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A woman is hired to hang art in a rich man's home in this little crime firecracker from author Naben Ruthnum.

The Art Hanger

"I bet most people say your hair is brown."

"It is."

"No. Chestnut. Chestnut if ever I've seen it, chestnut, or there isn't a single reason for that word to exist as a color-name."

Lynn made sure to direct her eye-roll toward the back of the frame that she was working on, away from Hank Wells, the man who had been staring at her ponytail for the past twenty minutes. She could see him reflected in one of the panes of the cabinet next to her: he was tall and dressed too well for a man who was in his own home. The cabinet glass didn't accurately reflect his grey eyes and grey temples, the latter of which looked a little premature, as they bracketed a face that still looked quite young. It was possible that he used dye for fashion or business purposes.

"Is this your first Rembrandt?" she asked.

Wells snorted, like someone in an adaptation of a butler-heavy novel. The sound was so artificial that Lynn was compelled to turn around, wanting to see the facial expression that accompanied it. Wells was blank, but quickly brightened when she made eye contact. "Chestnut eyes, too," he said. "And yes, first Rembrandt. Hard to pry a good one out of the market for a less than absurdly-inflated price." The combination of Wells's west coast accent and Britishisms was difficult to handle without grimacing, so Lynn turned back to the hardware in her hands, giving the attention due to the task of mounting a four-hundred year old, second-rate print from a first-rate master. She was also eyeing an eighteenth century glass salt cellar on the dining table, but with no intention of doing anything other than look at it on this particular visit. In fact, she wouldn't even touch the thing unless and until it ended up sitting in her own apartment.

"The Rembrandt," Wells said, bringing Lynn back to her task, "is probably the least interesting piece in here-tell me if you agree-but it's necessary to have at least one Old Master to impress certain guests. Usually the ones who know nothing about art. Those are the ones who often have the most money to invest with me, though, so I've got to impress them with my judicious judgment."

"Redundant," Lynn muttered to the frame. She rotated around the print, keeping a hand on it, checking for balance and alignment. It looked good, mostly thanks to Rembrandt, but partially due to the work she'd done in mounting it. It was ready for the wall.

"What was that?" Wells asked.

"I love Rembrandt. I was big into Francis Bacon in art school. So it was a natural step."

"Yes. It is a nice print. I just have things that I like better," said Wells, gesturing around the room. Aside from the massive dining table and the salt cellar on top of it, it held four extremely valuable contemporary art pieces, all of which had been hung by Lynn's co-workers over the past few months. She'd been angling to get into the Wells home for months, and she'd gotten her chance when Hank himself had come into the company's workshop and seen her while he talked to her manager. He'd requested her personally for the Rembrandt hanging, presumably with the wrong intentions. That was okay. Lynn's intentions were all wrong as well.

"So when you finish with the other two pieces," Wells said, "and then do whatever else it is you have to do today, do you want to go out for dinner? You can tell me what it is you like about Bacon. I could never get along with him, myself."

"Forget the salt cellar. It's maid bait. You need to start learning these things," Doherty said, flicking through the pictures Lynn's three tiny spy-store cameras had taken in the Wells home. Doherty, bald and bullet-headed with clear-framed glasses, went from photo to photo with brutal taps of his thumb on the gallery's sleek laptop.

The gallery was tiny, confined to the upper floor above a coffee shop. It was also hot in here, unventilated and un-airconditioned Los Angeles hot. A false wall, installed for lighting and licensing purposes, prevented the only window from letting in air. Doherty would willingly flick on the AC when he had a show up, but human comfort alone wasn't worth the electric bills.

"This room, here, this is where we start. You want to do this in two entries, right?"

"Yeah. A tester tonight, while I'm at dinner with him. He looks clueless, but there just isn't enough stuff lying around for him not to notice a bunch of items missing at the same time. Are there enough shots of the security system?"

"Enough that I feel sorry for this guy. You want to do him a favor, talk to him about upgrading it, once we've gotten what he wanted. A two-guy crew could strip every Hockney, Picasso and whatever else he has in this mess of a collection in about fifteen minutes. He needs real security."

"So what are you going for?"

"Tonight, that little case at the right-rear of the dresser there. Probably holds watches or a few pieces of jewelry he never wears, barely remembers he has. I'll take one thing from there, and…" Doherty flicked back over a few pictures.

