Only Bet on a Sure Thing cover

Only Bet on a Sure Thing

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, January 1971

© 1970 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

Lang and Lovel again—Lovell, the “inside man,” and Lang, the “outside man”—a coalition of con men, a partnership of pirates, a small syndicate of swindlers who specialize in art frauds…

Grierson leaned back in his chair and placed his fingertips carefully together. “Let me see if I understand this, Mr. Lang,” he said. He was a short fat man with a round baby-smooth face out of which jutted an incongruous sharp-pointed chin. His deep booming voice clashed sharply with this innocuous appearance. So did his quick mind. In fact, his mind was so quick that I was beginning to suspect that I’d made a mistake in approaching him. But nothing ventured nothing gained, and I had a deep faith in his basic dishonesty.

“Let me see if I understand this,” he repeated. “You propose to substitute this copy of Mazzaratti’s Adoration of Narcissus for the original in the Snowden Galleries and then turn the original over to me for $50,000.”

“That’s right,” I said. We were in Grierson’s study, a pleasantly bright room paneled with three kinds of blond wood and furnished to match. The copy in question lay between us on Grierson’s highly polished desk. I leaned forward and moved the painting closer to him.

“As you can see,” I said, “the copy is an unusually fine one, made by an artist friend of mine using Mazzaratti’s exact technique and only the materials available at the time the original was painted. For all practical purposes it’s an exact duplicate of the original.” I smiled to show my sincerity. “In fact,” I went on, “short of spectroscopic or electroluminescent examination there’s no way to tell the two apart.”

Grierson pursed his lips and nodded slowly. It was a thoughtful gesture. And I didn’t like that at all. I preferred my—ah—clients to be openly consumed by greed, by the true collector’s passion for a new thing—not calmly thinking things over and analyzing my proposition from every angle. Grierson was a collector all right. Proof of that hung on the walls surrounding us, but most of his collection had been an inheritance from his grandfather. And maybe that’s what makes the difference.

“Oh,” he said, “I’ll grant you that it is an excellent copy. I’ll even grant you that it would take a most thorough examination to distinguish between it and the original. What concerns me, though, is how you plan to switch the paintings.”

I smiled and shook my head. “Professional secret, Mr. Grierson,” I said.

Grierson shook his own head in return and more emphatically than I had. “I’m afraid that answer won’t do,” he said. “If I’m going to risk my money and my reputation I have to be sure the plan has a very good chance of succeeding. Especially since museums are becoming more and more security-minded.”

Since he put it that way I had no choice but to explain. And that called for some quick thinking on my part. Since, of course, I had no intention of switching any paintings. Instead, I intended to return in six weeks and sell him the copy that lay before him now. It was a simple scheme but one that had worked very well—or had until now.

Figuring the best defense was a good offense I said, “Are you familiar with the security system at Snowden, Mr. Grierson?”

Grierson waved a hand negligently. “Not in every detail,” he said in an offhand voice.

Which meant of course that he had no idea of what security precautions the Snowden had taken. I kept the relief out of my voice and face and went on smoothly. “Well, like most places with valuable things to guard, the museum has set up its security system to keep people from breaking in and taking things out. Accordingly, it’s not really able to cope with someone who’s already inside.” I spread my hands. “And that, quite simply put, is the essence of my plan. I go into the museum through the front door just like any other visitor. But then just before closing time I’ll duck into a small storage closet on the third floor near the Managing Director’s office. When it’s dark enough. I’ll sneak out, switch the paintings and sneak back again. The next morning, as soon as there’s enough of a crowd to make me inconspicuous, I’ll simply walk out the front door.”

“And,” Grierson said sarcastically, “of course no one will notice the painting tucked under your arm.”

I beamed at him. “Of course they won’t,” I said, “because it’ll be hidden in a hollowed-out artist’s pad. And there are always enough would-be artists floating about the museum sketching so that one more won’t arouse any comment.”

Grierson nodded thoughtfully. “Just audacious enough so that it might work.” He sighed. “It’s almost a pity that I have to turn you down.”

“Turn me down!” I said, and the surprise in my voice was not at all pretended. “In heaven’s name, why?”

“Because,” Grierson said flatly, “I only bet on a sure thing. And in this case I could never be sure I had the original or not—” he nodded toward the painting on his desk “—this or another excellent copy just like it.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid the odds just don’t appeal to me.”

