Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Issue #64 - June 2020

THE WOMAN FROM FLORENCE
by Preston Lang

The world’s most famous painting had come to town a week earlier, the same day Kennedy banned travel to Cuba. Don sat out on the fire escape just above apartment 4B and peeked through the window. He could only see the top of the frame. When the buzzer sounded, he watched the big man in the brown suit answer the door. Don couldn’t see Annie May, but he heard her voice clearly.

“Please, honey. This couch is just so heavy.”

The big man left the apartment and locked the door behind him.

The window was well-secured from the inside, and Don saw that he wasn’t going to be able to open it quickly, even with the tools he’d brought. But the metal bars didn’t extend all the way up, so he smashed in the glass on top, threw a rubber mat over the shards, and swung himself inside.

The main space was decorated with antique furniture and velvet ropes blocking passage to any other room. The painting hung on the far wall. It was smaller than he expected, less than two feet wide. He tucked it under his arm and hurried back to the window, crunching glass underfoot. By the time the big man threw open the door, Don’s head and shoulders were out on the fire escape.

The big guy scrambled to the window, but Don was down the ladder and into the courtyard. Past the trash cans of the adjacent building, around to 83rd Street, and into a cab that took him to a little Irish place off 3rd Avenue. He was on his second beer when Annie May walked in.

“You made a lot of noise,” she said.

“You didn’t keep him busy very long.”

“Let’s not bicker. We just stole the Mona Lisa.”

It wasn’t the actual Mona Lisa, but what they had was a lot more valuable to them than the real thing. They brought it into the bathroom and stood it up on the sink under the light. The smile really did change depending on whether you stood directly in front of it or over by the cigarette machine.

The whole idea had been a joke, a party game for Annie May. Back in December at some downtown bash in a trombone player’s apartment, they’d both been a little stoned and feeling good about a sweet little job they’d just pulled on an east side record store. The trombone player’s girlfriend mentioned that the Mona Lisa was coming to New York in February.

“We should steal it,” Don said.

“No. I’ll tell you what we should do.”

She hadn’t even been hush-hush because she knew they’d never do it. But she had a way of talking about a job—confident, step-by-step in her low-pitched Dallas drawl. Another couple, squares from Connecticut, had been sitting on the back of the couch, facing the other way, trying to contribute to a discussion about hashish. But they must have been listening because three days after the Mona Lisa hit town, Don overheard two women on a bus out in Queens.

“We won’t have to deal with all those crowds, shoving and pushing. We’ll get a chance to see it up close. They even take off the security glass.”

Don politely entered the conversation—couldn’t help but overhear. The woman smirked at him and explained they didn’t let just anyone in for a private viewing of the Mona Lisa. Don would have to wait in line outside the Met with the stinking masses then elbow and jostle for a few seconds’ glimpse of that famous smile. At night, however, the painting was relocated to a nearby annex of the museum, where small, exclusive cultural groups were allowed to view it in private.

The woman even let him see a mailer she’d gotten—for organizations like yours with a proven commitment to the Fine Arts. Annie May had used those exact words on that couch in the trombone player’s apartment. And—just like she’d drawn it up—the targets were older women and immigrants from the outer boroughs.

If they’d really done it, though, they’d have taken money in advance, cashed the checks, and shut the whole thing down before the painting left the Louvre. The poor old ladies would show up for their private tour and the Met would tell them they’d been conned. If Annie May didn’t get too greedy, that might have been good for a few hundred bucks.

But at that party she’d been spouting nonsense—rent out a place near the Met, buy a few velvet ropes and a decent fake painting. Don said he knew a guy from Cooper Union who’d made a little money painting fake classics a few years back. They could host groups for eight bucks a head and collect every night until they sent the damn thing back to France. Someone had taken them seriously.

Don dug around a bit more in Queens. He cozied up to the president of the Corona Society for Appreciation of the Arts and got the address of the annex.

“It’s connected to the Met itself through a sublevel.”

The annex was a small walkup a block and a half from the museum. Not a super luxury, but it wouldn’t have been cheap or easy to rent an apartment on short notice. Don and Annie May stood out in the cold on a Tuesday night and watched from across the street as six different groups went up and down the stairs. Twenty minutes inside then they’d come out beaming with a glow only that famous smile could provide.

Annie May let Don do the math.

“They’ve got to be making a thousand bucks a night.”

It couldn’t last, though. The wrong person would get a hold of that pamphlet or hear some old Italian woman bragging in a butcher shop. How was it possible they hadn’t been shut down already?

