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The Purloined Oil

by Edward Ahern

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


I finished a little early, and sat in the library reading a leather-bound book that probably cost more than my college education. Mary found me there. Her smile was the most genuine thing I’d seen all day.

“You’re like me, aren’t you?”

Her feelings flew off her like dandelion seeds in a wind gust, and I didn’t need an explanation.

“Yes, Mary. Same gift box, different side.” I hesitated. “Mary, what I’ll say at dinner isn’t meant to be hurtful.”

“I don’t think you want to hurt me.”

“Probably not, which complicates things. Shall we go in?”

I was seated at the foot of the table, with empty places between me and the other three diners. Fortunately I have a loud voice. “Why don’t we dine first?” I suggested. “And then I’ll describe what I think should be done.”

Mary and I chattered while Wallace and Sylvia were deaf mutes, understandable, since they didn’t like anyone else at the table. I began after the maid had cleared the dishes.

“Let’s deconstruct the puzzle. Assume for the moment that the maid saw the painting but didn’t look at it. The painting is too famous to be sold to anyone but a private collector willing to hide it. There are few people in this category, and none of them seems to be making the preparations necessary for a purchase. Nothing else was taken, so our presumed thief wasn’t a generalist. And there’s no word out on the street that it’s available cheap.

“Let’s also posit that the painting never left this house.” I paused to read expressions and got the affirmations I wanted. “But why? And why file on the insurance when it’s much easier just to auction the painting off? Maybe because the painting was no longer salable.”

I looked up the table with gentle eyes. “When did you over-paint the picture, Mary?”

Sylvia interrupted. “Shut up, Mary! Don’t say a word.”

“She doesn’t have to. At least twice a day for years, she’s walked past an art work she hated. As a talented artist—”

“Do you really think so?”

“Shut up, Mary!” chorused Wallace and Sylvia.

“Yes, I do, Mary. Anyway, she brings her palette to the hall and redecorates.”

“That’s slander.”

“Not since it’s true. During the tours Wallace and Mary had mundane tics and tells. You, however, reacted enough to indicate where the picture was hidden. I regret I couldn’t find the release and had to break open the latch on the wainscoting.”

I stepped over to the sideboard, lifted aside an end curtain, and took out a framed picture.

The cobalt blue of the iris was bright and healthy. I set the painting atop the table so they could see the alteration.

“Now, what to do? Let me tell you. First, you tell the insurance company that it’s all been a mistake, that the painting had been misplaced. They won’t believe you but, since it’s costing them no money, and it’s hard to prove attempt to defraud, they won’t pursue the matter.

“Second, find a discreet restorer to lift off Mary’s layer of paint. If he does a bad job you can claim that the painting aged badly, and settle for four million on the sale.”

Sylvia actually smiled. “Or we get rid of you and just carry on.”

“Such a cliché, Sylvia. Like everyone else, I have a cell phone, and shots of the painting are in several of my cloud files that will be examined if I die.”

“So that’s that.”

“Not quite. You’ve committed insurance fraud, and there’s a fee for my silence.”

“The insurance company already pays you.”

“To recover the painting. To keep you out of prison scrubs requires $50,000 payable to an offshore account.”

“You’d just keep blackmailing us.”

“Please, I have principles. I suspect the people you talked to about me told you that I keep to my word.”

Wallace leaned in. “Sylvia—”

“Shut up, you dripping spigot.” She stared at me like she needed a can of insecticide, then glared at Mary. I sensed that she couldn’t think of a way to dispose of us that would help her cause. “All right.”

I laid a business card on the table. “The account number is written on the back. I’d suggest burning after use. Thank you for a predictably bland meal. I’ll see myself out.”

But Mary jumped up from the table and glided over to me, taking my arm. “I’ll walk out with you.”

Her demeanor was innocent, with no guilt blemishes. “Do you really think I’m a good painter?”

“I do.” An urge struck. “You should maybe do my portrait.”

She giggled. “I want to. When?”

“Let me call you.”

* * *

Sara was waiting for me at the office the next morning. “And?”

“Check the offshore account, but your 401k should be in no danger. The painting has been found, and the Plaith/Olipher family restored to dysfunctionality.”

“I’m so happy for them. Pound & Ezra have sent over another case, something about a castrated show dog.”

“I do love animals.” As Sara turned to leave I added, “The sister is a painter. I’m thinking of having my portrait done.”

“Interesting euphemism.”

Copyright © 2017 by Edward Ahern

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