thin layer of moisture, like sweat. Stomach churning, he pushed his tray away.
“You’re not going to eat?” Westwood asked, concerned.
Riley’s patience was spent. “Why are you telling me all this?” he asked. “Are you trying to scare me away so I don’t pose for Coliaro tomorrow?”
Riley frowned. That was not the answer he’d been expecting.
“There’s been one murder for every male nude he’s completed, except for number six. No more paintings, no more murders.”
“I’m sure he’s done plenty of other paintings,” Riley said. “There must be more than just those twelve.”
“He claims the Oscuro Bello compositions were the only full male nudes he ever did.” Westwood raised an eyebrow. “At least those were the only ones he did in this generation.”