I stood up. “Well,” I said huffily, reaching for the painting, “If you don’t trust me—”

Grierson didn’t move. “Oh, come now, Mr. Lang,” he said, “just because we don’t trust one another is no reason we can’t do business together. Except that we’ll do it on my terms, not yours.”

I sat down. “What did you have in mind?” I said. “And call me Harry.”

Grierson smiled, a wintry twist of the lips that left the rest of his face unmoved. “All right, Harry,” he said. He leaned forward, elbows on the desk, and pointed the eraser end of a pencil at me. “This artist friend of yours, is he still available?” His voice had suddenly become crisp and businesslike.

“Lovell?” I said. “Sure. We’re partners. He does the painting and I do the selling. Why?”

Grierson swiveled in his chair to fact the wall behind him. There were several paintings hung there but your eyes were inevitably drawn to one. It was a seascape with dark, almost black rocks in the foreground and in the distance the sun setting through a cloud formation. The water between the rocks flowed liquid gold in the reflected sunlight. It was a wonderfully warm and beautiful painting and I sensed that the entire room had been designed to complement it.

Grierson didn’t speak for a few moments, then he said, “Can he duplicate that?”

“Very likely,” I said. “But why should he?”

Grierson swiveled back. “Because,” he said, “I’ll pay $10,000 for the copy. That should be reason enough, shouldn’t it?”

I shook my head. “Now it’s my turn to say the answer isn’t good enough,” I said. “It’s not that we wouldn’t like the money. But I would have to be sure that you’re not planning to lure my partner and me into a police trap.”

Grierson regarded me closely for a long minute. “Fair enough,” he said at last. He turned back toward the painting. “Do you recognize it?” he said.

“It’s Glover’s Sunset with Clouds and Rocks,” Grierson said. “My grandfather bought it in 1939 for $250.” He studied the picture thoughtfully for a moment, then went on. “At today’s prices, it’s worth a quarter of a million.”

“Now that,” I said, “is what I’d call a smart investment.”

“Yes,” Grierson said absentmindedly. “The ironic thing is that grandfather didn’t intend it as an investment. He just wanted to help out a struggling artist. It was the kind of thing he was always doing, Grierson added distastefully. “This one just happened to pay off.”

I thought idly that Lovell, who before teaming up with me had spent a number of years as a struggling artist himself, was going to really love this guy.

“Of all the paintings I inherited from grandfather,” Grierson went on, “this is the prize.” He sighed and turned back to me once again. “Are you aware of the terms of my grandfather’s will?”

I shook my head. “No,” I said, wondering why he thought I might be.

“Briefly,” Grierson said, “it provides that I must give the local art museum its choice of any one of the paintings in his collection. If I don’t within a year, his executor is directed to sell all the paintings and give the money to charity.”

Suddenly I began to understand. “And the museum wants the Sunset,” I said.

“Precisely,” Grierson said. “But I can’t bear to part with it. If I don’t, though, I stand to lose everything.”

“Tough,” I said. “On the other hand, you could go to court and try to break the will.”

Grierson nodded. “I could,” he said. “And my lawyers admit that it’s not impossible that I might win. But they indicate that image-wise it wouldn’t do me any good.” He smiled wryly. “And in these days of nosey Internal Revenue agents and anti-trust suits, none of us can afford to neglect our public image.”

His smile lightened. “But now I have the ideal solution to my dilemma. Your artist friend duplicates the Sunset. I give the copy to the museum and everybody’s happy. So how about it? Do we do business?”

I nodded slowly. “We do,” I said. “Only the price is $20,000—half in advance.”

* * *

I’d told Lovell to wait for me outside a small restaurant several blocks from Grierson’s home. And there he was, fidgeting on a bench which according to the sign on its back was furnished through the courtesy of the McBee Funeral Home. He bounced up as soon as he saw me coming.

“Oh, lord, Harry,” he said, “am I glad to see you.” He peered nervously around my shoulder. “Everything went all right, didn’t it?”

“Almost,” I said. I motioned with the fake Mazzaratti under my arm. “He was too smart to buy this, but we’ve got another deal cooking. Smaller profit but less risk. Come inside and have a cup of coffee while I tell you all about it.”

“Coffee is a diuretic,” Lovell said earnestly. “And the caffeine—” He shuddered with distaste but followed me into the restaurant anyway.