Jack Doherty had retired from going to jail for theft, but not from theft itself. He kept it small-scale, however, shifting the shape of his operations every once in awhile, most recently with the enlistment of Lynn Mettley as his advance scout. She had met Doherty when her boyfriend-at-the-time, Greg, had curated a show of hers in Doherty's tiny gallery. Doherty had liked her work, and had given her a job at the coffee shop downstairs (which he also owned.) He eventually got her a job at the art hanging business run by one of his regulars. She was the first female they'd ever hired, but had worked out well. She was stronger than she looked and had been receptive to Doherty's increasingly serious jokes about using her entrée into the homes of the rich as a chance to scope for potential items ripe for petty theft. "No more than eight" was Doherty's rule -- a few items that could vanish from a rich household without being noticed immediately, or even noticed at all. They'd pulled sixteen jobs so far, without a single resulting police report. A few fired maids along the way, but that didn't concern either of them.

"The kitchen," Doherty continued. "Bookcase. Antique cookbooks, glassed off from the air, and barely ever looked at. I bet he won't miss that Brillat-Savarin first for at least a few weeks."

"How good are these spy cameras?"

"Not that good, I just recognize the bindings. I've seen them before." Doherty had seen everything before, it seemed, and most of it had passed through his hands and come back as money. He and Lynn had split sixty thousand dollars or so from the proceeds of their side-project, money that neither of them urgently needed, but that they both enjoyed.

"Dinner's convenient," Doherty added. "When is he going to leave the house?"

"I told him that I'd come over in cab, he doesn't have to pick me up from Silver Lake. I can step in, see if there's any staff around so I can call you off."

"I could find that out for myself."

"Yes, but I can do it faster and safer."

"Sure. Okay. So if I don't hear from you, I break in at 8:30. Don't have too much fun."

"You got it." Lynn said her goodbyes and walked downstairs to work a fill-in shift of two hours at the café, pumping out espresso so her friend Jamie could take off early for her band practice.

"I was looking at Bacon paintings online for hours after you left," Hank said. He was dressed less formally than he had been earlier and chewing through a ribeye with speed and enjoyment.

"Oh yeah? Sounds like a glum afternoon."

"I don't know why I've never really caught him before. I love it. The colors." He was fumbling in his descriptions, not always reaching for Adorno or Martin Seel, or any of the other theorists that he knew a former fine arts student might be impressed by. Lynn liked this.

"Yeah, he's one of my standbys."

"I feel like flying out to see a bunch of these paintings for real. I assume there's a bunch in London. We should go," Hank said, then obscured his expression behind a bite of food. By now, back at the Wells house, Doherty would have his gloves on and his glasses off, dealing intimately with the locks and alarms, feeling his way to the antique book and the jewelry case in near-darkness.

"Go to London?" Lynn asked. She enjoyed talking to certain superrich people, especially those who had been rich all their lives: they managed to avoid any introspection while also thinking exclusively of themselves, a feat that seemed impossible. Hank Wells didn't seem to be one of those, but the idea that anyone would disagree with any of his momentary impulses never seemed to have occurred to him.

"I'm serious. I have a few things on the go, but I could reshuffle. If you could get some time off, or quit. Is that too much? It's not really. Separate hotel rooms. I prefer it that way, I like as much space as possible to myself. That's why I have such a stupidly big house."

"It's big, but not in bad taste," Lynn said.

"Nice of you to say so. Is your partner there right now? My house, I mean. Is that how you work? I assume so. But then, not every single one of your victims can be counted on to ask you out to dinner, so there must be a couple of variations on the plan."

Lynn kept her fork in her salmon filet, slowly separating flesh from skin. She liked the skin, when it was crisped properly, and usually saved it for last, waiting for whoever she was dining with to go to washroom so she could crunch the whole thing into her mouth like a large potato chip. She thought, correctly, that if she didn't answer Hank, he'd just resume the speech that he'd apparently prepared.

"Don't be surprised," Hank said, back-waving an approaching waiter away. "I'm a patterns guy. That's how I made my money. It's going to apply to crime as much as it does to stocks, right? You've seen those maps in cop shows, all the red pins in them. Patterns. So, two of my friends fire their cleaning services, both of which have spotless records, in the space of two months? I start to wonder, I look for a pattern."

Lynn took her eyes away from the fish and looked at Hank Wells. He looked younger than ever between those silly grey temples, which she was now sure were fake. He also didn't look mad. Pleased and happy, in fact.

"Pattern," said Lynn.

"Yes. And this one was quite simple. First match, both my friends are rich as hell. Second match? Art collectors. A few thoughts and wrong guesses down the line, and I get to it. Neither party is what I'd call handy, so it makes sense that they'd call in art hangers. Same ones I used, I thought, since the guys you work for are the best in town."


"That's why I came into the workshop myself the other day. Wanted to see if there were any hangers who hadn't been into my place yet."

"There are plenty besides me."

"If I had to to go through them one at a time, I figured I would start with you. Do you want to tell me I'm wrong?" Wells got a little stiff around the eyes when he said this, the skin tautening a bit, suggesting what he might look like after five more years of sun and industry stress. Lynn understood that he'd hate being wrong more than he'd hate being stolen from.