But sometimes the baldest lies were the ones that no one questioned. Don was pretty sure that was Lesson One of some famous old con man. He couldn’t remember who at the moment, but that wasn’t important. What they needed to know was whether they were looking at random clowns who’d stolen Annie May’s idea, or crooks backed by real muscle?

Don went down to see Jimmy Hissman in his sad, old apartment near the East River. The Night Watch hung over his foldout couch. A customer had rejected it and even refused to pay for paint and canvas.

“You do a Mona Lisa for anyone recently?” Don asked.

“Yeah, for your friend. Back in December.”

“My friend?”

“The little guy said he was hosting some kind of renaissance theme party when the real one came to town. I only talked to him because he said you recommended me.”

“This guy—he was a crook?”

“How do I know?”

“Like a mob guy?”

“I don’t know from mob guys. Five foot nothing. Thinning hair. Out-of-town accent.”

Didn’t sound like a mob guy. It also didn’t sound like the square from Connecticut. But Don was thinking positive: some junior ad exec and his wife went to this weird drug party downtown; they heard a wild criminal idea; they wanted to do it but needed help from a sketchy little friend to pull it off?

“How long did it take you to paint the thing?” Don asked Jimmy.

“Only a couple days. But I told them two weeks so it would seem like a bigger job. They paid all right. Told them for an extra fifty bucks, I’d give her eyebrows.”

Just a pack of amateurs who’d already gotten ripped off by an artist. They’d probably pay a ransom to keep earning a grand a night—no problem. Still, Don called the trombone player.

“You remember that party you had back before Christmas? This really uptight couple from Connecticut came. Pretended they’d once bought hashish in Morocco. Who were they?”

“Man, I barely even remember who you are.”

Or could it be someone else? Don tried to remember if there were any other professionals at the party. He didn’t think so, but there was no way to be sure, and Annie May was hot for the heist.

“It’ll be easy,” she said. “I’ll knock on the door, ask the guy to help me carry a couch up to the top floor. You slip in through the window.”

“I’m not worried about the lift. That’ll be cake.”

“Baby, they’re not mobbed up. This is too oddball for those old men to put any money into.”

So Don had made the grab then they scoured the white pages until they found the number of the apartment. Don dialed because Annie May thought they’d respect a masculine voice more, but she pressed her head close to his in the little phone booth. It rang fifteen times before an older man answered, out of breath.

“We’ve got the Mona Lisa,” Don said. “How much you want to pay to get her back?”

“You don’t get a bullet in your head. How about that?”

“That plus three grand.”

“Bring it back right now.”

It didn’t sound like the big guy who’d been standing guard that afternoon, and it didn’t sound like a five foot nothing man from out of town. They listened to him curse for a while—some uninspired profanity.

“You know the lunch counter at Grossman’s?” Don said.

“No.”

“Well, ask someone. It’s a long wooden counter. About eight feet from the register there’s a little opening in the wood. You put three thousand dollars in an envelope and shove it in there. Straight then to the left. If no one sees you do it, no one will know it’s in there.”

“Stick money in a lunch counter?”

Hundreds of people went into Grossman’s every hour. As long as they didn’t have a man watching the hole, they wouldn’t be able to know who’d taken the money.

“Do it between three and three thirty. I’ll have a guy pick it up,” Don said. “As soon as he tells me it’s good, I’ll call and tell you where to get the painting. You’ll have it back in time for the eight o’clock show tonight.”

The man didn’t say anything.

“Or you can get yourself another. How long you think that will take?”

“You’re a goddamned leech. That’s what you are.”

Annie May grabbed the phone.

“No, my friend. You are the leech. Flat out stealing someone else’s—”

Don wrestled back the phone.

“Three grand is, what, three nights for you? That’s what you’re paying us. Keep someone by the phone in case we need to tell you something.”

Don hung up.

“You believe that guy?” Annie May said.

“Do I believe he’d really put a bullet in my head? I’m not sure.”

“No, can you believe he’d call us leeches?”

This was the problem with geniuses. They got fixated on the wrong part of the equation. Don loved Annie May more than anything, and she could wring money out of the unlikeliest saps, but she sometimes worried about more than the outcome.

*** 

Grossman’s was a restaurant in the Garment District with exactly three tables. From eleven a.m. until eight p.m. they had a line out the door waiting for takeout. Don thought the food was only so-so, but he’d used it successfully as an anonymous drop before.

