d someone sent this man to force her to sell?
The Fox Hunt
It had always been called The Red Gallery, even before the gallery was red.
Originally it was called Red’s because a man named Red owned the place and for no other reason. Mona’s mother, however, said the name came from the 1920s when The Red was a speakeasy. So many people were killed during bloody gangster shootouts, she said, that the place had been nicknamed The Little Red Shooting Gallery. None of that was true, of course, but Mona’s mother had been the sort of woman who valued beauty over truth. She loved The Red Gallery and thought it deserved the very best origin story. Mona never passed on that fiction herself, but she never denied it either. She also kept the brick painted crimson and her own brown hair colored candy apple red.
It’s what her mother would have wanted.
Her mother had loved The Red Gallery so very much that her last words to Mona had been, "Do anything you have to, but save The Red.” And for that reason alone Mona sat at her desk in The Red Gallery long past closing time, adding up numbers again and again in the hopes of finding a misplaced zero somewhere, a zero that would turn assets of fifty thousand dollars into five hundred thousand dollars. She’d robbed Peter to pay Paul and now Peter was at the door and pounding. There was no one left to rob to pay him.
Unless she sold the gallery.
Why her mother loved this place so much Mona might never know. Oh, Mona loved The Red too, their little gallery on Savoy Street. She loved its painted red brick and glass storefront, the ebony-stained hardwood, the red velvet curtains along the walls that made the colors of the canvases pop like balloons. She loved the little office off the main gallery that had once been her mother’s but was now hers. She loved the storage room in the back where all the paintings and sculptures not currently on display were safely kept—a second private art gallery. What she didn’t love was the debt. If her mother had died a quick death, Mona might have been able to save the gallery. But she hadn’t. She’d been sick and had lingered for two years, getting a little better and then a little worse, better, then worse, a step forward, a fall back. In the end, all she could leave Mona was the deed to the gallery and a fortune in medical debt that her mother’s life insurance barely touched.
And no one gave a damn about art anymore.
She knew that wasn’t true, but all attempts to revitalize the gallery had failed. Up and coming artists had drawn young hip crowds. But while the hip young crowds were happy to drink the free wine and eat the free crackers and cheese, they didn’t buy the paintings. Older artists had flooded the markets with their works and were selling for peanuts, if they were selling at all. She’d tried to entice the estate of a recently deceased painter to give her the exhibition of his collection, but they’d gone with a bigger gallery uptown. She didn’t blame them. She might not have picked The Red Gallery either.
Today, she’d let go the very last member of her staff.
Except for Tou-Tou, of course. She’d never let go of Tou-Tou.
"Don’t worry,” she said to the little black cat curled up in the corner of her office in his bed. "If I sell the gallery, you won’t be homeless. You can come live with me.”
Tou-Tou—short for Toulouse-Lautrec—merely glanced in her direction, blinking his luminescent green eyes before returning to the task at hand, namely licking his right paw for the next ten minutes. Tou-Tou had been the gallery cat for ten years. Her mother had found the malnourished black kitten in an alley two streets away and had brought him here to nurse him back to health. He’d never gotten very big, but his coat was glossy and soft, his eyes bright, and his purrs loud enough to wake the dead. She wasn’t allowed pets in her apartment, but what her landlady didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Ten years. Mona had been fifteen when they found Tou-Tou. Ten years. Ten years ago the gallery had been the apple of Savoy Street, the darling of the art district. But rents had gotten too high and the galleries, one by one, had shut their doors or moved. Only The Red was left behind.
And now it would close its doors too.
Mona rose from her desk and walked to Tou-Tou’s bed. She stroked his head, his chin, pressed her hand to his side to feel that marvelous diesel engine purr. It comforted her. She whispered promises to Tou-Tou, that he would like it at her apartment. That she wasn’t firing him, she was selling the gallery. She told him to tell her mother—her mother had been certain cats could communicate with the dead—that Mona had done all she could to save The Red. No banks would loan her money. The credit cards were maxed. Bankruptcy was imminent. Art for art’s sake was a lovely idea in theory.
But art alone couldn’t pay the bills.
Mona stood up straight and squared her shoulders. The wall clock said it was almost midnight. Sometime in the last hour she’d made up her mind to sell. She felt better now that she’d acknowledged she had no choice but to sell. The numbers weren’t going to magically multiply no matter how long she stared at them. Might as well give up, go home, and sleep. She slung her black bag over her shoulder, took her red coat off the hook and laid it over her arm, slipped her feet back into her black heels and blew a goodnight kiss at Tou-Tou. Time to lock up. Time to give up. Except…
There was a man standing in the gallery.
Mona gasped, her hand over her mouth. It didn’t seem he had heard her gasp. He didn’t even turn to look at her. She swallowed hard, her heart running like the White Rabbit. He was tall and broad-shouldered and wore a three-piece black suit. He had one hand on his hip, one hand on his chin. Although his clothes were modern and he looked about forty years old, there was something about him that looked…old. No, not old. Old World, perhaps. Yes, that. Old World. She could think of no other way to describe him. It was the hair. That was it. He wore his hair in a style that would have best belonged on a Regency-era lord. Black and tousled, rakish even, he reminded her of Eugene Delacroix’s dashing self-portraits. Dark eyes, black heart. To Mona he looked like the devil gone courting.
But who was the devil’s lucky lady?
"Sir?” Mona finally worked up her courage to speak. "The gallery is closed.”
He didn’t speak at first. But he did move at last. He dropped his hand from his chin and stepped toward the small painting in front of him. It was a George Morland, a contemporary of Joshua Reynolds. Nothing terribly impressive about it. Merely an uninspired painting of men in red coats on horseback. A pretty painting, pretty and unobtrusive. Mona imagined an older couple looking to decorate a country house would take a shine to it. All it had done in the four months it hung on the gallery wall was gather dust.
"Things aren’t what they seem.”
His accent was English. She’d recognized those lovely vowels at once.
"No,” she said. "I imagine they aren’t.”
"I hear your gallery is closing,” he said. Again the right hand came to his chin, the left hand to his hip. The left hand drew her gaze. He was lean and the well-tailored vest emphasized his trim waist and hips. She was finding it very difficult not to enjoy looking at his body. The man was a work of art.
"Closed, I said. I told you the gallery is closed. It’s almost midnight.”
"You’re in the red.”
"So are you. That’s the name of the gallery.”
At that he turned and looked at her, met her eyes, smiled. She felt a current of fear run through her body, electric and exciting. Why hadn’t she dressed better today? She wore her plain tweed skirt, her plain black blouse, and plain black flats. She looked more like a secretary than a gallery owner. If only—secretaries made far more money than she did these days.
"You’re in the red,” he said again. "In debt, I mean.”
"What have you heard?” she asked. She knew local real estate developers could be aggressive when it came to prime property in prime locations. Ha
"I heard the gallery was in distress. Such a shame,” he said. "It’s a treasure trove.”
"It’s a money pit,” she said.
He arched an eyebrow at her. He looked even more like the devil than ever. A dashing devil. Despite her fear, she liked looking at him. He didn’t seem dangerous. No, he seemed terribly dangerous. But he didn’t seem violent. There was a difference.
"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.
"I told you—things aren’t always as they seem. There are machines for seeing through paint? Or am I mistaken?”
"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.”
"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.
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.
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 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