Besides being nervous as a cow, Lovell is a health food nut. I’ve never seen him eat a steak—too many steroids, he says—but he’ll guzzle down the oddest concoctions of wheat germ, fermented mare’s milk, or what-have-you without turning a hair. He has other qualities, though, which more than offset these peculiarities. I hadn’t lied to Grierson when I said that Lovell could duplicate the Sunset. He’s a master at copying other artists’ styles. He can with equal ease duplicate and existing painting or create an “original” in the style of any painter you care to name. It’s a rather limited talent, I admit—but a profitable one.

We sat down at a corner table where we couldn’t be overheard. And after the waitress had taken our orders—coffee for me, yogurt for Lovell—I explained Grierson’s proposition to him. He didn’t say a word throughout, but his face gradually took on a sulky, stubborn cast. I gave him until the waitress had brought our orders and left again. Then I said, “All right. Let’s have it. What’s bothering you?”

He shook his head stubbornly and let his spoon drift through his yogurt. Finally, still without looking at me, he said, “Does your conscience ever bother you, Harry? Because of the things we do?”

“No,” I said. I took a sip of coffee. “Does yours?”

Lovell frowned and chewed his lip as he thought that one over. “No,” he said at last, “but sometimes I think maybe it should.”

I put down my cup and said patiently, because we’d been over this ground before, “Well, the next time you get to feeling that way just remember these three things.” I began to count off on my fingers. “One, the people we take can easily afford the loss. They wouldn’t be art collectors if they weren’t rich to begin with. Two, they always believe they’re getting the clean end of the stick. And three, they’re only getting what they deserve because we couldn’t take them if they weren’t dishonest at heart.”

“I know,” Lovell said. “But—” his voice broke indignantly “—this time we’d be helping a rich crook swindle a museum.”

“Not,” I said, “if we switch paintings and let Grierson keep the copy.”

A smile brightened Lovell’s face. “Harry,” he said, “that’s brilliant.” Then as I knew it would, the reaction set in almost immediately. The smile faded and he looked at me anxiously. “Do you think we can get away with it?”

“Of course we can,” I said. “You just eat your yogurt and leave everything to Old Harry.”

I didn’t know it then, but I’d just underestimated Grierson for the second time.

* * *

Since Lovell had to work from the original and since Grierson obviously wouldn’t let us take it away with us, we had no choice but to work at his home. I helped Lovell pack his equipment—it filled a large-sized suitcase—and we taxied over to Grierson’s house.

Grierson himself met us at the door. He frowned at the departing cab. “Was that wise?” he said. “That driver might remember having brought you here?”

“What if he does?” I said. “He doesn’t know who we are or why we’re here. There isn’t a chance in the world that he’ll connect us even remotely with your turning the Sunset over to the museum—assuming he bothers to keep up with donations to museums.”

Grierson half turned and I saw for the first time that he wasn’t alone. A stocky man with a cynical, horseplayer’s face stood in the hallway behind him. “What do you think?” Grierson said to him.

The stocky man shrugged his heavy shoulders. “He’s right,” he said as if he were talking about someone 500 miles away in another state. “If they’d played it cute and tried to sneak in, they’d have only made themselves more conspicuous.”

Grierson turned back to Lovell and me. “This is Murphy,” he said by way of introduction. “Murphy does odd jobs for me.”

Looking at Murphy, I could guess what sort of odd jobs. And I didn’t like the implications of what I was thinking.

“You know,” Grierson said as he escorted us back to the rooms he’d set aside for our use, “I really don’t know which is giving me more pleasure—keeping the original Sunset or putting one over on those prigs at the museum.” He laughed shortly, “Have you ever met Watson, the Managing Director?”

I assumed the question was directed to me alone since Grierson and I were leading, with Murphy and Lovell following. Murphy, of course, was letting Lovell carry his own suitcase.

“No,” I said.

“The man’s a fool,” Grierson said contemptuously. “Always prattling about how art should be enjoyed by all and not hoarded like a miser’s trove.” He snorted. “As if everybody were capable—” He broke off. “Ah, here we are,” he said. He flung open a door leading off the corridor. “I think you’ll find this suitable for your needs.”

It was a large airy room, bright with the afternoon sun streaming down from a skylight. The chairs and other furnishings had been moved back along the walls to make room for the two large easels set up in the middle of the floor. On the right-hand easel rested the Sunset minus its frame, and on the other an empty canvas the same size and shape. As far as I could see it was everything you could want for an artist’s studio.