At a quarter to four, he went into the men’s shop across the street and looked at ties. He chatted with the saleslady and peeked through the window. Four men in dark suits approached the restaurant and surveyed the line. Then one of them went inside. Ten minutes later he came out with a container of soup. He ate leaning up against the building, and the one with the mustache got on the line. The other two fanned out in opposite directions but kept watch on the front door.

They weren’t smart but they were pretty damn scary. The man with the mustache still hadn’t come out, even though people who’d entered after him had walked out with food. He was watching the hole from the inside. Don left the store and found a phone booth on the corner, where he called the apartment.

“You need to get your men away from Grossman’s, and you need to put money in that hole.”

The old man didn’t speak for almost half a minute.

“We’ll give you two grand. Take it or leave it.”

“Tell them to put it in the hole, and then have them back off. All of them. I see them all. The guy with the mustache who’s waiting inside. The big apes you got standing around on the sidewalk. They need to leave.”

“All right. Be patient.”

It was about fifteen minutes by cab from the apartment to Grossman’s. A half hour later Don saw another big guy walk into the shop. He came out with the mustached man. They split up. One headed east, the other west. They both took a goon with them and walked away from Grossman’s. But Don had lost track of the first man, the one who’d walked in and ordered soup. And there could’ve been another guy he didn’t know about. Maybe he should scrub the mission.

Annie May was in a bar waiting with the painting by a payphone.

“I don’t know where all the eyes are,” he told her.

“Then I’ll do it. You just give me a little cover.”

“I don’t think it’s—”

“I’ll be there in a sec.”

Three minutes later, she walked right past him, wearing a headscarf and shades, pushing a stroller. Don gave her a minute then followed. He was eleven spots behind her in line. Just before she came to the hole in the counter, he coughed three times, then wheezed and spat into a handkerchief.

“Christ, come on,” the man in front of him said. “We’re here to get lunch, not typhus.”

“I’ll give you something a lot worse than typhus,” Don said quietly.

The scene heated up a bit. Most of the patrons were against Don and phlegm. He stood his ground for a minute then backed down.

“Yeah, you better leave,” the man in front of him said.

“I hope you die soon,” a woman called as he left.

He got to the bar five minutes before Annie May arrived with a container of chicken broth, still in her kerchief but without the stroller.

“Three hundred dollars,” she said. “Can you believe that?”

“It’s something.”

“They still owe, then.”

“I think this is as good as we’re going to do.”

“They don’t have the painting. And the later it gets, the more leverage we get.”

“These are tough guys. We’re lucky we got anything.”

“Why did they give us three hundred bucks, then? Why give us anything?”

“I don’t know. Like a token of—respect?”

Don wasn’t sure he believed this. Maybe it was to give them a false sense of security. Maybe they only coughed up money because they knew they’d get it back.

“So wat do you want to do?” Annie May asked. “Give them the painting?”

“Yes. No hard feelings. We leave it on a street corner, call the old guy to send someone to pick it up. Everybody wins.”

“This is a twenty-thousand-dollar operation. And it was my idea. Three hundred dollars is not a win for us. Let’s go home. Let them see how much they like losing a night’s revenue.”

The bartender handed Annie May the Mona Lisa wrapped in brown paper.

As they walked to the subway, it started to snow just a little bit. When they stopped and Don tied a scarf around his wife’s neck, someone called from across the street.

“Annie May?”

When they turned, the bullets came in rapid succession. Two missed high, a third went through the canvas and lodged into the brick behind it. Annie May dropped the painting, and they ran west, not stopping until they hit 7th Avenue. From there they went straight to Port Authority and took the first bus south. They were both fine, but La Gioconda had taken one in the forehead.

*** 

Back in Annie May’s hometown, they’d been on a pretty good roll conning honest Texans out of cattle money. That November, they went to an odd little party thrown by some UT grad students who were up for the weekend. Annie May got into an argument with history majors about John Wilkes Booth.

“You couldn’t really do something like that now,” one of them said. “Completely different level of security these days.”

“I don’t know,” Annie May said. “If you did want to take out the president, it wouldn’t actually be that hard.”

“Yeah? Tell me how you’d do it.”

She had it all plotted out—the shot, the patsy, the misdirection—but again, she was just fooling around.


Preston Lang is a native of New York and almost entirely a product of its public school system. His short work has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2019. He's also published four novels with Down and Out Books and writes a regular column for WebMd.com.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this one. Deception upon deception. It works a treat. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete