As always as I came in, I stopped for a moment out on the street to admire the display window with the neat gold lettering down in the lower left corner: L and L Galleries—Showings by Appointment. It was the first thing of any permanence I’d ever owned and even after all these months I still couldn’t quite get over it.
This morning, though, I had company. A bulky man in a gray suit that was just a little too small for his shoulders stood in front of the window, frowning as if he couldn’t quite figure it out either. But then he spotted me and his face broke out in a slow malicious grin. I remembered the grin well. Him too. His name was Peterson. He was a detective sergeant assigned to Fraud-Bunco, and needless to say most of our prior meetings hadn’t been all that pleasant. For either of us.
“Well, well,” he said, “as I live and breathe, Harry Lang.” His smile turned almost happy. “They told me I’d find something interesting if I came down here and I sure did. What’s the scam this time, Harry? Or do I have to ask?”
“No scam,” I said. “I’m a legitimate businessman. I even pay taxes.”
“On an art gallery?” His voice was heavy.
“A better question is why? What do you know about art anyway?”
“More than you might think,” I said. “And anyway I have a partner to handle that end of it. I just take care of the business and selling part.”
“I’ll bet you do,” Peterson said. He tapped me twice on the shoulder. “Well, you just keep it legit, because after all these years I’d sure hate like hell to haul you in.”
“Sure you would,” I said. “That’s why you came running down here,” and watched his back disappear around the corner.
* * *
Lovell was waiting for me inside the gallery, even more ready than usual to bounce up to the ceiling at the slightest provocation. Even at the best of times Lovell is as jumpy as a cat in a roomful of fox terriers. He is also an absolute nut about the kind of food he will allow himself to eat. More importantly, though, from the partnership standpoint, he is also an artist with a very great if somewhat specialized talent.
He can forge the work of any artist living or dead and do it so well that even the original artist himself would be hard put to tell the difference, and it was by exploiting that talent that we earned enough money to buy the gallery and go legitimate—or as legitimate, anyway, as anybody trying to break into the art business can afford to be these days.
Now, as he saw me come in, Lovell blinked twice and swallowed hard. “You’re late,” he said.
“Unavoidable delay,” I said. “Our old friend from Fraud-Bunco, Sergeant Peterson, was outside nosing around.”
“Oh, lord,” Lovell said. He actually wrung his hands. “Why today?”
“Any reason why not today?”
Lovell nodded. “Mr. Vincent called,” he said. “Finally. He’s coming over this afternoon for a private showing. If he sees a cop—”
“We’ll tell him he’s here to guard the premises,” I said. “Don’t worry. It couldn’t be better.” And with that I left him still blinking and went back to my office to get ready for the day.
* * *
I’d been angling to get Vincent into the gallery almost since we’d opened it, and to be sure I didn’t muff it I set the showing up in a small room just off the main gallery, placing the paintings he had come to see one at a time on a single easel. There were eight in all, watercolors mostly, depicting the scenes around the artist’s native White Mountains. They weren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but Vincent seemed to like them. He sat in the room’s only chair, nodding only to indicate when he was ready for the next.
“Lovely,” he said at last. He was a tall lean man with a long aristocratic face and a deceptively languid air. His family was one of the oldest in this part of the country, but by the time he’d come along there was little left to inherit except the name. Before he was 30, though, he’d made the name a force to be reckoned with in the then-booming electronics field.
He'd spent the next ten years milking it for all it was worth, then had sold out at enormous profit just before the bust and settled down to lead the life his upbringing had prepared him for—which included, of course, patronizing the arts. Considering the size and scope of the collection he had built up, just getting him into the gallery was a minor triumph.
“Lovely,” he said again. “What’s the provenance?”
“They’re from the Dieckmann estate,” I said. “The widow has to sell to meet the inheritance taxes. Otherwise they would have gone to the Art Institute with the rest of the collection.”
“Of course,” Vincent said. He looked at the painting instead of me. “Quite a coup your landing them,” he said, “instead of one of the more established galleries.”