The only incongruous note was an electric oven installed along one wall.

Lovell set his suitcase down and walked over to the easels. He studied the setup for a long minute, then adjusted the painting slightly and stepped back to study it some more. “This will do fine,” he said at last. He went back to his suitcase, heaved it up onto a table, and began to unpack. Murphy lounged in the doorway and watched him idly.

Grierson beamed. “Good,” he said. He rubbed his hands together. “How long will it take, do you think?”

Lovell paused in his unpacking and shrugged. “A couple of days,” he said. “Three or four at the most.”

“So soon?” Grierson said, surprised. “Remember, this has to be a perfect copy.”

“It will be,” Lovell said haughtily. The quality of his work was the one thing he was really touchy about. And the only thing you couldn’t shake him on.

I said smoothly, “The actual painting itself doesn’t take very long at all, Mr. Grierson. Usually, it’s mixing the paints so they match perfectly that gives the most trouble. But since the Sunset is a fairly recent painting, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”

“I see,” Grierson said. His eyes shifted toward the oven. “You asked for that, so I got it for you. But what’s it for?”

“It’s used for the aging process,” I said. When Grierson looked at me curiously, I went on, “As paint gets older and drier it tends to contract and a network of tiny cracks forms across the surface of the painting.” I smiled at him. “You get the same effect,” I said, “if you bake a new painting.”

“Very interesting,” Grierson said, obviously impressed. “And that, I suppose you use for mixing paints.” He nodded to indicate the blender that Lovell had just unpacked.

I laughed. “No,” I said, “Lovell uses that to mix his food.”

“It’s a high protein milk shake,” Lovell said with the sincerity of a true believer. “You start out with a base of honey, add malt and milk powder, eggs, ice cream, soybean oil—”

Grierson held up a hand, palm out. “Spare me the details,” he said. He turned back to me.

“That’s about it,” I said. “Unless you have some more questions, you can leave us to our own resources.”

Grierson regarded me thoughtfully. “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “You see, it occurred to me that if your copies are as good as you claim, you could easily make two instead of one, smuggle the original painting out, and leave the museum and me holding the bag.”

He looked at me expectantly, but I didn’t say anything. There were at least a couple of holes in the scheme he’d just outlined, but pointing them out would only confirm his suspicions. So would a denial.

“So,” he continued, “the only way I can have peace of mind to make sure you don’t have even the slightest chance of doing that. I thought at first of marking the original in some way. But marks can be found and then erased or duplicated. So I decided that the simplest and best way was to leave Murphy here with you all the time you’re doing the painting. I don’t think you’d be foolish enough to try anything with him around.”

Murphy grinned at me from the doorway, almost as if he wished I would try.

“Suit yourself,” I said. I made my voice as offhand and casual as I could.

“I intend to,” Grierson said drily. He moved over to the door and paused. “One other thing before I go,” he said. Your sleeping quarters are in the next room. As an added precaution, though, Murphy will sleep here. And I should warn you, he’s a very light sleeper.”

And with that cheery thought Grierson left us. Murphy closed the door after him and settled down on a straight wooden chair beside it.

Lovell cast an anxious glance at me.

“You know what we came here to do,” I said. “So begin. One more in the audience won’t make any difference.” That, I hoped, should get the message across to Lovell and yet be natural enough not to alert Murphy.

But from the mocking glint in Murphy’s eyes I couldn’t be sure.

Lovell looked dubiously from me to Murphy, then turned to the empty canvas, struck his horizon line and began to paint. Within two minutes he was completely absorbed in his work.

That left Murphy and me to amuse ourselves.

“How about a little gin rummy to pass the time?” I said. “Penny a point.”

Murphy grunted something I took to mean no.

“Well,” I said cheerfully, “if you don’t care for gin, how about—”

Murphy grunted again.

It was, I decided, going to be a long three or four days.

* * *

And it was. We left the room only to sleep. Our meals were brought in—or rather Murphy’s and my meals were brought in. Lovell kept a supply of his high-protein malt mixture standing ready in the blender to be shaken together whenever the need for nourishment moved him. For the rest of the time he labored diligently and silently on the copy.

