Home > The Red(2)

The Red(2)
Author: Tiffany Reisz

"How so?” he asked.

"My mother bought paintings she couldn’t re-sell,” Mona said. "She spent huge sums of money on gallery parties that brought in no revenue. And she died of cancer last autumn. The bills were enormous.”

"No father to help?”

"I don’t know who my father is. My mother was a bohemian type.”

"And you have no money?”

"Having no money right now would be a blessing because currently I have negative five hundred thousand dollars,” she said. "So unless you’re going to buy that Morland for five hundred thousand dollars, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave. The gallery is closed, but it isn’t closing—not yet. If you want to come back, you can. We’ll open at ten tomorrow morning.”

"It’s not a Morland,” he said.

"What?”

"I told you—things aren’t always as they seem. There are machines for seeing through paint? Or am I mistaken?”

"X-ray machines?”

"Yes, those.” He nodded sagely. "You should take this painting and have it run through one of those machines. Tell me what you see.”

"I don’t have one here,” she said. "I’d have to find one.”

"Do that. I’ll return in one week,” he said. "I want you to trust me.”

"Why?”

"Because I would like to help you. I would like to help you very much indeed. But I can’t help you if you don’t trust me. And I certainly can’t help you if you sell the gallery. So do as I say.”

"Do as you say?” She was flabbergasted. The gall of this man.

"You won’t regret it,” he said. "I assure you, you won’t regret any of it, Mona.”

"How do you know my name?”

"Mona Lisa St. James. You own The Red Gallery.”

"Have you been stalking me?”

"Only watching,” he said.

"You’re scaring me.”

"I can’t help that,” he said. "Although I do apologize. I will not harm you in any way. I hope you believe that.”

She wanted to believe it.

"It would help if you told me how you got in without me hearing. The door was locked.”

"Your mother had a spare key made. She hid it in the potted plant outside.”

"What Mother lacked in common sense she made up for in style.”

"That she did. Do you, by any chance, have a book of Morland’s paintings?”

"I think so.”

"Fetch it please.”

"Fetch it?” Was she a dog now?

The man grinned that fiendish grin again. "Please.”

Mad as it was, Mona returned to her office to find the book. It was on the shelf somewhere with hundreds of other art books her mother had collected through the years. They’d all have to be sold to a book collector, though it broke her heart to think of parting with them. After a few minutes searching, she found the slim blue Morland catalog and returned to the gallery.

The man was gone.

There was a bell on the door that chimed when anyone came or left. Her ears were trained to hear that bell no matter if she were in the office, the bathroom, or the back room. That bell meant a customer had entered and a customer meant money. But the bell hadn’t rung and yet he was not there, not anywhere in the gallery. Nowhere at all.

Unbelievable. All of it. Yet the man’s certainty had infected her somehow. Not a Morland he said. Not a Morland. Well, this book had a picture of every Morland ever catalogued.

She flipped through it, page after page, looking for the painting of the four men in red coats, the four brown horses. There. It was a Morland. Red coats. Brown horses. She examined the artist’s signature in the book and found it matched the artist’s signature on the painting.

The man in the suit was wrong.

And yet.

Mona lightly touched the signature—the ornate M, the curving D. She knew she shouldn’t. One should never touch a painting with bare hands, but the painting was so uninteresting and uninspired and was taking up valuable wall space that she didn’t feel too guilty about touching a tiny corner of it with her fingertip.

"Shit.” The M flaked off onto her finger. Just like that. Barely a touch and the paint crumbled. Well, it was her fault and she’d take the blame for it when the painting’s owner demanded an explanation for the damage. It could be repaired, but that meant more time and more money, money she didn’t have. She peered at the bare spot where the M had been, fearful of seeing more damage. But she didn’t see any damage.

She saw a J.

There was no J in Morland. But that was without a doubt the letter J.

Before she could stop herself, she’d used her red fingernail to chip off one more tiny fleck of paint. It was against every rule. It was madness. But she did it anyway. She’d seen a glint of gold in the bottom of a box of China dishes and she was breaking the China to pieces to get to the gold.

And there it was.

An R after the J.

Mona took the painting off the wall, back to the office, flicked on the lights and as slowly and carefully as she could, set about extracting the top layer of paint off the signature below it. Her mother had taught her how to do it while simultaneously warning her never to do it. Yet her mother was gone and Mona did it. And when she finished, she not only had a J and an R. She’d uncovered an E and possibly a Y as well.

J.

J. Reynolds.

Joshua Reynolds?

Surely not. Or was it? She had to find out.

"Forgive me, Mother,” Mona breathed as she went about removing more of the paint.

Her mother had told her to do anything to save the gallery. That’s exactly what Mona would do.

The Courtesan

The week passed in a blur as the newly discovered Reynolds painting became the talk of the art world. Mona spent hours on the phone with arts and culture reporters who’d seized upon the story in a slow news week. They all wanted to know how she knew there was a Reynolds hidden under the unremarkable Morland painting. All she could tell them was that a visitor to the gallery noted something off about the painting. When she examined the signature, she noticed the flaking paint and followed a hunch. When they wanted to know the visitor’s name to talk to him as well, she had to tell them the truth—she had no idea who he was. He came in, made a comment about the painting and left before she could get his name. The news drew visitors to the gallery. She sold two pieces for ten thousand each.

All thanks to the mysterious man in the three-piece suit.

She’d almost forgotten he’d promised to return in a week. But on the seventh evening she remembered and lingered long at her desk after the gallery had closed. She listened for the bell as she did her paperwork. She never heard it ring. But at five to midnight, Tou-Tou hopped out of his basket and ran through the door to the gallery as if he’d suddenly recalled he was late for a very important date.

Mona rose from her desk and walked as quietly as she could to the office door. She opened it a few more inches and saw the man in the gallery, holding Tou-Tou and stroking his head.

"You have a black cat, Mona,” he said. He wore the same three-piece suit as before. "How fitting.”

"Tou-Tou’s the gallery cat,” she said. Cautiously she approached the man and took Tou-Tou from his arms. She wasn’t sure she trusted him yet, and her cat was the closest thing Mona had to family. "Not much luck but he keeps me company.”

"A cat to be envied then,” the man said.

"Do you have a name?”

"Forgive me. I should have introduced myself last week. Malcolm.”

"Malcolm,” she repeated, liking the feel of it on her tongue. "Any last name?”

"Not at the moment. Was I correct about the painting?”

"You know you were. It was all over the news.”

He shrugged a shoulder. "I pay very little attention to the news. A Reynolds, I assume?”

"It was. Appraised at five million.”

"How much will you get?”

"Fifty-thousand-dollar finder’s fee from the owner. Yours, of course.”

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