I nodded agreement. “Yes, it was, and frankly the only way I could do it was to offer to rebate half of my commission.”
Vincent raised an elegant eyebrow. “To Mrs. Dieckmann?”
I shook my head. “To her attorney,” I said. I shrugged. “I don’t like it, but—well, you have to do a lot of things you don’t like when you’re trying to get a business established.”
Vincent smiled faintly; it was a subject he knew something about. “Yes, I suppose you do.” He looked back at the painting on the easel. “Although,” he murmured, “Sometimes private arrangements can be worked out that even attorneys don’t know about—if the price is right.”
“I know,” I said, “but unfortunately in this case the contract specifies a public auction.”
“Too bad,” Vincent said in the same soft voice. He looked as if he intended to say more, but before he got the chance the door from the main gallery opened and a short dumpy woman in the green print dress and short scruffy topcoat stuck her head into the room. She looked 50 if a day and carried a flat, brown paper wrapped package under her arm as if it were a shield.
“Hey,” she said, “either of you two work here?”
Vincent looked at her with mild curiosity.
“How about it?” the woman said. “I’ve been looking all over and there’s not a soul in the joint.”
“It’s not a joint,” I said. “It’s an art gallery and this is a private showing. You—”
She ignored me and went on speaking to Vincent. “Look,” she said, “I won’t take a minute. I just want to ask a question.”
Without waiting for a response she started ripping the paper off her package, revealing a painting about a foot high by a foot and a half long. It was a landscape of some sort, but details were hard to make out because the entire surface was covered with blotches of varying hues and densities.
Vincent made a face. “Good lord,” he said, “what did you do? Pour ink over it?”
The woman shuffled apologetically. “It was stored under some blankets in an attic,” she said, “but the roof leaked and the colors ran. It wasn’t me that did it,” she added. “It was my sister. She didn’t really care for it. She only took it to keep me from having it. You know how that is.”
“Yes,” I said. “Mrs.—?”
“Ferris,” the woman said. “Anyway, after she finally did give it to me, somebody said maybe you could do something about cleaning it up. I don’t want to pay too much if I don’t have to, but my father brought it back from France after World War One and I grew up with it and I would like to have it back like it used to be if I could.”
“I understand,” I said, easing her back toward the door, “but that’s really something you have to talk to my partner about. If you’ll just go down the hallway until you come to the girl at the desk, she’ll see that you’re taken care of.”
I closed the door after her and turned back to Vincent. He raised an eyebrow inquisitively.
“It’s like I told you,” I said. “You have to do a lot of things you don’t like when you’re trying to get a business established.”
When he had finally seen enough of the paintings he had come for, I took him out through the rear exit past my office. Mrs. Ferris had apparently just finished her business and gone, because Lovell was still standing beside the secretary’s desk looking down ruefully at the blotched painting.
“You haven’t met my partner, have you?” I said to Vincent.
“No,” he said. They shook hands.
“I see you accepted our insistent caller’s challenge,” Vincent said, looking down at the painting himself and grimacing again. “You have your work cut out for you.”
“Not really,” Lovell said. Jumpy as he is, the quality of his work is still the one thing you can’t shake him on. “There’s a coat of varnish over the paint. All I have to do is clean the mess off that and revarnish. Then a little wood filler where they cracked the stretcher nailing it to the frame and the whole thing will be as good as new. Maybe even better.”
“I’m sure it will be,” Vincent said. He began pulling on his gloves, smoothing them out carefully one finger at a time. “About those watercolors,” he said to me, “you won’t forget to notify me when the auction is to be held.”
“Of course not,” I said as if it was the farthest thing from my mind.
As it turned out, though, there wasn’t any auction. The lawyer handling the Dieckmann estate called less than a week later to withdraw the watercolors from sale. I wasn’t too surprised. Vincent hadn’t got where he was by missing any tricks. He’d simply gone around me to make his own deal with the attorney, picking up the paintings for a good deal less—even counting the kickback—than they’d have gone for at the auction. I could afford to write it off, though, and in any case I hadn’t seen the last of Vincent. Or, for that matter, of Mrs. Ferris.
