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"A Christmas Conspiracy"

by Albert Hubbell



Vol. 1, No. 7,  January 1957

    THE nation had prospered, but Randall had not. Until he saw the picture in Mangin's window, Christmas 1956 promised to be as dreary and penniless as any of the thirty-five Christmases of his generally futile and misspent life.
    But now there was a prospect that it would be the richest. The shop was very small and untidy and its sign--M. Mangin. Antiques, Objects of Art. Paintings Bought, Sold, Restored--had a listless air as though it hardly expected to be taken seriously. M. Mangin's stood cramped between two larger buildings on Third Avenue and, though Randall had occasion to pass it nearly every day on the way from his furnished room to Paddy's bar, he gave only cursory attention to the collection of dusty, irrelevant objects in the window.
    Not that Randall was not interested in art. There had been a time, in his student days when he would have stopped and pored over even M. Mangin's poor display. But in the past few years it had become increasingly important to get to Paddy's without delay.
    This cold December morning something caught his eye and he did stop. On a large table just inside the window, which was a clutter of china dogs, broken flintlock pistols, and dubious Dresden ware, three pictures had been placed. One was a landscape with cows, painted, Randall thought, with a snicker, by someone who had flunked out of the school of Corot. Next to it was a portrait of a bearded old man, also framed, which Randall's practiced eye identified as the work of a student. Such pictures were legion and they all looked the same--every student, in Randall's art school days, turned out at least one (since the lower part of the human face is the most difficult to paint, it was not hard to understand why art students had a predilection for men with beards). It was the third picture that had caused Randall to stop--a small, dark, unframed oil sketch of three hags bent over an outdoor fire, one of them stirring something in a cauldron. The countenances of the trio were illumined by the embers of the fire so that their sinister, witch like features stood out sharply against the slate-grey night sky. The picture had been painted with a great deal of bravura and in obvious haste, and it appeared to be a sketch for some larger work. Randall stared at it intently for several minutes, then he caught his breath and felt his diaphragm thump. He looked about him covertly and hastened on his way to Paddy's.
    He sat looking at himself in the mirror behind the bar, his puffed little eyes twinkling at their reflections with a look of cupidity and cunning amusement. After his third ale he said, almost aloud, "I'd better check it with Fain."
    Waiting, Randall went through a torment of doubt and impatience. How, he asked himself, in the endless shuffle of art had that picture found its way, unrecognized and unsung, to a grimy window off Third Avenue? More important, how long had it been there? How many people had seen it? A sickening thought crossed his mind: what if some fool just blundered in and bought the thing, right this afternoon! He had another ale and moved up to the window-end of the bar where he could watch for his friend Fain.
    In about an hour he showed up--a large, seedy, and elderly individual with a floppy black hat that accentuated his general look of a charlatan. Around his eyes and mouth were myriads of tiny wrinkles, each one like a notch commemorating a shady deal.
    "What's up, my boy?" he asked.
    "Listen," Randall said, "there's a little antique dump just around the corner from here. There's something in the window today you've got to see. That's all I'll say now. I want you to go around and look, then come back, and tell me what you think."
    Within ten minutes, Fain was back. He leaned on the bar with a conspiratorial air and regarded Randall with a smug and secret smile. "If it isn't a Delacroix," he said, "my name isn't J. Harrison Fain."
    "You're damn right it's a Delacroix," Randall said in a hoarse, excited whisper. "And we've got to get it. How many Delacroix are lying around loose outside of museums? This is big, Fain! What do you think it'd be worth--five thousand, ten?" He took a deep draught of ale. "We've got to get it before the old dope finds out what he's got. The hell of it is, I haven't got any dough."
    Fain was no less excited, but he maintained a field marshal's calm. "You will go in," he said, gazing past Randall's shoulder into the distance. "I fear I am the wrong type. You will be just a neighborhood fellow--sort of pathetically ignorant--who wants a 'hand-painted' picture for, say, a Christmas present. You will have about ten dollars to spend, maybe fifteen. You will look at a lot of them first, then, finally, you will sort of like the little picture of the old ladies."
    Fain took a puff on the miniature cigar he held delicately between thumb and forefinger and paused thoughtfully. "No," he said, after a moment. "We will do it a little differently. Your sister has just been married and the newlyweds are furnishing an apartment. You want to get them two pictures for Christmas--inexpensive ones. First you buy some cheap piece of schmalz for a few dollars to show your ignorance. You pay for it. Then, as a kind of after-thought you ask about the other one. Underplay it, my boy, underplay it--these old villains are sharp. And don't worry about the money. I'll raise it somehow."
