The King of the Elves
Brighton checked the address, frowning. The house number matched. So did the description he had obtained during the morning's phone conversation. It just didn't look like the sort of home an art collector would have, being a modest house in a modest neighborhood. It was a well-kept place, though. Despite heavy snow that morning, the driveway and front walk were bare. Deciding that this had to be the right house, he climbed out of his rental car and walked to the door. He pushed the button, hearing a bell ring somewhere in the back of the house as he stomped the last traces of snow off his dress shoes. After a moment, the door was opened by a tall, broad-shouldered older man with a full head of silver hair. Brighton felt instantly envious. Why should anyone that old have so much hair?
"Mister William Carter?" asked Brighton in his rapid-fire manner. When the old man nodded, he continued, extending his hand. "I'm Charles Brighton. I spoke to you on the phone."
"Good evening, Mr. Brighton," said Carter, in that same, deep voice Brighton had found so impressive earlier. The old man's grip was firm as he shook hands. "Please come in."
"I'm glad you were able to see me this evening, Mr. Carter," returned Brighton. He stepped inside, loosening his coat, welcoming the warmth of the house. "As I explained during our phone conversation, I am a purchasing agent for an art collector. I hope you will understand if I don't tell you which. He doesn't want his name known in connection with my business here until it is concluded."
Carter took his guest's coat and hat and showed him to a seat, then left with the garments.
While his host was thus occupied, Brighton took a quick glance around the room. There were, indeed, several paintings and framed prints hanging there, but to Brighton's eyes they were worthless, mere novelty pieces. His doubts continued. He started as he realized that Carter had returned. The big man moved very quietly.
"And just what is your business here?" asked Carter, seating himself across from the art broker.
"A recent check of the records of Alaina Sweden's estate showed that you are the owner of an oil painting version of Oberon, King of the Elves, a work of hers that was previously thought to exist only as a watercolor study," blurted Brighton.
"Yes, I do own that piece," said Carter, his calm voice contrasting with Brighton's near-panting. "She painted it for a book cover nearly thirty years ago. After it had been photographed for printing she gave the painting to me. She knew I collected art, and had no further use for it herself."
"Well, since the discovery that it exists, the painted version of Oberon has been conservatively valued at over one million dollars," said Brighton. "Even though it was made early in her career - back when she was still doing that fantasy and sci-fi junk - it is considered quite valuable."
Brighton noticed a subtle cooling in Carter's manner and wondered what he had said wrong. He hurried on, uneasily calculating how much whatever gaffe he had committed would add to the cost.
"I am prepared to offer you, on behalf of my employer, a certified check for $1 million, for that painting."
"Well, I'm impressed, Mr. Brighton, but the painting is not for sale."
"Very well," said Brighton. He opened his briefcase and brought out some papers. "My employer has authorized me to go as high as one million-two."
"That doesn't change the fact that the painting is not for sale."
"Is there some sort of sentimental attachment?" asked Brighton, trying to find an opening he could take advantage of. "I understand you were a friend of the family."
"You've never seen the watercolor, have you?" asked Carter, cooling even more. "Not even a photograph of it."
"Well, no. I'm a broker, not a collector."
"I think you should leave, Mr. Brighton."
There was an odd firmness in the old man's voice which told Brighton he better do as told. Carter promptly rose and fetched Brighton's hat and coat, reinforcing his wishes. However, Brighton was good at his job, and as he hesitated in the doorway, fumbling with his coat, hat and briefcase, he made one more offer. He spoke in the same breathless, run-on manner, but now even more hurried. The new amount was met with stony silence. Brighton left quickly.
As he crunched his way to the car, Brighton had a look of cunning and determination on his face. This wasn't over. He had several more gambits to use. He rarely failed to get what his customers wanted, and didn't intend for this to be one of those occasions when he couldn't come through. Not with the commission involved in this purchase.
* * *
"Good morning, Mr. Brighton," said the deep, resonant voice, the characteristic intonations somehow even carrying over the limited fidelity of the phone line.
"Good morning, Mr. Carter. What brings you to call me?"
"I received a letter from my insurance company two days after your visit. They say that my homeowner's policy does not cover Oberon, King of the Elves and that if I don't begin paying for a special rider they will cancel my insurance." Carter's voice was carefully neutral, as if he were completely unconcerned about the situation. "I can't afford what they want to insure my painting, so I decided to get rid of it."
"Well, that's too bad," said Brighton, managing to sound sympathetic while gloating inside. His visit to the insurance company had paid off. "You are willing to accept our offer of one million, three hundred thousand dollars, then?"
"You don't understand, Mr. Brighton. I gave the painting to my favorite museum this morning."
* * *
"I'm sorry, Mr. Brighton," said the curator. "One of the conditions in our contract with Mr. Carter is that we may not sell Oberon under any circumstances."
"Damn that stubborn old man," hissed Brighton. "Why is he so determined to hold on to that painting?"
The curator stiffened, and Brighton realized that he had offended her with his rash words. Before he could apologize, however, the woman stood.
"You've never seen it, have you?"
"Well, no, but..."
"Come with me."
Brighton protested, but to no avail. The curator led him to through the museum, to where the painting was on exhibit. When Brighton saw the image he gasped. There, in oils, stood a noble figure, clad in golden armor, holding a staff with pendant. The magnificent elf portrayed looked youthful, yet also mature, giving an impression of inhuman age and wisdom. Despite strange garb, pointed ears and slit-pupil eyes, the face and figure were recognizably those of Carter. Even the long hair was presciently shown as purest silver.
"He was a friend of the Swedens' for several years," said the curator, looking admiringly at the painting. She seemed to forget Brighton, her next words spoken in a lecturing voice, as if she were giving a tour. "This was the last oil painting she did before her husband's illness forced her into more profitable subject matter. It may be her best work, because it was made at the peak of her talent, when she was still doing what she loved and not what she had to do. When the commission for the book cover came in, she would have no other model but William Carter, insisting he was the only person suitable. Interestingly, the book is now mostly forgotten, while this powerful image is considered an important contribution to the arts."
She glanced over at Brighton, who was staring, mouth agape.
"You don't mess with the king of the elves."
This document is Copyright 2002 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must have permission from the author, who can be reached at: Stickmaker@usa.net