She was back shortly after the first of the following month, carrying the same flat, wrapped package under her arm. This time, though, she wasn’t alone. Peterson came with her.
“I’m disappointed in you, Harry,” he said. “You told me you’d gone legitimate and I told you to keep it that way. And then what’s the next thing I hear but that you’ve gone right back to your old tricks.”
“Oh?” I said. “And just what am I supposed to be doing?”
“You know darn good and well what you’re doing,” Mrs. Ferris burst in. “I left a valuable painting here for your partner to clean up and now the two of you are trying to steal it.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You got your painting back—and in better shape than you brought it in.”
“That’s what you say,” she said. “I say I got a picture back but not the same one I brought in. And don’t try to tell me it just looks different because it’s been cleaned. You might fool most people that way but I used to study that picture for hours when I was a girl and this one is different.
“That’s not all either. After she saw it all cleaned up, my sister started talking about how we ought to have it appraised. It was just her way of trying to get it back, but anyway I took it over to one of the professors at the university who’s supposed to know about these things. And, boy, did he get excited when he saw it. He even got a book out to show me what it was—one of the lost landscapes by a painter named Augustus Milverton.
“It seems this Milverton didn’t get famous until after he died, which was around 1930 or so, and by then a lot of his paintings had disappeared, because he’d been selling them off to everybody and anybody just for money to live. Anyway, that's the kind of painting he said I had. But then he ran some tests just to make sure and afterwards he said he was sorry but he’d been wrong. All I had was a copy done in Milverton’s style. Which sort of made sense because my father hadn’t paid very much for it even if he did always say he’d bought it from the painter himself. It could have been the painter who made the copy.
“But afterwards I got to thinking. Why would somebody make a copy of another artist’s picture twelve or fifteen years before that other artist got famous? It didn’t make any sense. And that’s when I really began to realize something funny was going on, and it had to be you that was doing it because the only time that painting’s been out of my family’s hands was when you had it. So I want my picture back.”
“I don’t have your picture,” I said.
“Then I want the money it’s worth—or I want you in jail.”
“What about it, Harry?” Peterson said.
I shrugged. “It’s her word against mine,” I said. “If you want to go to the State’s Attorney with that, be my guest. But I think we both know what his reaction will be.”
“Yeah,” Peterson said, “except maybe it isn’t just her word against yours.” He smiled his tight, happy little malicious smile. “Mrs. Ferris says there was another man here when she brought in her picture besides you and your partner—and that he’ll back her up that this one she has now is different.”
“You mean there wasn’t another man?” Peterson said quietly.
“No, there was all right. But he saw that painting for less than a minute. He’s not going to be able to tell you anything. He won’t thank you either if you go wasting his time.”
Peterson’s face turned beet-red. “You ought to know better than that, Harry,” he said. “I don’t waste people’s time—not when I’m conducting an official investigation. So who was he? And don’t think you can run in a ringer. Mrs. Ferris will recognize him when she sees him even if she never did hear his name.”
I hesitated then shrugged. “Arthur Vincent,” I said. “He lives over on Belmont Terrace.”
“Fine,” Peterson said, smiling again. “So why don’t we just run over there and see what he can or can’t tell us?”
“You mean right now?”
“Why not?” Peterson said. He pointed his finger at me. “You may be just as legitimate as you say—now. But I remember you from the bad old days and the only way I can be sure you won’t hop on the phone like a bunny to tell Mr. Vincent just what to say is to take you along. Any objections?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Fine,” Peterson said again. “Get your hat then.”
Taking no chances, Peterson left me out in the car with a police driver while he and Mrs. Ferris went up to Vincent’s apartment. It was a long half hour. Finally, though, they came back out. Peterson looked grim, Mrs. Ferris agitated.