    Fain appeared at Paddy's next day around noon. "I have been successful, my boy," he said. He took out four five-dollar bills and five singles. "There is even a little margin. One must not quaver before a risk, especially when it s a calculated risk." Randall took the money and stowed it in his pocket.
    "Now, remember ..." Fain began, but Randall stopped him with a raised palm. "I remember everything," he said with a wolfish grin. "Hold the fort."
    The opening of the door made a little tinkling sound at the back of the shop and a round little man emerged from be hind a confusion of highboys, breakfronts, and bric-a-brac.
    "Somesing ?" the old man said.
    "I--ah--want to see some pitchas," Randall said.
    M. Mangin's opaque black eyes flickered for an instant over Randall's shiny brown suit. "I haf many," he said in differently. "All sizes. You would like landscape, maybe? Portraits? Engravings? Oil paintings?'
    "I'd like to see some hand-painted ones," Randall said, beginning to look around. He stepped in front of a large, stiffly executed Rocky Mountain scene in a heavy frame.
    "Twenty-eight dollars," said Mangin. "The frame is nice carved."
    "Maybe something smaller," Randall muttered. "I want something for a combination Christmas and wedding present--my sister, she's just got married."
    The phrase "Christmas and wedding present" seemed to bring M. Mangin to life, as though, for the first time, he believed his customer might be serious. He began picking up pictures from a stack against the wall and showing them in rapid succession.
    "Here is nice," he said, holding up a dim still-life of fruit and lobsters. "Dutch picture." He pushed a small canvas of ships in the sunset toward Randall. "Here is a good one. Preddy colors."
    Randall looked at each picture as it was shown him, doubt and puzzlement nicely counterfeited on his face. He began, imperceptibly, to move toward the window, trying to suppress the trembling in his knees. Finally, he peered around closely at the landscape with cows.
    "Very fine scene," Mangin said. "I let you haf this one for fifteen dollars--your sister would like."
    Randall still looked uncertain; he swallowed surreptitiously to overcome the dryness in his mouth.
    "Yeah," he said. "It's good. But my sister, she don't go for cows much." He looked pointedly at the portrait of the old man with the beard--the student's picture--and M. Mangin, following his glance, pounced on the canvas.
    "Old man with a beard," he said. "Might be Saint Paul, might be Santa Claus." He chuckled as he ran his fingers over the smooth surface. "Good brushwork. Eight dollars."
    "Okay," Randall said after a little hesitation. "It'll go good in their alcove. It's nice. The frame's got class."
    He handed over eight dollars when M. Mangin had finished wrapping the picture in a crumpled piece of brown paper. He tucked the picture under his arm and started for the door but stopped suddenly before he got to it, as though struck by a thought; he let his eyes slide back to the only remaining picture on the table.
    "My sister's apartment is going to look awful bare," he said musingly. Then with wide, innocent eyes he looked straight at the picture of the hags.
    "Them old ladies isn't half bad."
    M. Mangin threw up his arms in a gesture of mock despair and heaved a sigh of profound melancholy.
    "Ach, my friend," he said in a kindly tone, "you haf good taste. That picture is by famous French artist--Delacroix. It's insured for eight thousand dollars. I haf been cleaning it for rich Park Avenue lady." He picked up the little painting and caressed it. "When I get high-class job like this, I put it in my window to dress up the shop."
    Randall pushed open the door of Paddy's Bar and Grill, and Fain, who had been sitting as close to the entrance as possible, seized the small package from under his arm. He looked quizzically at Randall's stunned face as he started undoing the wrapping.
    "What is it, my boy?" he said. "Is something wrong?"
    Randall signaled for an ale and said to the bartender, "Give me a shot along with it, Mike." To Fain he said, without quite looking him in the face, "The old goon knew what it was all along. He's got it in for a cleaning."
    Automatically, Fain went on stripping the paper from the picture Randall had brought in. When he had finished, he started at it as he digested the information. After a few minutes, he began to laugh--a great, heaving rumble of a laugh that brought the tears to his eyes.
    "What," Randall said, rounding on him with a vicious snarl, "is so damned funny?"
    "Look," Fain said, wiping his eyes and shoving the canvas along the bar. Randall Looked at the picture blankly and at the place in the lower right-hand corner that Fain was indicating with his thumb. Dimly, under the grime and darkened varnish, he made out the artist's signature: "John R. Randall, 1939.
    Fain was still laughing. He waved his hand at the bar tender and said, "Let's have another round, Mike," and then to Randall, "Cheer up, my boy. You've made your first sale."

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