"You're right."

"What now?"

"Either I call the police, or we take the other route."

"Which is?"

"I'll tell you, Chestnut."

"I thought you'd maybe go for the salt cellar," Hank said, poking at it on his dining room table. Doherty had been gone for at least an hour, taking the two objects with him and resetting the security system in his usual flawless style. Wells's other route was this: he and Lynn would go back to the house, and if Wells could guess what the two stolen objects were within an hour, he'd let the whole thing go. As long as he had them returned, of course. If he couldn't guess, he would call the police.

"The salt-cellar is what my partner calls 'maid-bait.' Too obvious."

"Yeah. Yeah, I can see that. So he saw pictures of the place and decided what he wanted from that?"
"That's right. He also--"

"Nope," said Wells, turning away and waving a silencing hand. "No more clues. I want to figure it out myself. You were in, what, six rooms. Shouldn't be too hard."

Wells instructed Lynn to sit out this part of the search in the living room, waiting for him. As soon as he went to the bedroom, she took off her shoes and laid them by the couch, then slid and stepped toward the kitchen. The cabinet of books, with the Brillat-Savarin tome missing, had no lock. Doherty had left an invisible gap between each of the remaining books that made its vanishing almost unnoticeable. Too unnoticeable. Lynn opened the cabinet, thought about leaving it that way, just a bit ajar. "Clumsy," she whispered. Instead, she got rid of two of the small gaps, let the space of the missing book emerge a little more clearly, while still looking as though it had been covered up. She went back to the couch, holding a thumb over her wrist, compelling her pulse to slow as she slid her shoes back on.

Wells came out, shaking the jewelry box like a maraca. "Diamond cuff-links," he said. "I have to remember to get some shirts without buttons so I can actually use those when I get them back." He went for the guest bedroom, then thoroughly re-examined the living room. He looked a bit worried, the grey eyes squinting, avoiding Lynn's gaze. With only ten minutes left in his self-imposed limit, a deadline that he clearly took seriously, he remembered the bookcase in the kitchen. He wouldn't have needed Lynn's help after all.

"First French edition of The Physiology of Taste," he said, gazing up at the shelves. "I was very into first editions for a few months after that Johnny Depp book collecting movie came out. Not like me to be impulsive in my collecting, but it happens to us all sometimes."

"It'll be back in your hands tomorrow."

"Yes," Wells said. Lynn was sitting on the kitchen table now, and he closed the cabinet and came closer to her. She didn't recoil.

"Why did you do this?" Lynn asked. "You could have just made a call to my boss on suspicion alone. Same result."

"Not exactly the same result," said Wells. "You'd be going to jail. This way, you're not."

"That's good for me, but what about you?"

"I like you. I suppose that must be it. And yes, once I saw how smooth you were, maybe I wanted to impress you." Wells backed away from Lynn then, instead of leaning in. She appreciated that.

"So we just give it back and that's that?" said Doherty, a little unbelieving, but still entirely stoic. There was a large splotch of coffee on the front of his white t-shirt, and the show of contemporary photography that he was in the process of putting up in the sweaty gallery was woefully crooked already. He was only off when he was hungover, and he only drank seriously after a successful job. Giving Wells his stuff back would mean the night's drunk and this morning-after had been for naught.

"He likes me," Lynn said.

"Oh boy," said Wells. "What did you do?"

"Nothing yet," said Lynn. "Nothing much, anyway. But yeah, I think I'll give it a go. He wants me to move in there."


"Rich guys are always ramping up the stakes quickly like that."

"So you're just going to let him, what, acquire you?"

"No. I'm going to live there awhile and see how I like it."

"You even like him at all?"

"He's smart. Nice. Eager to please. Calls me 'Chestnut,' but I'll get him to drop that once the whole threat-of-prison thing is behind us. You don't want to go back to jail, do you? I don't. Don't want to go for the first time, that is."

Doherty pulled the cuff links and the book from a compartment below his bottom desk drawer. The book was wrapped in a piece of canvas, with a poorly-executed painting on the outer side. Lynn couldn't get Doherty to look at her when he handed the objects over, and thought for the first time that he'd had more than a business partnership in mind when they started their little venture.

"It was a good run, I guess," said Lynn. "Time to move on to the next thing?"


"Don't be that way," said Lynn. "This is just a test. If he keeps calling me Chestnut-"

"Yeah. I'll wait for the call, definitely."

Lynn left the gallery and called the car service number that Wells had given her. She'd have to start thinking of him as Hank.

About the Author

Naben Ruthnum is a Toronto-based writer, whose pseudonym is currently shopping a suspense novel. In the daytime, he quits jobs and writes all sorts of literary fiction.