“They’re in it together,” she was saying. “They have to be.”
“Sure,” Peterson said. He pulled the car door open and jerked his thumb up. “Out,” he said. He meant me.
“I don’t expect an apology,” I said, “but you could at least take me back where you found me.”
“Out!” Peterson said again.
I got out. They both got in, Peterson moving the other cop over so he could drive himself. I closed his door for him. He didn’t say anything, but he left a half inch of rubber on the street.
I waited until they were out of sight, then went over into the building and rode the elevator up to Vincent’s apartment. It filled the entire top floor, but Vincent himself answered my ring. He was wearing a pale-gray dressing gown with a scarf at the throat.
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” I said. “I tried to prevent their coming but I’m afraid Peterson wasn’t in a mood to listen.”
Vincent smiled. “No, he wasn’t, was he?” he said. “But do come in. I was just about to call you anyway.”
He closed the door after me and moved back into the room, leaving me to follow.
“An unfortunate situation,” he said. “One can’t help but feel sorry for the poor woman—although I must admit I told her that since she had failed to register the painting with the International Art Registry or any of the other identification services, however much logic might be on her side she really stood very little chance of proving that the painting she had now wasn’t the same one she’d had before. I trust you appreciate that.”
“Well, of course,” I said, “but under the circumstances there really wasn’t much else you could say.”
“Wasn’t there?” Vincent said. He smiled faintly. “I won’t pretend I remember the painting in any detail,” he said, “but I do remember your painter’s remark about repairing some cracks in the stretcher with wood filler. So naturally I checked the stretcher on the painting that poor Mrs. Ferris showed me this afternoon. And what to my surprise did I find? An absence of cracks of any kind, repaired or otherwise.
“I suppose you could argue that you simply replaced the stretcher. But that would seem to be a lot of trouble and expense for a relatively worthless painting. Unless, of course, it wasn’t so worthless.”
He looked at me searchingly. “Opportunities like that are rare, aren’t they Mr. Lang, and when they come along they’re much too good to pass up. It was an original Milverton, wasn’t it? And you did switch pictures on her.”
“You’re quite a detective,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell all this to Peterson and Mrs. Ferris?”
Vincent’s smile broadened. “Because, like you, Mr. Lang, I’m not one to let such a golden opportunity pass. I want the painting. I won’t rob you, of course. Shall we say $15,000 just to insure that the deal remains our secret?”
“That’s less than one-third of what it’s worth,” I said.
“True,” Vincent said. “But I suggest you take it. Otherwise I might have to call Mrs. Ferris—and that detective—and explain what I had just ‘remembered’”.
He looked at me blandly until finally I shrugged. “I’ll want the money in cash,” I said.
“Of course,” Vincent said. “Just as soon as the painting’s delivered.” He escorted me to the door. “Shall we say this afternoon? I find the sooner these affairs are settled the better.”
“So do I,” I said, and left.
When I got back to the gallery Mrs. Ferris was waiting for me in my office. She sat behind my desk, eating an apple and looking very much at home. She tossed the core into my wastebasket. “How did it go?” she said.
“Fine, Maude,” I said. “Just fine.” I opened the wall safe and got out her money. “$1000,” I said handing it to her, “as agreed. You can count it if you like.”
“Naw,” she said. “You wouldn’t cheat me.” She stuffed the money into her purse. “There is one thing, though, if you don’t mind my asking. Why did you go to all this trouble just to unload that painting? What I mean is, I appreciate the money and the chance to earn it, but if that picture was as good a fake as you said it was, why didn’t you just stick it up on the wall and let somebody buy it legitimately?”
“Provenance,” I said.
“Too many people have been stung buying phony paintings in the past,” I said, “and everybody knows it. So the smart collectors—the ones with the big money—won’t buy anything these days until they’ve checked and double-checked where it came from and who owned it before back to the year one—unless, of course,” I added, smiling, “you offer them a dealt that’s just too good to pass up.”