This is a no-bullets art heist story. There are three parties, all trying to dupe each other over an expensive painting. Who will come out at the top? A highly entertaining and intelligent short story.
Victor Fleetwood knew enough about art to be a successful dealer and enough about human nature to make an occasional killing. Business had been quiet all week at his Chelsea gallery. Plenty of people had stopped to stare at the pictures on display in the window and a few had ventured into the shop to browse, but there was only one sale to record. It was depressing. When the old lady appeared, however, he sensed that his luck was about to change. A disappointing week might yet be redeemed.
“Good afternoon,” he said with a polite smile.
“Oh, good afternoon,” she replied nervously. “Mr. Fleetwood?”
“We spoke on the telephone.”
“Ah, then you must be Miss Plympton.”
“That’s right. Geraldine Plympton.”
“How do you do?” He offered his hand but she merely brushed his palm with her gloved fingers. “You found me, then?”
“Eventually, Mr. Fleetwood. Such a long walk from the tube.”
“I assumed that you’d come by taxi.”
“Taxis are far too expensive.”
The remark confirmed his first impression of her as a woman of rather modest means. Geraldine Plympton was smartly dressed but her clothes had the faded look of garments worn far too often over far too long a period. Her grey hair was cut short and imprisoned beneath a hat out of which the remains of an ostrich feather sprouted. Her voice suggested breeding and she bore herself well. Underneath the scent of lavender, Victor Fleetwood detected the scent of genteel poverty.
“You’ve brought the painting, I see,” he observed.
“Yes,” she said with a wan smile. “Do you mind if I sit down for a moment? Carrying this has rather tired me out.”
“Of course, dear lady.” He held the back of the chair as she gratefully lowered herself down. “Take your time.”
“Wait till you get your breath back.”
“I hadn’t realised that it was so heavy.”
“Art has its own tonnage.” He gave a brittle laugh. Fleetwood was a tall, sleek man in his sixties, well groomed and impeccably dressed. As he subjected his visitor to a more searching gaze, he stroked his beard. Geraldine Plympton was clearly not accustomed to art galleries. She was looking around with the wide-eyed curiosity of a child on her first trip to the zoo.
“What a lot of paintings you have!” she said.
“I like to keep a large stock.”
“Most of them seem to be landscapes.”
“Why are there are no prices on them?”
“Price tags are rather tacky, I always think,” he said airily. “This is a temple of art, not a supermarket. I sell quality, Miss Plympton, and it is not always easy to set a price on that. Everything you see here has only an approximate value. This allows for negotiation or, to use another word, haggling. The true price of a painting is the amount someone is prepared to pay for it. That’s what makes the world of art so fascinating.”
“Is that so?”