Murphy’s most characteristic pose was sitting next to the door with his chair back propped against the wall and his feet dangling beside the bottom rungs. His eyes were half hooded and seemingly somnolent. And yet I’d have been willing to swear that a gnat couldn’t have blinked in that room without Murphy spotting it.

As for me, I wandered aimlessly about the room, fiddling with this or that as the mood struck me.

I had just begun to conclude that Lovell would never finish when he put down his brushes, lifted the copy off its easel, and went to stick the painting in the oven.

Murphy let his chair legs come down with a thud. “Time to call Grierson,” he said. “He’ll want to see this.”

“Not yet,” I said. Something still could go wrong. Better wait until it’s through cooking and Lovell’s had a chance to check it over.”

Murphy settled back in his chair, apparently as stolidly as before. But when I started to move about the room he shouted at me to settle down.

I settled down.

Finally Lovell shut off the heat and, after giving the oven time to cool thoroughly, took the painting out. He had moved the original over to the far right-hand side of the easel and now he placed the copy immediately to the left of it and began to go over every square inch of both paintings with a magnifying glass. He took an inordinately long time about it, and Murphy began to fidget more and more. It was comforting to know that he was human enough to have run out of patience as soon as he saw the end in sight.

At last when he could stand it no longer, he burst out irritably, “Aren’t you done yet?”

He started to get up, but I forestalled him by crossing casually in front of him and going over to stand beside Lovell. As I stood there peering over his shoulder I let my hand brush lightly against the copy. It was cool to the touch, the last trace of the oven’s heat gone. I nodded to Lovell almost imperceptibly.

Lovell straightened up. “All done,” he said. He turned from the easel and walked over to his blender. “Go take a look if you like,” he said to Murphy over his shoulder as he punched the button to start the machine.

It was an act Lovell had done at least a dozen times since we’d come to Grierson’s. But this time the blender top was loose; it flew off and the high protein malt spewed out all over the room. One glob caught Murphy on the side of the face as he stood up.

Fortunately the paintings were at a sharp angle to the machine or they too would have taken the full blast.

Murphy stomped angrily over to the blender and yanked the cord out of its wall socket, sending the machine crashing over. “You jerk,” he said, turning on Lovell and drawing back his fist.

Lovell, however, seemed too upset to be frightened. “I don’t know how it happened,” he complained. “I was sure I put it on tight.”

Murphy swung around to face me. “You!” he cried, pointing with his stubby forefinger. You were fooling around this thing earlier—” His eyes narrowed as a sudden thought took hold of his mind. He pushed past Lovell and covered the distance to the paintings in three quick strides. He stood before them frowning.

“Look, Murphy,” I said, “I—”

“Shut up,” Murphy said harshly. He continued to study the paintings. Finally a slow grin began to twist his face. He reached up to touch the right edge of the painting to the left. He brought his hand away a second later, rubbing his thumb against the tips of his fingers. The grin broadened.

“All right, wise guy,” he said to me, nodding to indicate the wall intercom, “call Grierson.”

His eyes gloated over me as I buzzed Grierson in his study and told him the copy was done.

Grierson turned back to the paintings. “The ironic thing is,” he said, “that Murphy wasn’t really necessary. Oh,” he went on, flicking a hand at the Sunset on the right, “this is a good enough copy and I’m sure the museum will accept it without question. But—” he picked up the other Sunset “—when you see the two of them together, you can’t help but notice the small signs that distinguish the work of a true creative genius from that of a competent hack. If you have the eye for it, that is,” he added after a second.

Blood suffused Lovell’s face and he began to swell with indignation. I recognized the signs and grabbed him and got out of there fast before he said something that might have made Grierson change his mind about turning Murphy loose on us.

As it was we were barely out of the house when Lovell exploded. “Did you hear that man, Harry?” he said. “Did you hear him?” His voice deepened to mimic Grierson’s”: “’The small signs that distinguish the work of a true creative genius…If you have the eye for it…’” He clamped his hand on my arm, pulling me to a sudden stop. “Harry, I swear he was talking through his hat. There isn’t one cent’s worth of difference between those paintings and I’ve a good mind to go back and prove it to him.”

I eased his fingers loose from my sleeve with my free hand. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Lovell,” I said. “You see, I didn’t switch those paintings. All I did was smear some of your malt mixture along the one edge where Murphy was sure to see it and think I had pulled a switch.

“That was your painting Grierson was praising.”